Pfeffernüsse! Perhaps the only cookie to beat out snickerdoodles in the “fun-to-say-it” department, pfeffernüsse literally translates from German to “pepper-nuts”, a nod to its spiced molasses flavor (a bit of actual black pepper included), finely chopped almonds and nuggety little shape. Spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves and tumbled in powdered sugar, these über-traditional Christmas cookies call to mind both classic gingerbread and old-timey molasses cookies, and depending on when they’re enjoyed (they have an unusually long shelf life) they’ll have a pleasantly chewy or sandy-crunchy texture. They’re full of old-fashioned flavor, little bite-sized snowdrifts of spiced holiday cheer.
As with all cookie recipes, use good ingredients (I especially like the Kerrygold brand of butter, for whatever that’s worth) but here it’s also important to find the right type of molasses, the liquid by-product of the sugar refining process. Fun facts: to create granulated sugar, sugar cane is pressed and the juice boiled to prompt crystallization. The crystallized sucrose (sugar) is removed via centrifuge and the sweet liquid that’s left behind is called first or light molasses. (Brown sugars are only partly refined and retain some of the molasses, which gives them their darker color and warm caramel flavor.) If it’s boiled again, you’ve got dark molasses, sometimes labeled “robust” or “full-flavored”, and a third processing yields blackstrap (from the Dutch word stroop, or syrup) which is super-dark and harshly bitter. (Somebody’s been reading Harold McGee again.)
Blackstrap molasses also has a high concentration of minerals, and apparently some
crazy people folks choke it down as a health supplement, which I suppose is why it’s fairly easy these days to find all three varieties (light, dark, blackstrap). Older recipes, like this one from an early edition of the Joy of Cooking, will probably assume there’s only light molasses available at your local general store or Ye Olde Sugar Shoppe. And some molasses might be further labeled as “unsulphured” (or “sulphured” if the preservative is present), but that won’t affect a recipe either way.
And why am I blathering on about molasses? Because once upon a time, I baked a wholly inedible sweet potato pie with that acrid blackstrap stuff, that’s why. It was offensive to look at and tasted like tar. So for this recipe (and as a default for most baking recipes, unless noted otherwise), you can benefit from my mistake and be sure to use light molasses. Santa will thank you.
adapted from the Joy of Cooking; makes about 9 dozen one-bite cookies
- 2 C plus 2 Tbsp all purpose flour, sifted
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/8 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper (use the finest grind)
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
- 1/4 tsp cloves, ground
- 1/2 tsp cardamom, ground
- 1 tsp cinnamon, ground
- 1/2 C butter, room temperature
- 1/3 C sugar
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten and room temperature
- 1/4 C almonds, finely chopped
- 1/3 C light molasses
- 1 Tbsp corn syrup, light or dark
- 1/3 C brandy, rum or amaretto
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
- 1 tsp orange zest, finely grated (optional)
- powdered sugar
Sift the first eight ingredients into a medium bowl and whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk the molasses, corn syrup, brandy, lemon juice and lemon zest together.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and creamy, about 3-5 minutes. Add the egg and mix to combine (it may look a bit curdled). Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and mix one additional minute.
On low speed, mix 1/3 of the dry mixture until almost incorporated. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl and on low, add 1/2 the molasses mixture until just mixed in. Repeat the process with 1/3 of the dry ingredients, the remaining 1/2 of the molasses mixture, and the last 1/3 of the dry mixture. Add the almonds and mix to combine.
Refrigerate the dough overnight. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Shape the cool-but-pliable cookie dough into balls (about 1 Tbsp each) and place on parchment-lined baking sheets about 1″ apart. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, for about 10-15 minutes until the tops of the cookies lose all their shine and start to crack.
Roll the warm cookies in a bowl of sifted powdered sugar and set on wire racks to cool completely. The finished pfeffernüsse will keep very well, in an airtight container, for about three weeks.
Note: I shaped my cookies slightly larger, about 1 1/2″ in diameter (unbaked) for a two-bite treat with a much smaller yield. Add a few minutes of baking time if you go that route.