About 5 dozen cookies
(also see Peppernuts recipe)
Pfeffernüsse are traditional Central European Christmas cookies. They are rich with honey and subtle spice flavors and will keep well at room temperature (if stored airtight) for at least a couple of weeks. Untraditionally, these have a bit of cocoa in them and a cake-like texture. You won't taste it, but it adds to the richness and the color. Unlike other pfeffernusse I have seen, these cookies are rolled between the hands, not rolled out on a board. The dough is very sticky; it must chill overnight before it is baked (it can stay in the fridge for another day or so, if you wish). You must line the baking sheets for these cookies with parchment paper, as the bottoms of the cookies will stick to anything else (I haven't tried nonstick baking pan liner, though). I can find parchment paper in supermarkets or gourmet stores, but the latter tend to charge far more for it. A nonstick, broad-bladed metal spatula and nonstick cooling racks are a big help here. If you don't have them, lightly spray a broad metal spatula and cooling racks with nonstick cooking spray, wiping off any excess with paper towels.
I have used a bit of molasses and Golden Blossom brand honey here, and it gives the cookies a wonderful flavor. If I haven't mentioned Golden Blossom before, I find it to be an excellent, all-purpose honey. I have also made this recipe very successfully with a dark wildflower honey, omitting the molasses and using 1-1/2 cups honey. You'll need something to drink with these; I think they are a natural with milk or hot tea.
1/4 cup light molasses
1-1/4 cups honey
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter,
cut into pieces
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
Scant 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
Scant 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, graded "large", beaten to mix
1/4 tsp. pure anise extract
Sifted or strained confectioners' sugar
In heavy bottomed, nonreactive, 1 to 1-1/2 quart pot, combine molasses, honey, and butter. Place over low heat, stirring often until mixture is thin and butter has melted. Do not boil. Remove from heat; pour into large bowl. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.
Meanwhile, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, spices, and salt. When honey mixture is lukewarm, with fork, beat in beaten egg and anise extract to mix well. With large spoon, gradually stir in sifted dry ingredients. This will be a stiff, sticky dough. Chill until cold. Cover top of bowl with a paper towel, then cover tightly with plastic wrap or foil. Chill overnight.
Next day, adjust rack to center of oven; preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper cut to fit.
Roll dough between your palms into 1-inch diameter, moist, shiny-looking balls. You will only bake 3 on the first sheet; this is important! It is difficult to judge the baking time of these cookies because of the dark color of the dough, so these will be "test" cookies. Bake 11-14 minutes, switching sheet back-to-front about halfway through baking time. While baking, these will spread slightly. When baked, the tops will have have lost their shiny look and will have almost a "spongy" appearance; they may have some small cracks, too. The cookies will still be very soft, but will harden considerably when cooled (especially around the edges). Let stand for a few seconds on baking sheet, then remove to cooling rack. Cool until just warm, then break one cookie in half (do not cut it). It should be baked through, but there may be a darker top layer inside--OK. The bottoms of the baked cookies should be lightly browned. I bake these for 12 minutes, but remember your timing may vary.
When you have established a baking time, continue forming and baking cookies, one sheet at a time. I place 15 cookies on a 10-1/2" by 15-1/2" baking sheet. The dough will still be very sticky, and you'll have to rinse your hands with cold water after forming about every half dozen cookies or so (the dough will stick less if your palms are damp--not wet--before rolling). Cool cookies completely on racks. During the cooling process, lift each cookie from the rack, then replace it (these stick a bit, even to nonstick racks) to finish cooling.
When cookies are completely cool, roll each in sifted or strained confectioners' sugar to coat thoroughly. Store airtight, with wax paper between layers, and at room temperature. Allow to stand at least 24 hours before serving (a few days is better). If desired, roll cookies in confectioners' sugar to coat once more before serving.
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