Pfeffernusse cookies are a family favorite recipe lightly adapted from my very favorite cookbook, Joy of Cooking. The pfeffernusse are lightly sweet, spicy, chewy, and utterly delicious.
Christmas cookies are wonderful, aren’t they? Baking favorite recipes together is one of my very favorite parts of the holidays. My husband is the first one who introduced me to pfeffernusse. I’m sure I’d seen them or even tasted them before, but he’s the one who insisted we make some. I immediately fell in love with them!
What is a Pfeffernusse Cookie?
Pfeffernusse translates to “pepper nuts.” This is in reference to the spices added to the dough, including pepper. The cookies are popular during the holiday season in Germany, The Netherlands, and Denmark. But they can be found in stores here in the US during the holidays, and sometimes year-round.
The pfeffernusse cookies are typically the shape of a small mound that is a little larger than a US quarter. But they can also be larger in diameter and thinner, like the ones I make. If small cookie mounds are preferred, increase the flour by about 2-4 tablespoons until the desired texture is reached. They won’t spread much, or at all.
Sometimes pfeffernusse won’t have the powdered sugar coating, but not very often. That’s one of the most wonderful parts of pfeffernusse. The baked cookies are tossed in powdered sugar while warm and the sugar creates almost a shell on the outside. The inside stays soft and chewy.
The combination of spices, molasses, and brandy meld perfectly and also make these cookies perfect for long-term storage. They are better as they age.
What Spices are in Pfeffernusse?
Pfeffernusse contain similar spices to gingersnaps, except without the ginger: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom are included in this recipe along with pepper.
We like to use very finely ground white pepper because it has such a distinct flavor and heat to it. But we’ve also used finely ground black pepper too. The point is that these pfeffernusse cookies should have a little “bite” to them.
While we are on the subject of spices, it’s best to use whole spices and grind them yourself for the best flavor. The second best option is to use pre-ground spices bought within the last year. The longer ground spices sit, they start to lose their flavor. It can be remedied by adding a bit more to make up for the loss.
We also like the addition of candied orange and brandy which gives these pfeffernusse the right amount of holiday cheer. :)
Sometimes these cookies can be a little too spicy for kids. But not always! My youngest LOVES pfeffernusse. One day she asked for a “spicy, sugar cookie.” We thought she was joking. But she ate every last crumb and asked for another. We looked at each other in astonishment. Never have our children liked spicy, grown-up cookies! (They are still her favorite Christmas cookie years later!)
To make these cookies more friendly for those with more sensitive tastebuds, feel free to omit or decrease the amount of pepper and cardamom. Also, see the recipe note about the brandy. It can be omitted and substituted with water.
One Last Thing…
One batch never seems to make enough, so we double or triple it. As I said, the pfeffernusse cookies get much better as they sit and will stay good for a month, maybe more. I’m not sure if they’ve ever lasted that long though. ;)
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼teaspoon salt
- ¼teaspoon baking powder
- ⅛ teaspoon baking soda
- ⅛ teaspoon finely ground white pepper or black pepper
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 large egg yolk
- ¼ cup slivered blanched almonds, finely chopped
- ¼ cup finely chopped candied orange zest (we used store-bought or homemade with success)
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons light or dark molasses
- 3 tablespoons brandy
- ½ to ⅔ cups powdered sugar, for dusting baked cookies
- Whisk the dry ingredients together and set aside. Whisk the molasses and brandy together and set aside.
- Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and beat well.
- Stir in the almonds, candied orange zest and lemon zest.
- Add ⅓ of the dry ingredients alternating with ½ of the brandy, ending with the dry ingredients.
- Cover the dough and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 2 days to allow flavors to blend.
- To bake, preheat oven to 350 °F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or grease well.
- Pull off pieces of the dough (we do about 1 Tbsp. for larger and ½ Tbsp. for smaller) and roll into ¾" balls. Space about 1-inch apart on baking sheets. Bake, one sheet at a time, rotating the sheet halfway through baking time, for about 12-14 minutes or until cookies are faintly tinged with brown on top and slightly darker at the edges.
- Transfer cookies to a cooling rack to cool for a few minutes and then roll the cookies in the powdered sugar. (We put the powdered sugar in a large resealable bag for this step.) Let cool completely. (If freezing baked cookies, don't dust with powdered sugar until they've been thawed.)