Christmas Cookies: Pfefferneuse (and a Confession)

Although this recipe for pfefferneuse cookies does not go back generations in my family as far as I know, it should. I feel justified in calling it a traditional cookie since its roots are Dutch and German and my own paternal line is German.

Pfefferneuse cookies and ornaments

Ornaments from our travels to Holland, Switzerland and Germany on the tray with pfefferneuse cookies.

Not only that, but I learned from the Internet, that pfefferneuse is a traditional cookie among Mennonites. My father-in-law, a Mennonite whose family came from German Switzerland, loved these cookies. He said they were his favorite among all the ones I made.  And they are  a tradition in our household ever since the late 1960s. I know that because of a little incident that I’m going to confess to in a minute.

According to my findings on the web, pfefferneuse (pepper nuts) are traditionally eaten on the date of Sinterklas–December 5 or 6 in Holland or Germany–when Sinterklas (our Santa) delivers the goods. I’m not sure where I got this recipe, which diverges from the mid-19th century origins,mainly because it does not contain pepper–which is the pfeffer in the name. Instead, it relies on other spices and anise for its peppery goodness. It also calls for coffee (although I rarely have any around so I use water or tea) and it uses some butter, which makes it a bit lighter.

But the more I searched, the more I became aware that there are approximately a zillion different ways to make a cookie that is called pfefferneuse. And of course anyone who makes the cookies a different way than you do, will refuse to acknowledge yours as genuine.  See for example, this Pinterest page.

Pfefferneuse being glazed.

Pfefferneuse cookies being glazed.

Powdered sugar, glaze or bare naked? Almonds, walnuts, or no nuts at all. Baking soda, baking powder or the original ammonium carbonate? Shortening or not? It can drive you crazy.

You can see in the picture below that, as usual, I make the cookies too large. Despite trying to rein in the size, every year, I forget how much they spread. Some year, I’d like to keep the cookie small enough that it really is a little ball instead of a flat cookie.

Now the confession of wrongdoing in the kitchen. Once upon a time when I was a young mother, my husband and I got an invitation to go to a holiday event that was somehow related to his job.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I had put pfefferneuse dough in the refrigerator to cool, and was running out of time to get the cookies baked  and glazed before company arrived.

So when the baby sitter arrived, and I was in my spikey high heels and bouffant hair-do, all ready to go out on the town, I informed her that not only was she watching my three little darlings–but she also needed to shape, bake and glaze several dozen cookies.  For this she was being paid fifty cents an hour, mind you.

To this day, I have no idea whether she had ever baked anything before in her life, and I can’t believe I would just dump this job on somebody who already had their hands full with watching three ornery boys. She must have really needed the few dollars she was going to make.

Pfferneuse ready to bake

Pfferneuse ready to bake

I explained to her how to shape the cookies with floured hands, told her she could wait until the boys went to bed, and put the cookies out on a cookie rack.  The cookies turned out great. I don’t know if she ever baby sat for us again.

Pfefferneuse Fruit Cake Cookies

Serves 6 dozen
Allergy Tree Nuts
Meal type Dessert
Occasion Christmas

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup dark corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup coffee
  • 3 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup candied cherries or mixed candied fruit
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon anise seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise extract
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water or rum
  • 1/4 teaspoon Cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar

Directions

Syrup
1. Combine 1/2 C sugar, corn syrup, butter and coffee in large (3-quart) saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes.
Dry ingredients
2. Sift together flour, soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg
Fruits
3. Grind or pulse in food processor candied fruit, raisins and nuts
Combine ingredients
4. When syrup has cooled, add two eggs lightly beaten, and anise flavorings. and mix well.
Combine and finish.
5. Stir in dry ingredients, then fruit mixture.
Combine and finish
6. Chill dough at least four hours--will hold for a couple of days.
7. Let dough come to room temperature, flour your hands and shape the dough into one-inch balls. Place on greased cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes.
Glaze
8. While cookies bake, Combine 1 C sugar, water, cream of tartar in small pan and boil until clear. Cool.
9. When glaze is cooled, whisk in 1/2 C powdered sugar.
10. Put cookie racks on waxed paper to catch drips. Dip slightly cooled cookies into glaze and set on racks. You can decorate with bits of red or green candied cherry if you wish. Let glaze harden before packing in cookie tins or plastic containers, with waxed paper between layers.

Note

Cookies can be baked and frozen and you can warm them and add glaze when you are ready to use.

When I do not have coffee on hand, I have used strong tea, but the bitterness of the coffee adds a different flavor.

Don't make the cookies too large, as when they bake, you want them to maintain their rounded top rather than flatten out.  While I generally think the bigger the better with cookies, I believe these are better in smaller bites.

 

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