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.

Grandma Rang’s Date Cookies

Families have different ways of celebrating Advent. When I was growing up, one way we celebrated was by getting a Christmas tree. Finding the tree was a man’s job, so each year Dad and I would head into the woods on the first or second Sunday of December. In the 1950’s, northern Wisconsin seemed to have more snow on the ground in December than it does today. We usually pushed through a foot or more of the white stuff, and one year when the snow was especially deep I remember having to walk in my father’s tracks as he broke trail.

Our labor was not always appreciated. We would look at thousands of spruce and balsam trees along a brook or near a swamp in a county forest near our home. Often the trees were laden with new snow that had to be shaken from the branches before we could pass judgment on a candidate. I am sure that we examined a hundred or more every year before we found the perfect tree. Then we would take it home so we could listen to complaints about bare spots and flat sides.

It was easier to take the criticism if we were eating one of Grandma Rang’s Date Cookies.  Baking those was one way my mother celebrated Advent, and they were Dad’s favorite cookie.

They are one of my favorites too.  About twenty years ago, the tradition of these cookies was enriched for me  by a wonderful lady, Hazel Olson, who gave me a cookie cutter that had belonged to her husband’s grandmother.  It is a tinned steel cutter with fluted sides, an inexpensive tool that was probably made sometime in the middle of the 19th century.  The handle is missing and the plating is worn off in a few places, but it works fine and feels good in my hand as I cut the rich dough.

Here is how to make them.

INGREDIENTS FOR DATE FILLING:

1 cup dates
1 cup cold water
1 cup light brown sugar
Dash of salt
2 T flour

PROCEDURE:

Chop the dates fine and put in a saucepan with the cold water, sugar and salt.  Heat to boiling and simmer until dates are tender, about 15 minutes.  Stir frequently.  Mix the flour in 1/4 cup cold water and stir into the dates.  Simmer another five minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool before using as filling.

INGREDIENTS FOR COOKIE DOUGH:
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup butter
3 large eggs
4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

PROCEDURE:

Measure the sugar into a large mixing bowl.  Add the soft butter and cream together.  Beat the eggs until lemon yellow and stir them into the sugar mixture.   Add the soda, baking powder and salt to the flour, and sift into the sugar mixture about one cup at a time, stirring thoroughly between additions.  The dough should be very stiff.  Add a little more flour if necessary.  

Preheat the oven to 350º and grease the baking sheets.

Flour a large breadboard.  Take 1/3 of the dough, work it into a ball, place it on the breadboard, press it into a round pat about 1 inch thick, and turn it over, making certain that there is plenty of flour on the breadboard.  With a well-floured rolling pin, roll the dough to 1/8 inch thickness.  

Cut with a 3 or 3 1/2 inch round cookie cutter.  Put the rounds on a well-greased cookie sheet and put about a heaping teaspoon of date filling in the middle of each.  Top with more rounds and seal the edges by pressing them with your fingers.  Try not to make the cookie edges too thin.  

Bake in a 350º oven until the cookies are lightly browned, about 10-12 minutes.  Cool on wax paper.

NOTES:

My mother’s recipe says to use a scant teaspoon of soda, baking powder and salt.  You can replace the 3/4 cup butter with oleo or with about 1/2 cup shortening, but the cookies are not as good.  Use a spatula to handle the rounds, as they are very tender.  The trimmings can be worked into the next 1/3 of the dough without harm.

Although you can eat them as soon as they are cool, these cookies are best after they have been stored in a tight container in a cool room for two or three days.  They keep fine for as many weeks.