I grew up in a family where “Christmas Cookies” primarily meant many variations on the theme of chocolate chip. There were also classic fork-hashed peanut butter cookies, maybe something with oatmeal, and very often, rugelach, because my Irish-Catholic mother had a thing for marrying Jewish men. Pignoli and Italian Wedding Cookies were the most exotic thing to grace our cookie sheets, and elaborately iced sugar cookies or anything requiring a cookie cutter, really, need not apply.
My husband has a German heritage, and the Christmas Cookies of his childhood could not have been more different from mine. His favorite is the springerle, a complicated, finicky, beautiful anise biscuit that we’ll discuss in depth some other time. Another favorite is the pfeffernüsse, which I’d only ever encountered in Archway packaging at big box grocery stores, and had never ventured to try. Last Christmas, while engaging in some idyllic pre-holiday shopping in Nyack, NY, we found a shop specializing in German sweets, and bought a bag of the little frosted cookies.
I found myself besotted. They were spicy, just soft enough, and intensely Christmas-y. But I didn’t think to make the until this year, when we were in the midst of making our second batch of springerle. Those other cookies require days of resting and shaping the dough, and then they need to age in a tin for weeks to achieve optimal flavor. I wanted a cookie I could eat now, so I started learning more about how to make pfeffernüsse.
Like many German holiday cookies, it seems, these too benefit from some aging — but we’re talking overnight in this case, which is far more reasonable.
The spice mixture called Lebkuchengewuerz (German Gingerbread Spice) that gives these cookies their signature flavor is easily adapted to suit your individual tastes. You could go full-on traditional with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, ginger, anise seed, and star anise, or you can mix-and-match within that framework. Whatever you do, you should buy whole spices and grind them yourself. I use my little electric coffee grinder, but a dedicated spice grinder, food processor, or even a mortar-and-pestle will work just fine. Worst case scenario, buy spices that are already ground, and your cookies will still taste good. Promise.
A few tips — this dough is fairly easy to work with, but it does benefit from an honest overnight chill before rolling and baking. I baked half of my dough on parchment and the other half on silicone mats, and the cookies baked on parchment came out a little bit better. When you’re making the glaze, be sure to use hot water, not tepid and definitely not cold. Your dried cookies will have a smoother, more beautiful texture!
Makes 3-4 dozen, depending on size.
- 1/2 cup softened butter
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 3/4 cup molasses
- zest from 1 small orange
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3 tbsp spice mix (I used two small sticks of cinnamon, 2 pieces of star anise, 5 whole cloves, 1.5 tsp of freshly ground black pepper, and 1/2 tsp of ground ginger).
- 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- In a container that holds at least 2 cups of liquid, combine molasses and baking soda. Set aside — this will change dramatically in texture, and double in volume.
- Meanwhile, cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add vanilla extract, orange zest, and egg. Beat for another 2-3 minutes.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and the spice mixture.
- Once the molasses has foamed up and doubled in volume, alternate adding the molasses and spiced flour to the butter mixture, starting and ending with molasses.
- Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, divide the dough into 6 pieces. Roll each out into a long snake, and cut into 3/4″ inch pieces.
- Shape into balls and place on a baking sheet, leaving at least 1/2″ of space in between each. Bake for 10 minutes at 350F.
Once the cookies have cooled completely, you can either roll them in powdered sugar, or make a simple icing from powdered sugar and hot water. I use about 1 cup of powdered sugar and 4-5 tablespoons of hot water.
Whisk together the glaze in a small bowl, then dip each cookie’s rounded top into the glaze, then hold it upside down over the bowl to let the excess drip off. Dry iced cookies for at least 2 hours.