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{3} Pfeffernüsse

For the third part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” I’ve made another of the festive classics – German Pfeffernüsse.

This is a classic version of the recipe, which contains a lot of spice and good amount of freshly ground black pepper. These pack a bit of a punch, but that is the way I like them – you often eat them with a glass of mulled wine, so they need to be able to hold their own and provide some contrast to the sweetness of the wine.

I’ve also jazzed up the decoration of these cookies – rather than just simple white icing, I added a sprinkling of crushed red peppercorns. This makes for a jaunty little festive touch and a little extra bit of extra peppery punch. It’s warm and aromatic, but without being too hot.

I made these last year, but as I recently did with my Aachener Printen, I’ve put a bit of effort in to getting the right ingredients, specifically the raising agent. In this case, it’s ammonium bicarbonate. Read more about it here, but essentially it gives more “lift” to biscuits, but it comes at a price – it stinks during the baking process! The strange aroma does vanish once the cookies have cooled, but it certainly livens up the process.

On balance, I think that it does make a difference – the texture is lighter, the resulting cookies are softer. Baking powder works, but ammonium bicarbonate is better if you can get hold of it. Look online, or I’ve put a source in London at the bottom of the recipe.

Now, you may ask, is it not a little early to make these things? Well, like a lot of spicy cookies, they get better if you store them for a while. So with them iced and decorated, these little fellows are tucked away in a box, waiting for Christmas.

To make Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20-25):

• 125g honey
• 50g brown sugar
• 25g butter
• 225g plain flour
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate(*)
• 1 egg
• 2 heaped teaspoons Lebkuchengewürz or mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Making the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

Put the honey, sugar and butter in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has melted. Leave for a couple of minutes to cool slightly.

In the meantime, in a large bowl combine the flour, ground almonds, ammonium carbonate, spices and pepper. Stir in the honey mixture and mix well. Add the egg and keep mixing until you have a smooth but sticky dough.

Using damp hands, divide the dough into around 20-25 portions – each should be the size of a small walnut. Roll each cookie into a ball between your hands (keep them moistened with water) and place on the baking sheet. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until puffed and just starting to brown.

Icing the cookies:

• 200g icing sugar
• 4-5 tablespoons kirsch, rum or water
• crushed red peppercorns

Put the icing sugar and kirsch/rum/water in a bowl. Mix well until you have a smooth, thick paste. It should just flow. Dip each cookie in the icing, then transfer to a wire rack to dry. Sprinkle some crushed peppercorns over the iced biscuits.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? I love these cookies. Sweet, spicy and very festive looking. Perfect with a glass of mulled wine after a bracing walk in the cold!

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White Pfeffernüsse

Oh dear. It’s been a busy couple of weeks and I’ve gotten rather behind on my posts. I know the moment for Christmas cookies is sort of past, but this is a recipe that I made a few weeks ago and so I’m sharing it in time for…eh…next year!

I recently posted a recipe for Pfeffernüsse using my festive German spice mixture. Great if you like all those spices (which I do!) but this version is different, with much lighter aromas, just using a little cinnamon and a pinch of pepper, and some lemon zest for a fresher note.

The method is also different – rather than a classic gingerbread-style recipe involving boiling up sugar and honey to make a basis for the dough, you whip eggs and sugar, then add the rest of the ingredients. The resulting cookies are lighter (in texture, I make no promises about the calorific value), and if you’re entertaining kids, this is also the messier – and therefore more fun – option. The resulting cookies are lighter in colour (as they don’t contain treacle) and so once iced, they take on a brilliant white colour.

I also replace some of the flour with ground almonds, to add to the flavour and keep the cookies softer. However, once made, these biscuits can have a tendency to become hard. In which case, just pop into a box with a slice of apple (don’t let it touch the biscuits), and after a day or so, they will be soft and aromatic.

To make White Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20):

• 1 egg
• 100g white caster sugar
• 20g ground almonds
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
• generous pinch white pepper
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 130g plain flour
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub with butter or non-stick spray.

Whisk the egg and the sugar until light and creamy (about 2 minutes). Add the cinnamon, white pepper and lemon zest to the bowl, and mix well.

Combine the flour, ground almonds and baking powder, and fold into the egg mixture until you have a sticky dough.

Using damp hands, form the mixture into balls of 2-3cm, and place of greased baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until puffed up, but not browned. Remove from the oven, and after a minute, transfer to a cooling rack.

Cover the cookies with the icing (you might want to dip them, and do this twice to get a thick but even coating) and allow to dry overnight.

For the icing: 80g icing sugar and 4 tablespoons water (or non-sweet kirsch). Combine and stir well until smooth.

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Pfeffernüsse

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.

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