A few days ago, I made a spice mixture to use in Christmas cookies. All very nice, but now for the real fun – actually making the cookies!
These are a version of the classic German Pfeffernüsse, literally “pepper nuts” (*) which are soft, spicy biscuits made with honey. They come in all manner of varieties – from dry and crisp to soft, some covered in chocolate, some with a little jam in the middle. This recipe if the softer type, which you can finish off as you want, but I like the plain sugar glaze. The trick with these biscuits is to brush them with icing while they are still hot, so the icing melts a little bit, and when they cool down, you get a “frosty” look for the full winter theme.
While I wax lyrically about home-made Pfeffernüsse, I must confess to a soft spot for the ones you buy, all uniformly round, with crisp, brittle, brilliant white icing. Those biscuits are more like gingerbread, both dry and soft, and are the sort of biscuits that we would have at home as a treat at Christmas. And I mean as a treat – there was one shop in Montrose (where my grandmother lived) where the German owner would order in a selection of Christmas goodies for the festive season. I knew that the festive season had started when these spicy biscuits appeared on the shelves and we were finally allowed to buy some.
But here we are all about cooking, so back to the home-made stuff. You can play around with the spices a little bit to get something that suits your taste, but I like to use the proper spice mixture, as you get different notes in these biscuits, from warm cinnamon to aromatic cloves and aniseed. You also add a generous pinch of pepper, but be careful not to add too much – the flavour of these cookies will develop over time, so be judicious in using the spicy stuff. If anything, err on the side of caution. The mixture itself is quite simple – make a honey-sugar syrup, allow to cool, mix in the spices and an egg, then add flour to make a sticky dough. This is a great one to make with kids, as it is satisfyingly sticky and messy, and quite quick to make.
When I made these, I finally also got the knack of using my silpat cooking mat. First, it needs to sit on a normal metal tray. Obvious, you might think, but I was under the impressing that it wasn’t required. Yup, I can be that dumb sometimes. Next, don’t use the smooth, shiny side, and coat the textured side with a little oil or butter. Again, seems obvious, but I assumed that this wasn’t needed as silicone is non-stick. But now I have learned, and was so impressed how easily the cookies came off the mat. No longer do I spend time chip-chip-chipping away at the cold cookies to remove them from the metal. So easy!
One point to note is that it really is worth icing these biscuits as soon as they come out of the oven. They should be hot. Brush them thinly with icing, then once you’ve done them all, start again to give them all a second coat. As you can see below, the cookies look quite different when you first glaze them – a little dull – but then they magically take on their frosty wintery appearance. Ho ho ho!
To make Pfeffernüsse (makes around 30):
• 150g honey (I used orange blossom)
• 100g sugar
• 1 teaspoon Lebkuchen spices(**)
• 2 large pinches ground white pepper
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon water/rose water
• 300g plain flour
• 80g icing sugar
• 4 tablespoons lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Lightly great a metal tray or silpat sheet.
Put the honey and sugar in a pan. Heat gently until the honey is fluid and the sugar has dissolved.Add the Lebkuchen spices and pepper to the honey, stir well, and remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Stir the water/rose water into the cooled honey mixture (it should become much softer), then add the egg and baking powder, and mix until smooth. Don’t add the egg when the mixture is too hot, or it will turn to spicy omelette (yuk!).
Finally, add the flour and mix into a soft dough.
Use your hands to form the dough into balls of 2-3cm diameter (aim for size of an shelled walnut).
Place the dough onto a greased baking tray, and bake for 10-12 minutes until the cookies are slightly puffed and very lightly golden.
While the cookies are in the oven, prepare the glaze. Combine the icing sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Once the cookies are out of the oven, brush the top of each with the glaze. Once you’ve done all the cookies, give them a second coat while still warm.
Allow the icing to dry (overnight is best), then store in an airtight container – the aroma of the spices will develop with time.
(*) Tes – so sorry for yet more almost-unpronounceable names!
(**) If you prefer, use your own combination of any of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, mace, coriander or aniseed – but 3/4 should be cinnamon.