Making Pfeffernusse cookies with the ‘rents

Good husband Bryan and I were talking about the potentially depressing topic of Being Adults the other day, in the context of Christmas and Christmas vacation. I was observing that I still have this tingly, shivery anticipation as we draw closer and closer to Christmas Day. Just like when I was a little girl.

I’m still looking forward to waking up suddenly during the night before Christmas to hear the jingle bells on the roof! You know, on Santa’s sleigh! I’m primed and ready to feel the joy I always felt after our Christmas Eve service at the little country church where we attended, (even though I never got to play Mary, as I wished, but was always a shepherd–always!–wearing my big brother’s plaid bathrobe) when my Sunday School teacher would give me a hug–wait a minute, probably not a hug, but a warm back-pat, since we were Lutherans–and a big bag of peanuts and candy, and a small wrapped gift. That would have been enough to put me over the moon, but the best was yet to come: afterwards, I’d go home with my rambunctious siblings and we would have hot chocolate and Christmas cookies, and we’d be allowed to open one (smallish) gift from under the tree. After that, it was pajamas-time and setting out cookies and milk for Santa, next to the fireplace.

Christmas Eve. It was always blessedly the same. Same sparkly routine, same shivery feelings of anticipation, same feelings of surprise and delight.

Here are three of us, anyway: me on the left, then Anne (in our matching flannel nightgowns!) and an uncharacteristically sober Mark.

Here are three of us, anyway: me on the left, then Anne (in our matching flannel nightgowns!) and an uncharacteristically sober Mark. You can see in this little photo the proof that Mark got the blessing of the long curly eyelashes. Life can be So Unfair.

Then we all grew up.

I’m on the other side of the fence now, being the parent to create these memories for my children, but the childish anticipation that I still feel is a long time staying. I still feel a hope and expectation of a break, several weeks long, filled with long days sledding and snowball fights and dropping my sodden snow clothes just inside the door, and then drinking big mugs of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream (no ten-year-old cares about fat content) and eating Mom’s sugar cookies, dunked happily into the hot chocolate (no ten-year-old cares about calories, or whether or not they should be eating all that sugar) and collapsing in front of the t.v. to watch an episode of Big Valley or Bonanza with my sibs (no ten-year-old cares about t.v. being a brain drain).

Okay, I’ll admit it: this time of year, I want to be ten years old again.

Who’s with me??

When I told Bryan all this the other day, he looked at me through his solemn, blue, adult eyes and shook his head, smiling sadly. He didn’t say it, but his eyes communicated it clearly enough: We’re adults now, Ame. Wake up. You’re not a kid any more.

My head knows that this is true. Apparently my heart has never gotten the memo.

My heart still rules most days. You might have already guessed this about me, Gentle Reader, and you might have guessed correctly.

Every year, a week or two before Christmas, I realize with a stark, gray dawning of reality, that I’m no longer ten years old. There are some perks associated with being a Responsible Adult, but Christmas vacation is not one of them. If anything, I just have more to do during those days that used to be filled with sledding parties and cookie-eating and hot-chocolate-slurping. There are presents to be purchased, wrapped and stashed, a goodly supply of treats that need to be prepared, the cooking and the baking, which generally is at a pretty high level around here, gets kicked up a notch. I have to plan very carefully, and I’m not good at it. (It’s true. I’m not. I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants-type of person, and that’s not a helpful trait, this time of year.) There are more lovely people around to feed, and of course I’m the one responsible for sweeping up the snow and the mud that gets tracked in.

Well, not exactly. I’m responsible for tracking down the one who did track in the snow and the mud that gets tracked in and making sure that they know how to clean it up. Of course, that’s sometimes more trouble than just cleaning it up myself, but it’s gotta be done.

To wit: “Mack!!”

I’m not complaining, Gentle Reader. Oh wait. Yes, I am. Or, perhaps I’m just whining. Gently whining. I think that’s what I’m doing. Anyway. There is a place that I can go where I feel ten again, and that is my parents’ house. I am blessed utterly by the fact that my parents are still healthy and active and generous and living right here in town with me. And they even seem to like spending time with me, now and then, more’s the wonder. So when my Dad called me the other day and said that he was getting ready to make peppernuts (or pfeffernusse) with Mom, I said I’d be there.

I wanted pictures of this annual event. I wanted a recipe. And of course, I wanted some peppernuts (I knew they’d send a bag home with me, if I came and helped).

And maybe I just wanted to feel like a ten-year-old girl again.

My dad’s mom, my Grandma Young, without the aid of an electric mixer, mind you, used to mix up bowl after bowl of these little cookies every year in the weeks preceding Christmas. Now that woman could have had reason to whine gently, or even complain vigorously, but I very much doubt she ever did. She was a tough farm woman who didn’t complain about the time it took her to feed her family, even though she cooked over a wood fire for years in her little cramped farm kitchen, and stirred up her stiff peppernut dough by hand. She was strong. Uncomplaining. Tough. And still she made the time to make fabulous treats for her family. I think she was just too busy to indulge in self-pity.

This is my Grandma Young.

Here’s my Grandma Young.

Dad tells the story about how when he was a kid, he’d always fill his jacket pockets with these little cookies when he headed out to do his chores. Then, as he did his work, he’d pause now and then and pull out a handful of peppernuts, blow the chaff or the bits of fuzz out of them, and crunch them down. He said that his mom always had a very large jar of these handy in the kitchen, just for snacking.

What a great mom.

You probably know what peppernuts are (or pfeffernusse, if you like the traditional spelling) but maybe you’ve never made them yourself. The ones in the store, frankly, just don’t cut it, Gentle Reader. If you’ve never have homemade ones, you really owe it to yourself to make a batch. They are so tasty and a perfect treat this time of year! Spicy, crunchy, and quite portable and shareable!

I’ll share the recipe with you, but first a few notes about how to make those tiny, crunchy little cookies without taking up every bit of spare time before Christmas. My folks have done it two different ways.

Well, first, here’s my dad, with a ball of dough. He makes peppernuts nearly every year in big quantities and then teases me with frequent ‘phone calls. “Hey Ame, I’ve got three (or thirteen, or thirty) pans of peppernuts dough on the sun porch. . . ” Or “Hey Ame, guess what I just pulled out of the oven? If you hurry over right now they might still be warm when you get here . . .”

Here's my cute dad, with a ball of dough.

Here’s my cute dad, with a ball of dough.

One way to take the dough into the cookie stage, is the “rolling the snake” method. It’s not hard, but a bit time-consuming. You roll the dough into a long snake . . .

The snake-rolling method.

The snake-rolling method.

And then you cut the snake up into small pieces . . .

Dad's knives are always sharp!

Dad’s knives are always sharp!

. . . And you place them very close together on a cookie sheet, and then bake them!

Baked pfeffernusse in the background, and unbaked ones in the front.

Baked pfeffernusse in the background, and unbaked ones in the front.

There’s another way, too, and that’s what Mom and Dad usually do these days, because it’s faster. Dad mixes up the dough and packs it into a greased bread pan. Then he dumps out the “loaf” of dough on a cutting board, and carefully cuts it into slices, and then cubes, like this:

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The sharp knife works great for slicing the block of dough–it’s quite dense!–and the pizza cutter works for slicing the slabs into little squares. Cool, huh?

Then it’s a simple enough process of placing those little spicy cubes of dough onto the cookie sheets and baking them. It’s a bit dull, but if you put on Christmas music, and pull in some helpers, it’s time that you can spend making a memory.

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It’s more fun if you have somebody to help you. Here Mom places the dough cubes on the cookie sheet.

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Here’s my cute Mom: taking a break to get her picture taken (reluctantly).

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“Oh, Ame, not in this old sweater . . . “

After the tiny cookies are baked, they are dumped into a big bowl, so the cookie sheet can be filled again and again . . . Mom and Dad have 30 or more noisy, hungry, happy revelers coming to their house for Christmas, so they can’t have too many of these on hand (hint, hint, Dad).

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Sophie waits patiently for one of us to drop a crumb, or a cookie, or a handful of cookies.

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What??! It’s my job to clean up the floor!

 

"C'mon . . . drop one! Drop lots!"

“C’mon . . . drop one! Drop lots! Please-please-please-please. . .”

 

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Finally! There goes one!

So, are you ready to make your own batch of peppernuts? Here’s my Dad’s recipe, which was his mom’s recipe, and it is the very best one of all. So you don’t need to check any other source! Here it is:  the very best recipe for Pfeffernusse!

5.0 from 2 reviews
Grandma Young's Pfeffernusse
Author: 
Recipe type: Christmas cookies
Cuisine: German-American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: lots & lots
 
When my dad was a little boy, he tells the story of how he always had a handful of these little cookies in his pockets when he went out to do farm chores. I love that story. Now you can make some of them for your own little chore boy or girl!
Ingredients
  • 4 cups brown sugar, well-packed
  • 12 cups white sugar
  • 2 quarts lard
  • 1 quart water or milk
  • 2 quarts dark corn syrup
  • 1 Tb each: cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, allspice, ginger
  • 2 Tb ground cardamom
  • 4 Tb ground star anise
  • 6 Tb baking powder
  • 1 Tb baking soda
  • 2 Tb salt
  • 40 cups (more or less) flour or enough to make a very stiff dough.
Instructions
  1. Boil sugar, lard, syrup, and water/milk until dissolved. Allow to cool.
  2. Add other ingredients. Early additions of flour may be done with a mixer, but most will have to be mixed in by a strong arm.
  3. Shape into very small pieces: use either snake method, or cut-slab method.
  4. Place an empty baking sheet on the lowest rack of the oven to make more even baking. Peppernuts burn quite easily, and ideally should be baked until just before burning point.
  5. Place dough pieces on cookie sheets, and bake one at a time in middle rack of oven.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.
  7. Note from Dad: "Aunt Clara's recipe was at least double the recipe above. One half of the above recipe makes a huge batch. One fourth is probably more sane."

 

Enjoy, Gentle Readers! And I do hope you have the merriest of Christmases!

*hugs*

 

 

25 thoughts on “Making Pfeffernusse cookies with the ‘rents

  1. Libby

    Oh how happy it makes me to see Mr and Mrs Young again! And Grandma Young sounds (and looks) like a legendary woman. Thanks for the recipe it sounds wonderful. A very Merry Christmas to everyone in your extraordinary family!!!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Libby, it’s so nice to hear from you! The next time you’re in Nebraska, you ought to swing down and see my ‘rents in the flesh! They would love that, and if you time it just right, you may even snag some peppernuts out of the trip . . . 😉

  2. Roy A. Ackerman, Ph.D., E.A.

    So many thoughts- and so little time.
    First- those little cookies remind me of the crumbs I used to seek. Because the cookies I ate were definitely good to the last bite…
    And, relish those little moments. Or is that little Mac. Because when they get older and have kids of their own (like you do now), they won’t be there to remind you of those great little moments. (Oh, they’ll still exist in your mind…but….)
    And, make sure the moments you share are the ones they’ll recall. Just like you recall- with aching fondness (hence the reason you want to return to that 10 y old shell- and then have to undergo puberty, adolescence, and the rest ALL OVER AGAIN)- those precious moments.

    Finally- Merry Christmas to you and yours.
    May your Christmas Day afford you the love and rest-
    To enjoy your time with your entire nest-
    To recognize what means the most-
    With nary a worry whether you’re guest or host.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      THank you for the encouragement, Roy. I do try to savor each messy moment, being in the trenches, as it were, of mamahood. I know I’ll miss all the fuss and the noise someday.

  3. Bree

    40 cups of flour! That is incredible. We love pfeffernusse in this house too! My father inlaw’s recipe calls for dark caro syrup too- can I sub for molasses?

  4. Karen landers

    This is the closest recipe to the one my family makes! I just went to my aunts today and we made them. Most recipes have about 1/2 tsp. Of each spice. Hers has 2 to 5 Tablespoons of each one and 5 lbs of flour!! I just love them and remember eating them at both my moms and grandmas!

  5. gene gage

    Amy – I don’t know if it was from the Danish side of the family or the German, but I grew up in a household (1940s-50s) that set aside an entire Saturday in early December for “peppernuts day.” Mom would have mixed up the dough earlier, but she, Dad and any of us kids (there were six of us) who could see over the counter or kitchen table spent Saturday cutting and rolling and placing them on cookie sheets. (I am one of six siblings.)

    Remember those 3 lb cans of Folgers and Butternut coffee? We typically filled a half dozen of them with peppernuts and they got stashed on the topmost shelf of the pantry until closer to Christmas, and they lasted well past the holiday. I totally remember filling my pockets with them and heading off to school when vacation was over.

    The following Saturday was “Christmas cookie day” when we did scads of sugar cookie cut outs in Christmassy shapes and decorated them with green and red colored sugars. And the last Saturday before Christmas was “Christmas candy day,” when all of us participated in making a couple different kinds of fudge, peanut brittle and a chewy candy made from peanut butter – the recipe for which one of my sisters has and will not share with the rest of the sibs. Absolutely no store-bought candy in the house unless someone gave my mom a box of cherry filled chocolates from the local drugstore.

    Two more Christmas memories and then I will shut up.

    1. We ALWAYS had roast chicken, ham or beef (I didn’t eat a turkey until I was an adult) for Christmas Dinner, with canned or otherwise home-preserved veggies, our own sweet potatoes AND white potatoes, followed by what we called “Plum Pudding” with hard sauce, but which I now know was a traditional English steamed suet/carrot/raisin pudding – which took several days to make!
    2. Pre-Christmas was the ONLY time of the year when my father was actively involved in the kitchen, and we kids loved it when he put on one of Mom’s frilly aprons and took charge of a cooking project.

    Such was Christmas in a large, poor family on a farm in western Nebraska in the middle of the last century.

    Thanks for the memories, Amy.

    Gene

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Sounds to me like your family was rich, Gene, and you are rich with such great memories. I’m so glad that you shared them with me. My Grandma Young also used those big Folgers cans for everything–she wrapped foil around them at Memorial Day weekend, and put her peonies in them for grave decorating. I can’t remember what she stored her peppernuts in, but I know that she always had a huge amount stashed away before Christmas.

  6. Teresa

    Just read your wonderful pfeffernusse story & recipe. Warmed my heart & also made me yearn to be a kid again! These were a tradition in my house in Kansas & everywhere else we lived. Great memories & thank you for sharing!!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Thanks for your sweet comment, Teresa! My folks are still making pfeffernusse, two weeks after Christmas. My dad makes a HUGE batch of dough and chills it, then makes a batch every now and then until it’s gone. My son Timothy went over to visit his grandparents a few days ago and they got him busy making pfeffernusse!

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