Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Kinder, Gentler Pfeffernüsse from Cleo Coyle

Like any recipe that's been around for several hundred years, there are countless variations of the German cookie pfeffernüsse (aka "pepper nuts"), and I've made several. Some bakers, for example, put finely chopped nuts into their "pepper nuts. Some don't. 

Cleo Coyle, baker of
a kinder, gentler
pfeffernüsse, and author of
The Coffeehouse Mysteries
Some bakers like to add a potent amount of black or white pepper into the cookie, giving them very peppery bite. Some add ground cloves. 

The version I'm sharing with you today is my favorite way to make it: soft on the inside but with a light crispness on the outside shell. No nuts to take away from the contrast of spicy, delicious gingerbread flavor with the sweet dusting of powdered sugar.

My version also takes a kinder, gentler approach to the spice aspect, using only a pinch of pepper and leaning more heavily on the ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. (Allspice, I find, delivers that ground clove flavor at a much lower price.)

BTW: I've encountered people who are under the impression that allspice is a spice mix (like pumpkin pie spice). Not so. Allspice is actually a pea-sized berry that mimics the flavors of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The berry comes from the evergreen pimiento tree, grown in South America and the West Indies, including Jamaica.

Cleo Coyle's Pfeffernüsse "Pepper Nuts"
German gingerbread snowball cookies

To get a free PDF version of this recipe that you can print, save, or share, just click here.


3 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 pinches of ground white (or black) pepper 
¾ cup butter (1-1/2 sticks), softened
½ cup white, granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1/3 cup molasses, unsulphered (not blackstrap!)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups powdered (confectioners' or icing) sugar (for double-dusting)

Yields: 4 to 5 dozen cookies, depending on size

Mix the dough: Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and ground spices. Set aside. In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the softened butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add in egg, molasses, and vanilla. Now gradually add in the dry flour mixture, blending just until the dough comes together. (Do not overwork this dough or you’ll produce gluten in the flour, which will toughen your cookies.)

Chill the dough: Form dough into a disc or ball. Wrap in plastic and allow to rest in refrigerator for two hours or overnight. (The resting allows the dough to hydrate and the flavors to develop for better tasting cookies.)

Bake the cookies: When ready to bake, break off small pieces of dough and roll into balls. I make mine a little less than 1-inch in diameter. If you prefer a softer cookie, roll balls larger. Bake 12 to 16 minutes, depending on oven and whether you’re using parchment or a silicon sheet. You’re looking for the cookies to bake up a nice, golden brown and crack slightly on the surface. For softer cookies, underbake them.

Cleo’s double dusting: While the cookies are still very warm, roll them in powdered sugar. The heat of each cookie will melt the sugar into a lovely, light crust of glaze. After the cookies have cooled a bit more, roll them a second time and you’ll have your final snowball dusting. These are the perfect treat to leave for Santa on a snowy Christmas Eve.

Storage tips: Make sure your cookies are completely cool before storing in an airtight container. When cookies are stored warm, condensation can occur, turning your treats soggy. Of course, you can always serve them warm and...

Eat with Joy to the World!

Merry Christmas,
  ~ Cleo Coyle, author of
The Coffeehouse Mysteries

To get more of my recipes, 
find out more about my books,
or sign up to win free coffee,
my *virtual* coffeehouse at...

Coffeehouse Mystery.com

Holiday Grind: 
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bestseller in hardcover
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by Cleo Coyle

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 —The Huffington Post 

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Mystery Scene


  1. Gingerbread snowballs! I could just reach out and eat some Pfeffernüsse right now. And interesting tidbits, too, from allspice to Santa! My daughter will love the Santa tracker...thanks. :)

  2. Perfect! This is exactly the "one more kind" I've been wanting to bake this week. I love the sound of your version, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, so I'll be following your directions exactly (though I'm such a chilehead, I'm tempted to load 'em with pepper). I can't wait to eat me some pfefferneuse!

  3. Oh my gosh!! Pfeffernusse!! I am so, so excited, Cleo. More than you can even imagine. My mom used to always have pfeffernusse for us on Christmas, but it was the store-bought kind. My mom, as I might have mentioned, was not a cookie baker. But pfeffernusse was a staple in her house at Christmas (even early at Thanksgiving sometimes) and in my grandmother's house at Christmas in Luxembourg when she was a girl. My brother and I (and now my kids) all love pfeffernusse, but it's getting more and more difficult to find. Smack me upside the head - I never even thought about making my own. But now you've dropped this lovely Christmas gift right into my lap and I will most definitely run out for allspice today (that's the only ingredient I don't have on hand).

    By the way, what is "blackstrap"? I have molasses here (for gingerbread. Made some, but it's already disappeared), and I'm about to go check it's sulphured-ness.

    Thank you so much, Cleo!! I am ridiculously excited about this recipe this morning. I can't thank you enough!!!

  4. Um... did I really put an apostrophe in its (above)???
    Ugh. I hate that. One of my pet peeves. Can you tell I was so excited I lost control of my brain?
    Sorry -
    "its sulphuredness"

  5. My mother's side of the family is of German heritage. She didn't bake, thought, so she bought Pfeffernusse and was always excited to see them in the stores around the holidays.

    My daughter was an exchange student in Germany, and she liked the memories of these when she came home, so I baked them once or twice. I'll send her this recipe.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. I have a tin of all spice and I didn't know that!
    I assumed it was a mix. Wow. Love the recipe. Those cookies divine. Thanks for sharing, Cleo!

  7. Replies to...

    @Elizabeth - Thanks for the kind words. Oh, I hope your daughter enjoys watching Santa make his rounds. Norad does a fantastic job with little videos and reports. It gets better every year. :)

    @Laineshots - This is one recipe where you can really make the spice mix your own. If you end up baking them with Laine's own chile-peppery twist, I'd love to know what you do and how it turns out.

    More replies to come...

    ~ Cleo
    Coffeehouse Mystery.com
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  8. Oh, I love pffernusse! Haven't been able to buy any locally since Safeway went out of business in our area of the boonies 10 or 15 years ago. I tried making them once with an elaborate recipe & wasn't pleased with the results, so I'm happy to have your easier version! Thanks for reminding me of these delicious treats, Cleo!

    Julie, "Grandma's" brand of molasses is the most common found in the grocery stores, and it's unsulphured. It's the finest quality for baking, the first boiling of the sugar cane. Hope that helps.

    Merry Christmas!

  9. Replies to...

    @Julie - Oh, you made my day! I'm thrilled and delighted the pfeffernusse recipe brought back good memories for you. :) I grew up with lots of Italian Christmas cookies, of course, and some of those recipes have made their way into my mysteries. But I also grew up in Western PA, where many different European immigrants settled, and I fell in love with their foods, as well. I've always associated gingerbread and its many incarnations with Christmas, so this was one recipe I really looked forward to posting. I hope you and your family enjoy it.

    To answer you Q about blackstrap - Here's the deal. Molasses is juice from a sugar cane plant that’s been boiled down to concentrate it. The first and second boiling give you the sweetest versions of the product. The third boiling gives you blackstrap, which is less sweet in taste, even somewhat bitter.

    In my opinion, blackstrap is just fine in things like BBQ sauce and chili but not in desserts or baked goods like this one. I know some bakers do use blackstrap in cookies and such, but I think it ruins the flavor. (For me, it carries a medicinal tinge.)

    I’m with Lynn in Texas, BTW. (Thank you, Lynn!) Grandmother’s brand “gold standard” Original Molasses is what I use.

    On the unsulphured thing. Most molasses that you see in grocery stores will be unsulphured (or unsulfured as an alternate spelling). As I understand it: Unsulphured means your molasses came from mature sugar cane – a good thing. In sulphured molasses, sulphur dioxide is added in the production process to help extract juice from sugar cane that was not mature but still very young and green. BTW, you know I'm the queen of typos so no worries on the its it's: Gak is my middle name.

    Have a great holiday week with you family, Julie! May you all feast with joy!

    ~ Cleo
    Coffeehouse Mystery.com
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

    More replies to come...

  10. Replies to...

    @Terry - Eating pfeffernusse IN Germany -- now there's a wondrous excperience. :) I hope your daughter enjoys the recipe!

    @Jenn - Thanks for dropping by! I know this week's got to be crazy for you. I hope you, Chris, and "the hooligans" have a beautiful Christmas.

    ~ Cleo
    Coffeehouse Mystery.com
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  11. Replies to...

    @Lynn in Texas - I am absolutely delighted that you'll be trying my take on this classic cookie! I hope you enjoy it, and thanks for jumping in on the molasses discussion. I completely agree with you on Grandmother's brand. I use it, too, and love it. Merry Christmas, Lynn!

    @Juju - Thank you! Feliz Navidad, my dear!

    Bake with joy,
    ~ Cleo
    Coffeehouse Mystery.com
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  12. These are one of my all-time favorite cookies! I can't wait to make them. What beautiful pictures! Thank you for sharing.

    Merry Christmas!


  13. Cleo,
    Mr. Nanc's mom was a superb baker. She regularly baked over 25 different types of Christmas cookies...beginning on Thanksgiving. Me...not so many ;-) But I always go on a search for pfeffernusse, as it is his favorite of all the ones his mom made!! I can't promise they will be made by Christmas but by the time the ball drops we will have homemade pfeffernusse at Chez Phillipe!!! This may be a good project for Chef Connor and his able assistant Emily!
    Our entire family wishes you and Mar and the kitties a most blessed and joyous Christmas and a wonder filled New Year!

  14. Evidently it's German Christmas week here at MLK! I love cookies with pepper in them. It seems like a weird ingredient for cookies, but that bit of flavor makes such a difference. Love the double dusting, Cleo!

    ~ Krista

  15. Interesting...I just love the recipe and the photos! Thanks for sharing!

  16. the outside look is similar like "kourabiethes" that we cook these days here in Greece!
    you can take a look here -> http://eatgreek.net/2010/12/kourabiethes/
    hehe! Merry Christmas!!! :D

  17. Is unsulphered molasses enough different from blackstrap if someone has problems with blackstrap? If not, what would you sub for it. This recipe appeals to my German heratige and I would love to try it. Also, I would love to see some Celtic (especially Irish) recipes in the future.

  18. Wonderful recipe! My Oma (Swiss grandmother) always made such wonderful cookies such as this for the holidays and now I'm slowly but surely gathering her recipes.. your pfeffernusse looks delicious. Happy Holidays :)

  19. Very excited about this, Cleo -- my grandma couldn't smell (bad adenoid removal when she was young), so she liked *strong* flavors. She made a rock-hard version of this with lots of black pepper ... they were nasty with a capital "N". In honor of her, I'm going to try your more palatable version. :)

  20. Replies to...

    @Nanc - Thank you so much for the beautiful holiday wishes. This recipe is a snap to make. I'll bet Chef Connor (and his lovely assistant Emily) gives you his own twist on the spice mix by the end of the day. Tell CC I was tempted to experiment with white-chocolate glaze for these babies but decided to keep it closer to traditional looking after all. Warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your wonderful family.

    ~ Cleo

    More replies to come...