Years ago, I used to host an annual holiday cookie swap at a local nonprofit community center in San Francisco. Friends and members of the community would gather together bearing large batches of homemade cookies. Everyone would walk around sampling cookies and taking a few of the ones we loved.
Each person left with a tin of assorted cookies, along with a slight sugar buzz.
It was a marvelous way to meet new people in the neighborhood, as well as learn about new cookies that I wasn't familiar with. And that's exactly how I was introduced to the magical pfeffernusse.
What Are Pfeffernusse Cookies?
The executive director of the nonprofit, Rosie, grew up making pfeffernusse. Pfeffernusse cookies are a traditional German holiday cookie; the name translates to "peppernut." They don't contain nuts, though they do contain white pepper.
I had never eaten one before, but I knew the minute that I tasted one that I wanted to learn how to make them!
Sadly, I never got Rosie's recipe before she left San Francisco. Since then, I've collected and looked at numerous recipes trying to figure out exactly what made hers so special. It turns out that there are numerous variations of pfeffernusse cookies, all claiming to be authentic. (And as with all things "authentic," everyone thinks theirs is the most authentic!)
The version I eventually landed on doesn't use baking ammonia, a type of leavening agent that predates baking soda and that some people claim is important to the authenticity of the pfeffernusse. It's available online, but the idea of baking with a compound that also functions as smelling salts just didn't appeal to me.
I also eschewed coating the cookies with powdered sugar, something that a lot of recipes call for. For me, traditional pfeffernusse cookies are coated with a thin icing glaze, not a dusting of powder.
Spices in Pfeffernusse Cookies
Pfeffernusse contain a blend of warm wintry spices, which are sometimes sold in Germany under the name lebkuchengewürz. Think of it like a German version of pumpkin spice blend. Since lebkuchengewürz is difficult to source outside of Germany, and the actual contents of the spice blend varies, I've listed the individual spices below.
If you don’t have all the spices or have an aversion to some of the spices, feel free to play around and substitute with what you have in the pantry.
However, the one spice that is fairly consistent with most pfeffernusse recipes is the white pepper. So, it might be worth tracking down some for this cookie if you want the authentic experience. (White pepper is also good with fish and potato-based dishes.) Otherwise, an easy substitution of black pepper will work just fine.
Regardless of whether not this recipe is what you think of as "true pfeffernusse," these cookies will fill your home with the smell of the holidays. After my partner AJ took a bite of one, he said without any prompting, "These taste like Christmas!"
Take these to your next holiday cookie swap and watch as others declare the same!
How to Store Pfeffernusse Cookies
The beauty of this recipe is that the pfeffernusse get better with age. Since our recipe doesn't contain any butter, they'll keep for about two to three weeks in an airtight container at room temperature.
These cookies freeze rather nicely as well. Just be sure that the icing is really set and place them in a freezer-safe zipper bag, layered with parchment paper just to keep the cookies from sticking together. They'll keep three to six months that way.
You can even shape the dough in advance and freeze the dough balls as well. They'll keep in the freezer for months but only a couple of days uncooked in the fridge.
No Molasses? Try These Swaps
If you're having trouble finding molasses or ran out, here are some substitutions:
- Dark treacle
- Maple syrup (though the flavor will be different)
- Dark corn syrup
- 50/50 corn syrup and brown sugar (since brown sugar contains molasses but not enough moisture)
Cookies That Are Great for Shipping
- Candy Cane Cookies
- Chocolate Crinkles
- Pistachio Butter Cookies
- Butterscotch Cookies
- Sesame Crisp Cookies
Pfeffernusse Spice Cookies
1/4 cup (70g) dark molasses (not blackstrap)
1/4 cup (70g) honey
6 tablespoons (75g) white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons whole milk, cold from the refrigerator
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg, cold from the refrigerator
2 1/2 cups (350g) all-purpose flour
For the glaze:
1 cup (115g) powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
Preheat your oven:
Set your oven to 375°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking mat.
Make the cookie dough:
Warm the molasses, honey, and sugar in a medium-sized saucepan, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, white pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and salt. Let cool until just warm to the touch.
Stir in the milk, baking soda, and egg. Add the flour and stir until most of the flour is absorbed. Using your hands, knead the dough until the remaining flour is incorporated.
Shape the cookies:
Pinch off about a teaspoon of dough and roll a 1-inch ball. Place on the prepared baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough, spacing the balls of dough 1 inch apart from each other.
Bake the cookies:
Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until the bottoms of the cookies are just starting to brown.
Make the glaze:
In a small bowl, stir together the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and water to make the glaze.
Glaze the cookies:
Once the cookies are done, pull the pan out of the oven and brush the hot cookies with the glaze, making sure to cover as much of the tops and sides as possible. Don't worry if some of the glaze drips onto the baking sheet.
Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet until the glaze is dry to the touch. Then, move them to a rack to cool completely.
The cookies improve (the spices mellow and the texture softens) after a day or two in a sealed airtight container.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 14g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|