Pfeffernusse: Spicy Holiday Cookies

Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Pfeffernusse. It’s the kind of cookie I never would have bothered with a few years back. Their lumpen look, earnest ingredients and disturbing lack of chocolate chips long kept the spicy snacks off my mental Christmas cookie list. Maybe it’s age, or finally getting too much of a good thing (even I can eat only so many peanut butter blossoms), but as time passes, such wholesome, cinnamony concoctions are starting to hold a lot more appeal.

I first stumbled upon the intriguing German word, which means “pepper nuts,” in a 1970s cookbook, a gift from a friend who was cleaning out her cabinets. The traditional Christmas treat is, at heart, a spice cookie, but after an online search, I discovered that as with curries, there are as many recipes as there are cooks. Some call for almonds, candied orange peel, various liqueurs, or pepper, white or black. They can be shaped into balls or rolled into long ropes and sliced before baking. Depending on the cook, they might be frosted, dusted in flavored sugar or just eaten plain.

Firm little guys, they are often dunked into tea or coffee. I recently tried one of the packaged varieties, which seem to pop up in stores around the holidays. They were tasty, with their thin, crunchy layer of white icing and intense cardamom flavor, but I prefer the zestier homemade versions.

Pfeffernusse require a bit of planning. Some recipes recommend letting them age for two weeks before they’re eaten. Many call for the dough to be refrigerated for several hours, and sometimes dried overnight, before baking. I found the results worth the effort. The combination of anise extract and spices in these recipes gives them a good zip. And even after I turned off the oven, my kitchen smelled like a storybook.

German Pfeffernusse Cookies, from

These cookies take their dark, rich denseness from the molasses and brown sugar. The dough was too crumbly to roll into balls, so I added a few tablespoons of water to hold it together. In the future, I’ll probably increase the molasses or honey by a few tablespoons.


1/2 cup molasses

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup shortening

1/4 cup margarine

2 eggs

4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons anise extract

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup confectioners sugar for dusting


Combine the molasses, honey, shortening and margarine in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until creamy.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Stir in the eggs and anise extract.

Combine the flour, white sugar, brown sugar, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, pepper and salt in a large bowl.

Add the molasses mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Roll the dough into 1 inch balls. Arrange on baking sheets, spacing at least 1 inch apart.

Bake at 325 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Move to a rack to cool.

Roll cookies in confectioners sugar. Makes about 6 dozen.

Pfeffernusse from “Mema’s Recipe Box” at

This recipe puts a nice citrusy spin on the cookie. I skipped the citron and substituted orange peel for lemon rind. I also decreased the confectioners sugar for dusting to about 1 cup.

3 eggs

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

2 teaspoons anise extract

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon dry instant coffee

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, cloves, and allspice

1/4 teaspoon each salt, ground white pepper, mace and nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup ground blanched almonds

1/4 cup finely chopped glazed citron

2 tablespoons apricot brandy

1 pound confectioners sugar

3 teaspoons whole anise seed or 1/2 teaspoon anise oil

Beat the eggs at high speed until they are thick and light in color, about 10 minutes.

Add the sugar gradually, then add the lemon rind and extract, and continue beating about 5 minutes more.

Sift together the flour, coffee, baking powder, seasonings and spices.

Blend half the flour mixture into the eggs.

Add the nuts and citron.

Work in the remaining flour mixture to make a very stiff dough.

Form the dough into a ball; chill it in the refrigerator for 2 hours.

Brush cookie sheets with soft shortening.

Shape the dough into 1 1/4-inch balls and put them on cookie sheets about 1 inch apart.

Allow them to stand overnight in cool place to dry.

Blend sugar and anise flavoring and store in sealed jar.

The next morning, turn the cookies over and put a few drops of apricot brandy on the bottom of each.

Bake at 300 degrees for about 20 minutes.

Roll in flavored sugar. Or, if preferred, mix flavored sugar with egg white and a little water, brush over cookie, allow to dry partially, then roll cookies in sugar.

Make the cookies at least two weeks before serving; they’re better when aged. Store in an airtight container with half an apple, sliced, to soften. If the cookies are frosted and sugar-coated, the apple is not needed.

Makes about 4 dozen.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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