Every day of December should be National Cookie Day, if you ask me. Snickerdoodles, thumbprint cookies, kitchen sink cookies, sugar cookies, oatmeal raisin cookie, salted chocolate chunk cookies, gingersnaps and gingerdoodles.
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.
Call them cake balls, call them cake pops or call them plain delicious.
Today’s news that Austin Cake Ball is hitting the Williams Sonoma catalog made me remember a 2010 story I did with uber creative Austinites Kathy Phan and Aimee Pruett. These two friends had been collaborating on the cutest cake pop posts that I asked them to teach me how they made them. We timed the story for Easter, but you could easily make these into a winter holiday dessert, too.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2010.
Tired of chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs? Sweet treats are as essential to Easter baskets as the rainbow of dyed eggs that the Easter Bunny hides each year, but this year, make room for a new treat: cake pops.
And with a few strategically placed sprinkles and chocolates, you can create animal-shaped cake pops so cute that they will send Peeps cheeping back to the marshmallow factory.
Cake pops, chocolate-coated cake balls on a stick, are the cupcake of 2010. Several local companies, including Holy Cacao and Austin Cake Ball, sell the trendy dessert that is surprisingly easy to make at home. With a box of cake mix, a can of frosting, lollipop sticks, melting chocolate (also called chocolate bark or candy melts) and a helping hand from a creative young chef in the house, you can make cake balls on a stick that might just make kids on Easter morning forget there are eggs to be hunted in the first place.
When cake ball shops started popping up around Austin last year, Kathy Phan tried them and thought they were good, but she didn’t catch cake-pop fever until she saw the cutesy cake balls on a stick that sites like Bakerella have popularized.
Phan, a crafty twentysomething with an eye for design, first made cake pops in the shape of the Twitter bird for a New Year’s party in January. Friends raved about them – where else – on the social networking site, and Phan started posting her creations on her blog, making cake pops in the shape of dogs, basketballs and fish. “For me, it’s an outlet for me to be creative, ” she says. She’s moving on to more complicated pops, like Fabergé eggs. Will she quit her day job marketing kitchen appliances online to sell cake pops? Not any time soon, she says, but she is looking for a space to make custom cake pops to start a side business.
Phan says that you can make cake pops from scratch, using homemade cake and frosting, but it’s easier and usually just as tasty to use boxed cake mix and canned frosting. The easy part is making the cake mix according to the directions on the box. The hard part is waiting until the cake has cooled entirely before starting the project. Phan says you can make the cake up to two days ahead of time, as long as you cover it well with aluminum foil.
After you’ve baked the cake and have let it cool, break it apart in a large bowl until the cake has an even crumbly texture. Mix in the can of frosting by hand or with a stand-up mixer. Depending on how moist the cake is, you might not need to use the entire can of frosting, Phan says. Then, using your hands just as you would make meatballs, roll the cake-frosting mix into small balls. (A melon baller or cookie scoop will help make evenly sized balls.) The size of the cake balls depends on the size of the lollipop or cookie sticks you’re using. For thin paper lollipop sticks, cake balls should be about the diameter of a quarter. For cookie sticks, which are made of plastic and are thicker, the cake balls can be larger. Place the cake balls on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper and refrigerate for at least an hour. (You also can place them in the freezer for 30 minutes.)
To prepare the chocolate coating, heat the melting chocolate in a small dish or ceramic dipping pot in the microwave at 50 percent heat, stirring chocolate every 30 seconds until completely melted. A double boiler also works to melt the chocolate.
Phan says you’re looking for a texture that is slightly thinner than yogurt or pudding, and you might need to add a hint of shortening to thin it out.
Once the cake balls are cooled and the chocolate is warmed, dip about half an inch of the end of a stick in the chocolate coating and push about halfway into the ball. The coating helps the ball stay on the stick. After putting sticks in all the cake balls, refrigerate the cake pops again for at least 30 minutes.
When they are cooled, hold on to the stick and swirl the cake ball in the chocolate coating, covering the entire surface. (It took me a few pops to get the hang of this, but if the chocolate seems to be uneven or too thick, try heating it just a few more seconds in the microwave.)
To let the cake pop dry upright, push the stick of the pop in a foam block.
To make a chick from a basic cake pop, you’ll need yellow melting chocolate, candy-coated miniature chocolate chips, flower-shaped sprinkles and a marker with edible ink. After making a regular cake pop coated in yellow chocolate, allow the coating to set. While they are cooling, pick out orange and yellow sprinkles and chocolate chips. Using a toothpick to apply the coating, place a dab on the pop to act as glue and apply the chip and sprinkles as the beak and feet; then draw the eyes.
Using this technique, you can make a whole zoo of cake-pop animals. To make parts like ears, use the melted chocolate to create the desired shape on wax paper and let it cool. Once the shape hardens, affix it to the pop with more melted chocolate. Pretzels, licorice and chow mein also make fine arms, tails or antlers.
Phan created Fabergé eggs by piping small lines of melted white chocolate from squeeze condiment bottles and then sprinkling them with silver balls, sugar pearls or dusting sugar before the lines dry.
For a simple decoration, try sprinkling the pops with any kind of sugary sprinkle, toasted nuts or coconut just after dipping the cake balls in the chocolate coating.
Most grocery stores carry an array of cake mixes and frosting, so get creative in your flavor combinations. You could dip carrot cake mixed with cream cheese frosting in orange-colored coating. What about lemon or orange cake with vanilla frosting dipped in yellow candy melt? You can combine half peanut butter and half chocolate frosting to make cake balls that taste like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, another Easter favorite that might get squeezed out if you go cake-pop crazy this year.
Craft stores such as Hobby Lobby and Michael’s have foam blocks and many of the lollipop sticks and candy melts you’ll need to create cake pops, but specialty bake shops such as Make It Sweet have an even larger selection of chocolate colors, sprinkles and decorating supplies, including markers with edible ink. Most grocery stores will have regular or white melting chocolate or chocolate bark, but you’ll need an oil-based food coloring from a specialty bake shop to turn white chocolate into spring chick yellow.
But this year, Neiman Marcus has competition. Williams Sonoma is now selling a slightly different mix of themed cake balls: wintry snowman, Christmas cake and Hanukkah cake balls.
Austin Cake Ball owner Ben May says that even though his company sells the same cake balls online for less than the cost of the ones in the upscale catalogs, they’ve sold out of the Neiman Marcus cake balls before Christmas every year, despite making more product.