If it’s Christmas, there has to be gingerbread. Given my penchant for finding obscure recipes, clearly I had to come up with something that comes from a specific place and has a backstory. Today, it’s all about German Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen (pepper cake from Pulsnitz).
These gingerbread slices hail, unsurprisingly, from the town of Pulsnitz near Dresden in eastern Germany. They have been baking their Pfefferkuchen there since 1558. Indeed they love their gingerbread so strong that they even have a museum on the main square devoted to its history, complete with machines, moulds, tins and cutters. If you’re lucky (and in a post-pandemic world) you can even try your hand at making them there in a baking class. If I’m ever passing, I’ll be sure to drop in. But for 2020, I’ve had to be content with making my own at home.
In my research I read that this is considered by some to be a more “basic” type of gingerbread. Having made it, it isn’t exactly easy, and it takes quite some time. However, it does not contain all the richness of some other types of German Christmas cookies. Things like Nürnberger Lebkuchen need to contain a high level of nuts and no flour to pass quality standards and legally be sold as such. In contrast, Pfefferkuchen starts off as a mixture of flour (wheat and rye) and honey, which is then enriched with spices. It’s the spices that give it the Pfeffer (pepper) in its name – whereas we now think of black pepper, this was formerly a term for all sorts of spices.
When I read this description, I thought calling it “simple” was rather unfair, as the resulting gingerbread is really delicious. I thought about it and my guess is that the gingerbread you find in a given area depends on what is typical of the area. So a city that was a medieval trading hub would be likely to have more by way of nuts, spices and citrus fruits, whereas a more agricultural area is going to use wheat and honey for its treats. I think it is also easy to forget just how special a lot of what we now see as standard Christmas fare would have seemed to normal folk hundreds of years ago. Cookies, sweets, honey. Those were true luxuries. So eating a piece of spiced honey cake, possibly glazed with sugar, would really have been quite something.
A typical feature of the dough is that it should rest a lot to allow it to mature before it is baked. In the recipe I used, the suggestion was that this should be for at least two weeks. In the end mine sat undisturbed in a cool corner of our kitchen for about three weeks. If I were being scientific, I would have made detailed observations and perhaps filmed the mixture to check the texture before and after. But I did not do that. From my fairly basic analysis (I looked at it and tried to remember what it had looked like three weeks before) it seemed to me that the dough had become softer and smoother during the resting period. I remember reading that there are enzymes in honey that will break down some of the proteins in flour, affecting flavour and taste. And hey, we’re stuck indoors for most the day at the moment, so it’s not as if I’ve been short of time to plan these bakes this year!
Once the dough has rested, you add in spices, cocoa powder and raising agents. This is the bit where it gets fiddly. I used two “authentic” (i.e. obscure) raising agents – pottasche and baker’s ammonia. Originally, one would have been extracted from wood ash, the other from ground-up deer antler. Mercifully today you can buy them online and avoid harming any animals or picking over a bonfire. The reason to use them is that they give a great raise and very light texture, much more than you will get with baking soda or baking powder. Note that I have not tested this recipe with traditional raising agents, so I can’t vouch for your results. If you give it a go, let me know and best of luck!
My dough ended up being pretty soft, but I was still able to work with it. I did this deliberately in the hope of keeping the resulting gingerbread as moist as possible. The good thing is that there is no elaborate shaping involved. You really just form a long strip, bake it, then cut it while warm in a similar way to biscotti.
Once you’ve started cutting, you can finally taste the dough (you can’t eat it raw due the pottasche and the baker’s ammonia). I thought I’d actually made a failure as it was not very sweet. Darn. But there was magic to come…the glazes ended up making all the difference.
I used three different ways to finish the cookies. The first was a simple sugar glaze. It starts off white, then it sets and slowly you get frost-like patterns appearing on it. It will darken due to the gingerbread, so if you want a sparkling white finish, you can add some white colouring to the icing, but it tastes just fine as it is.
The second was a spiced chocolate glaze. This was the same one I used a couple of years ago when making Swiss Magenbrot. This one starts of looking dark and shiny, and stays that way, so I think it wins for the combination of being easy to do, tasting great and looking good.
The third way was to dip pieces into dark chocolate. I was a little dubious as this was not going to add any additional moisture to the gingerbread, but I did not have to worry. It was utterly delicious. It’s a morsel of Christmas between your fingers. If you’re lazy, busy, or occupied with pets and small children, you can just melt and dip. But as you’ve come all this way, you might as well get it perfect and ensure the chocolate has been tempered. It’s fairly easy to do with a microwave and a food thermometer, plus your friends (remember them?) will be impressed you made something look so professional.
Of the three finishes, the dark chocolate was my favourite. The chocolate melts in your mouth, and the flavour is sublime. I’ve given all three below, but remember I divided my batch into 3. If you want to do them all the same, you need to make more glaze.
Now, a confession. I’m not massively confident that the recipe I’ve used is totally authentic. The traditional makers of Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen guard their recipes closely, so there were very few recipes out there and those that exist have no pictures. So I was forced to just muddle through. The result is delicious (if a bit of a faff) and I think the fact it is mostly rye-and-wheat flour bound with honey and some spices makes me think I’m somewhere in the right area. But 100% authentic? Not so sure. I might just keep my head down if I do ever make it to that gingerbread museum near Dresden.
So there you have it! My sort-of-Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen. Now I’ll just have to sit here and wait to be contacted by people who make the real thing to tell me I got it wrong…
To make Pulznitzer Pfefferkuchen (makes around 100 pieces):
For the basic dough
• 500g strong honey
• 400g plain flour
• 200g light rye flour
• 125ml water
Additional dough ingredients
• 75g ground almonds
• 30g cocoa powder
• 3 teaspoons mixed gingerbread spices
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 1 teaspoon potash
Chocolate glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)
• 40g dark chocolate
• 10g butter
• 50ml water
• 200g icing sugar
• 1 pinch ground cinnamon
• 1 pinch ground cloves
• 1 pinch ground nutmeg
Sugar glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)
• 300g icing sugar
• 6 tablespoons boiling water
• White food colour (titanium dioxide powder), optional
Chocolate coating (to cover 30-35 pieces)
• 300g dark chocolate
1. Start by making the basic dough. Put the honey and water in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then let it cool to lukewarm. Mix with the plain flour and rye flour until you have a sticky dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature – two weeks is recommended, but you can leave it overnight.
2. Time to finish the dough. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
3. Take pieces of the honey dough and knead briefly to make them soft (this will fix any drier bits that are near to surface). Be warned – it’s a workout for your hands.
4. Put the baker’s ammonia and potash into two separate dishes. Add just enough warm water to get them to dissolve. Then add them to the main bowl, plus the ground almonds, cocoa powder and spices. Knead until everything is well-combined and you have an even colour. Note the dough will be quite sticky, but if you find it too soft and sticky, add a bit more plain flour.
5. Sprinkle the worktop with flour. Roll/press the dough to 1cm thick and 20cm wide (the length does not matter, but it should be around 50cm). Cut the dough into strips of around 5cm. Place 3-4 on the baking sheet at a time, leaving plenty of space for them to expand. Bake for around 15 minutes until the logs are puffed and slightly firm when lightly pressed. Remove from the oven and immediately brush them with cold water to help keep them soft. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly. Repeat until all the dough is baked.
6. Use a serrated knife to cut the logs diagonally into slices.
7. Coat the individual pieces in either sugar glaze, chocolate glaze or melted dark chocolate. Leave to set.
To coat with sugar glaze:
a. Sift the icing sugar and put in a bowl.
b. Add the boiling water and mix to a smooth icing – it should flow but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.
c. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.
If you want a perfectly white finish, mix in some white food colour (titanium dioxide powder). Mix this with water first to get a smooth paste for a more even colour.
To coat with chocolate glaze
a. Put the butter, chocolate and water in a saucepan and heat very gently until everything is just melted. Stir to combine, then add the icing sugar and spices. It should flow easily but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.
b. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.
To coat with dark chocolate
a. Prepare the chocolate – eithe just melt it, or temper the chocolate.
b. Dip each piece into the chocolate, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to set.