Christmas Cookies—Grandma Maria Kaufman’s Pfeffernüsse

Two weeks after our marriage, Jerri and I moved into the bottom floor of an antebellum house in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had once been the slaves’ quarters.   We loved the place. However, while most of the rooms were big, the kitchen was so tiny and narrow that one person could not squeeze past another while working at the sink or range.

It was too small to make Pfeffernüsse. The total counter space was less than three feet, and since we lacked a dining table for several months, there was no place to roll out and cut the dough. Two years later, when we moved to Murray, Kentucky, we rented a farmhouse with an enormous kitchen, where Jerri made our first batch of Pfeffernüsse.

Pfeffernüsse are traditionally made in Germany for the Christmas holidays. The English translation of the name is peppernuts.  Commercial Pfeffernüsse from Germany are about the size of walnuts and are dusted with powdered sugar, but we much prefer these plain little peppery nuts: What other cookie lets you eat a whole handful without feeling guilty?

Jerri’s Swiss-German Mennonite ancestors brought this recipe with them when they emigrated to Kansas from the Ukraine in the 1870’s.  The recipe came to us from Jerri’s grandmother, Maria Kaufman, via Jerri’s Aunt Hilda, who was a talented cook famous for never letting anyone leave her home hungry.  

Jerri made these cookies for many years, keeping the family tradition alive and supplying them to her brothers and their families until her death in August 2020.  She made a half batch of Aunt Hilda’s recipe, which is itself a half batch of Grandma Maria’s recipe. Even the recipes of our ancestors were giants!

Here is Jerri’s recipe followed by the instructions from Aunt Hilda, with additional instructions and notes by Jerri.  This recipe makes about a half-gallon of cookies.

Pfeffernüsse aren’t hard to make. They just take more time than a lot of other cookies, BUT THEY ARE WORTH IT.

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup dark molasses

1/2 tsp. oil of anise

1 T baking powder

3/4 tsp. salt

Rounded quarter teaspoons of the following ground spices:

cinnamon

cloves

black pepper

nutmeg

allspice

ginger

mace

cardamom

About 5 cups all-purpose flour

PROCEDURE:

Aunt Hilda’s instructions:  Cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat in the egg, then add the cream, molasses and oil of anise and beat well. Sift about four cups of the flour, baking powder, salt and spices into the liquid ingredients a cup at a time, stirring well between each addition.  You will need a strong wooden spoon.  

Then gradually add the remaining flour. You may need to knead the remaining flour into the dough. The dough should be “firm–kinda stiff–but still maybe kinda sticky–not bad.”  Mix all thoroughly, cover and set in a very cold place overnight.  You can freeze the dough or keep it for days in the refrigerator. Bake in a 350º oven. “Watch carefully.  They burn easy. Smells wonderful. Tastes good. Yum! Yum!”

Aunt Hilda said that her mother couldn’t make these cookies until the weather turned cold, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. If you want to make them in the traditional way, put the dough into an unheated room. Otherwise, use a refrigerator.

Jerri’s instructions: Take pieces of the cold dough about the size of two walnuts and roll them into quarter-inch diameter “snakes” on a well-floured board. Layer the snakes on a baking pan and separate the layers with waxed paper. Jerri coiled them into a pizza pan. Freeze the snakes for several hours or overnight.  

When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350º and lightly grease two or three baking sheets. Chop three or four snakes at a time into three-eighth-inch-long pieces and put them on a cookie sheet. The pieces should be separated slightly. When you have a sheet full, bake it for nine to ten minutes. Let the cookies cool a minute or two before transferring them to waxed paper. Let the cookies cool thoroughly before storing them in airtight containers. These cookies develop their best flavor after being stored for at least two weeks.

JERRI’S NOTES: I use a big wooden spoon to stir this dough and usually get Chuck to help at the end of stirring so I don’t have to “knead” to get it stiff enough. Chop only three or four snakes at a time as they are easier to cut and place on the pan if the dough is frozen. Dusting your fingers with flour makes it easier to place the pieces on the baking sheets. If your oven heats unevenly (as did our previous one), you might need to turn the sheets after five minutes.

CHUCK’S NOTES:  I have never made these tasty little cookies myself, but I have stirred the dough, watched Jerri and placed lots of little pieces of “snakes” on the pans.  My first batch will be in 2020 now that Jerri is gone. 

The photo shows Grandma Rang’s Date-filled Cookies, Grandma Hopp’s Gingerbread Cookies and some Peppernuts.

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