I’d never heard of pfeffernüsse until 2012, when a reader named Sally Jo Hahn emailed me to try to find a recipe for her dad.
He was about to turn 92, and he absolutely loved these spiced “peppernut” cookies from his childhood. Hahn had some questions. I tried to find some answers and ended up having a memorable afternoon baking cookies with her. This story had fallen off the internet, so I’m republishing it today, on National Cookie Day appropriately.
Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 12, 2012.
Sally Jo Hahn just wanted to give her dad a taste of one of his favorite cookies for his 92nd birthday this month.
The South Austinite emailed me in October to ask whether I knew where to find any old-fashioned pfeffernüsse recipes like her grandmother’s, which contained potash (potassium carbonate) and ammonium carbonate, ingredients used in the 19th century to add leavening and a crispness to the small, round cookies.
When her grandmother, Marie Rahn, and mother, Anneliese Hahn, died a year apart about a decade ago, the recipe got lost in the shuffle of their possessions.
The cookies Hahn remembered were heavily spiced with cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom and nutmeg, and because they were hard as nails, they shipped well and stayed good for months.
We published her request and were inundated with recipes. More than 30 of you sent in your own family recipes and stories about these German cookies, which are also popular in a number of northern European countries.
I forwarded all the notes, including the handwritten ones, to Hahn, and last week, I helped her make a batch.
While we were rolling out the long ropes of sticky, dense dough, I found out that there was much more to her family’s love of pfeffernüsse than its signature spice.
Here’s how Hahn tells it: Her grandparents and mother emigrated to Michigan from what was then East Prussia after World War I ended. In 1944, her mother married Jerry Hahn, a soldier who was also from Detroit.
All in all, Hahn was deployed for two and a half years during World War II, including fighting under George S. Patton in the Battle of the Bulge, and during his time in Europe, his mother-in-law would send tins of pfeffernüsse in his care packages.
The irony is not lost on Sally Jo Hahn that her German grandmother sent German cookies to her father, who was fighting the Nazis not all that far from the part of Europe where her grandparents had left less than 20 years before.
The history of this particular recipe, of course, led to entirely different stories, a heartbreaking one of relatives, including young children, crossing heavily guarded borders in the middle of the night, and another of her dad staying up late to transmit Morse code with the help of coffee so thick that a spoon could stand up on its own in the middle of the cup.
For Jerry Hahn, slowly chewing on those rich, flavorful cookies from home made the nights pass a little quicker.
It’s no wonder Sally Jo Hahn was on the hunt for the recipe.
Unlike the photo we ran with the column, most of the recipes, including the one Hahn was after, did not call for powdered sugar. “My grandma grew up in East Prussia. They didn’t have powdered sugar, ” she said. “These were peasant cookies.”
They also didn’t have electric mixers or ovens that kept a steady temperature. To find the potassium and ammonium carbonate that were readily available to her grandmother, Hahn had to go online, where she discovered GermanDeli.com‘s extensive inventory. (The website also has a large retail store in Colleyville, which opened about three years ago.)
Though the German name translates to “peppernuts” in English, not all pfeffernüsse contain black pepper or nuts, though some of the recipes that readers sent in certainly did.
Maren Larsen Palmer’s recipe, which originated with her Danish grandmother, calls only for ground cloves, and a number of recipes relied on anise extract or oil to give the cookies that characteristic bite.
Jennifer Michie’s family favorite, from a church cookbook from a Lutheran church in North Dakota, calls for a cup of coffee thrown in the mix.
Many of you sent in recipes that have been in your families for generations. Helen Kott’s family, including her Aunt Dora, have likely been making pfeffernüsse in and around Fredericksburg since they moved there in the mid-1850s, and Martha Rinn’s recipe, which calls for eggs and no molasses or syrup, has been in her family at least 100 years.
(Ottilie Cleesen’s and Marie Offerman’s daughters were kind enough to email their mothers’ recipes in for them.)
One reader from Manchaca who wished to remain anonymous summed it up best: Though it is impossible to replicate a memory, especially one created by an “Oma, ” the search itself is a gift.
This recipe is a combination of several, including one from Sally Jo Hahn’s cousin Jutta Rahn and another from Buzz Moran’s grandmother Annie. It’s as close as Hahn has gotten so far to what her Oma once made.
1 cup Karo syrup (light or dark) or honey
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Pinch ground star anise
4 cups flour
1 ½ tsp. potassium carbonate (pottasche)
Pinch ammonium carbonate (hirschhornsalz)
In a small saucepan, mix together the Karo syrup or honey, sugar and butter and bring to a boil. Let the caramel-like mixture cool. While that is cooling, whisk together the spices and flour in a large bowl. Reserve.
In a small bowl, heat 2 tbsp. water until warm but not hot. Dissolve the potassium carbonate and ammonium carbonate in the water and then add all to the cooled syrup/butter mixture.
Slowly add the syrup mixture to the flour mixture in small batches, incorporating the ingredients with a wooden spoon as you go so that the syrup doesn’t end up in a blob in the bottom of the bowl.
Once the dough is starting to come together, you can use a stand-up mixer with a dough hook attachment to help bring it together, or you can continue to use a spoon and your hands.
When the dough can be pressed together into a ball, refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
After the dough has cooled, place a chunk of the dough on a floured surface and roll into a long rope about as thick as your thumb.
Place on a baking sheet and continue making ropes with the dough. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove ropes from fridge and cut into ½-inch pieces. Place pieces with a little space between them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes, or until slightly puffed up and only slightly browned. Cool on a cookie rack.
(You can toss them in powdered sugar when they are still warm, but this isn’t the Hahn family way.)
When completely cool, store in a sealed tin or glass jar. The cookies will continue to harden as they cool, but dipping them in coffee or milk will soften them.
— Recipe from Jutta Rahn, Ontario, Canada
Janice Friesen’s Oma’s recipe, which she says she makes in large batches to give cookies away to neighbors, family and friends this time of year, calls for shortening, baking powder and an egg, a totally different set of leavening agents, but one that makes for a similar, if less tooth-cracking cookie.
2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup dark Karo syrup
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground star anise
5 cups flour, plus more for dusting
In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and shortening with an electric mixer. In a small bowl, combine egg and Karo syrup, and in another large bowl, whisk together the salt, baking powder, spices and flour. Mix the wet ingredients together and then slowly add the flour.
On a floured surface, roll the dough into long ropes and then chill for at least an hour.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough ropes from fridge and cut into ½-inch pieces. Place pieces on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes and let cool. Store in an airtight container.
— Recipe by Ann Friesen