Day 271 Pepper Nuts

For some reason I was discussing Christmas with someone yesterday so today the recipe for Pepper Nuts jumped off the page of the 1906 Berlin Cook Book. It is not surprising that Mrs. A. Graber contributed this recipe as this cookie was a common German tradition. Pepper Nuts, also known as pfefferneusse, are a type of cookie common at Christmas time among Germanic and Nordic countries. I have no idea why they were so popular in northern climates rather than southern but there is a version of this cookie found all over northern Europe.

The name pepper nut (pfeffernuesse, peppernoder etc.) has nothing to do with nuts and very little to do with pepper. Instead it means a spicy cookie made the size of a nut. They vary in size from marble (hazelnut) size to large walnut sized cookies. Often they bake up “hard as a nut”. The spices can include black or white pepper but more often it is some combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger. Sometimes lemon zest or citron peel or nuts are included. Sometimes they are iced and often they are left to mellow and soften for a few weeks before serving. Don’t expect to end up with familiar pepper nuts when trying a new recipe. The variety is huge.

When I worked in the 1914 Martin House, an Old Order Mennonite home at Doon Heritage Crossroads, we talked about conservative Mennonite families making wash baskets of pfeffernuesse to have on hand throughout the Christmas season. The type we made there were small marble sized and hard. You popped them in your mouth and let them soften. I once gave a talk about pfefferneusse and tried about four different recipes. Mrs. A Graber’s recipe doesn’t look familiar.

This is a very easy recipe to make — after I tried it. At first I wasn’t sure how to approach the recipe. I decided to add things in the order in which they are written. First I cracked open a medium egg and put it in a bowl. I whisked it a little with a fork and then added the cup of sugar. I stirred until the mixture was a bit smooth and then started adding the spices. The first three spices are the same as yesterdays Potato Cake so I was beginning to anticipate the flavour of these cookies.

I dissolved the teaspoon of baking soda in just over a teaspoon of milk and added it to the mixture. I stirred well and added a cup of flour. I expected to need more flour but once that first cup was mixed in, I was able to form marble sized balls from the dough. I set them on a greased cookie sheet and baked in a preheated oven set to 400 degrees. I decided to start with just 7 minutes in the oven since the cookies were so tiny.

I was completely shocked when I pulled the cookies out and found they had more than doubled in size and were puffy. I am so glad I kept enough distance between each of my “marbles”. I couldn’t wait to taste them but let them cool a bit. I had another surprise when I went back to remove them from the sheet. The cookie centres had sunk! They still smelled wonderful so I was excited to try my sunken treasures.

Mrs. A. Graber is probably Mrs. H. Graber as I can’t find a male Graber with ‘A” as his first initial. Mrs. H. Graber submitted many wonderful recipes to the Berlin Cook Book. She began her life as Louisa Hopp, daughter of German immigrants. Her husband Henry Graber was a recent emigrant from the United States who worked as an ironer in a shirt factory. They had two children.

Wow, these are a grown up cookie. They are a bit like a spicy meringue – crispy outside and soft and airy inside. I might try adding a little more flour or baking them slightly longer to see if I can prevent the centre sinking.  I would ease back on the cloves next time but I will make these again … and again … and again in hopes of having some available for guests. They are so light it is easy to eat far too many of Mrs. Graber’s pepper nuts. They are excellent cookie time travellers!

1 egg, 1 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cloves, 1 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1 teaspoon soda dissolved in a little milk. Flour enough to roll between your hands into small balls like marbles. Bake in a quick oven.

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2 Responses to Day 271 Pepper Nuts

  1. Amy Scott says:

    I found this very interesting, as I have recently been testing a Pfeffernuesse recipe from a 19th century German cookbook. That version does have pepper in it, but it just says ‘a little’ so it’s up to the cook how much to put in. I had a visitor try one, and then come back after eating it to say that she had clear memories of mother making that type of cookie when she was a child but her mother could not remember the recipe. I ended up e-mailing it to her.

    Sorry to be a bother, but I wondered if you saw my message about the 2013 Mad for Marmalade? We’d love to have you present again, but if you aren’t able to, we understand. Just let me know.
    Amy Scott
    Culinary Historians of Canada

    • I was not exposed to pfefferneuse until I moved to Kitchener and worked at Doon Heritage Crossroads. Since then I’ve become fascinated with this cookie. Most of my experimentation was the result of a Culinary Historians event years ago when I was asked to talk about them. One of my favourite parts of working at living history sites is provoking warm memories for people especially through the smell and taste of food.

      I’m looking forward to being part of Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus again in February 2013 at Fort York in Toronto.

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