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.
The executive director of the nonprofit, Rosie, grew up making Pfeffernusse, a traditional Christmas German spice cookie. 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, but 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 leavener that pre-dates baking soda and which some people claim is important to the authenticity. 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, the traditional Pfeffernusse cookie is coated with a thin icing glaze, not a dusting of powder.
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!
Pfeffernüsse Spice Cookies Recipe
Pfeffernüsse cookies are a traditional German holiday cookie that translates to “pepper nut." They don't contain nuts, though they do contain white pepper!
They also 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 for what you have in the pantry.
However, the one spice that is fairly consistent with most pfeffernüsse 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.
- 1/4 cup (70 g) dark molasses (not blackstrap)
- 1/4 cup (70 g) honey
- 6 tablespoons (75 g) 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 tablespoon whole milk, cold from the refrigerator
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 large egg, cold from the refrigerator
- 2 1/2 cup (350 g) all-purpose flour
For the glaze:
- 1 cup (115 g) powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon water
1 Preheat your oven to 375ºF and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicon baking mat.
2 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 heat and stir in the spices and salt. 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.
3 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.
4 Bake in the oven for 9 to 11 minutes, or until the bottom of the cookies are just starting to brown.
5 Stir together the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and water to make the glaze.
6 Glaze the cookies: Once the cookies are done baking, 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 to a cooling rack. The cookies improve (the spices mellow and the texture softens) after a day or two in a sealed airtight container.
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