Pfeffernusse are traditional European snowball cookies, crunchy and robustly spiced. Despite the literal “pepper nuts” translation of the name, these tasty holiday cookies are nut free!
Pfeffer-what?! Pfeffernusse. Literal translation: pepper-nuts. My Danish grandmother called them pebernodder, which is the Danish version. In actuality: pfeffernusse cookies are a firm, crunchy spice cookie traditionally made at Christmas time. The dough is rolled into balls, baked, then coated in powdered sugar. Traditionally, they can be made with finely chopped nuts.
When I was a kid, my Aunt Jane would buy a package of Archway brand Pfeffernusse cookies to share. They were her favorite Christmas cookie. For that very reason, I was thrilled when she would share them with me.
I guess I should explain that Jane was only 7 years older than I, and the youngest of 5 children. She was “tormented” as the baby of the family. Torment is the word she lovingly used to describe all of the teasing she endured at the hands of her siblings. Teasing that she lovingly inflicted on her young nieces, as a form of retribution. She called us “the younger sisters that she never wanted,” with a huge smile on her face. We all had more of a sister/cousin relationship with Jane.
As adults, it became harder to find the packaged cookie of our youth. So naturally, I had to try to make them. Make them, I did. And they were good. One year I surprised Jane with these Pfeffernusse for Christmas. She was beyond thrilled. And she didn’t share! After that, the annual Campaign-for-Pfeffernusse began around Thanksgiving, and continued until Christmas morning.
“You’re going to make Pfeffernusse for me for Christmas again, right?”
Uh, I guess so.
“No, really. You are going to make Pfeffernusse for me for Christmas, right?!”
Well, yeah. Of course, I’m making Pfeffernusse for Christmas.
“For ME, right?!!” (Gritting teeth.)
Uh, yeah. For you. I’ll make Pfeffernusse just for you.
“Good! Because I might not let you in the door without ’em.” (Maniacal laughter.)
Then she gave me a big noogie.
OK, I made up the part about the maniacal laughter. She really did give me a noogie, though. Then, I gave her a wet-willy when she wasn’t looking. We were ultra mature when we were together. We inevitably dissolved into fits of giggles for no apparent reason. To which my Grandma would always sigh and say “There they go again!” and roll her eyes.
So Jane loved Pfeffernusse. And I loved Jane. We lost her quite unexpectedly a few years ago. She was 43. I make these cookies every year in her memory.
Let’s make Pfeffernusse!
This is one spicy cookie. I start by measuring all of the spices at once so that I am sure not to forget something. Starting at the top and working clockwise: cloves, ginger, white pepper, salt, cardamom, and cinnamon in the center.
Whisk the baking soda, and baking powder into the flour. Add all of those spices to the mix, and whisk until combined. Take a whiff and bask in the aromatics.
Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and molasses. Stir it until they are well incorporated.
My molasses is a happy accident. Friends of ours overcooked their maple sap when making maple syrup. They didn’t have the heart to throw out 30 gallons of burnt maple syrup, so they let it sit overnight while they pouted. Before pitching it the next day, they tasted it and discovered that it tasted exactly like molasses! Hooray for happy accidents!
Gradually stir in the flour mixture in a few, separate additions. I usually add it in threes. I don’t know why. OK, yes, I do. If I add the flour mixture in three different parts, then I don’t end up spraying flour all over my kitchen when I turn the mixer on.
Pat the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for an hour or so.
When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line your baking sheets with a silicone mat or parchment paper.
Scoop tablespoonfuls of dough with a cookie scoop, or two spoons. Roll the dough gently between your palms, to form a ball.
Place the balls on the prepared baking sheet. If the dough has chilled sufficiently, these cookies won’t spread much when baking, so you can put them a little closer together than you would with other cookies. Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet.
While the cookies are still warm, Pour the powdered sugar into a gallon sized storage bag.
Set about six of them into the bag, and gently roll them through the powdered sugar to coat. A light touch is key here so as not to break the warm cookies. Take out the coated cookies, and set them on waxed paper. Repeat with all of the slightly cooled cookies.
Don’t worry if they aren’t perfectly coated. We are going to coat them again once they have cooled completely.
The cookies will look kind of mangy after the first coat. Then why do a first coat? Because the warm cookie melts the powdered sugar and gives the cookie a tacky surface so that the next coat of powdered sugar will really stick.
Give the sad looking cookies another bath in the powdered sugar. This is the coat that will considerably freshen the little sweeties outlook on life.
See?! Much better!
Pretty and tasty is a great combination.
Pfeffernusse practically beg to be eaten with a steamy mug of coffee or tea.
Jane ate them with Diet Coke. Weird, I know. But it’s quirky stuff that I loved most about her.