Pfeffernusse (German Spice Cookies) ~ don’t let the name scare you off, these iced gingerbread cookies are pure heaven. On top of that, pfeffernusse cookies have the uncanny ability to get better over time, so all of you super organized types who love to get your holiday baking done early, listen up!
My Pfeffernusse recipe is a classic German Christmas cookie
I made several versions of these easy cookies over the weekend, and I’m excited to share my results with you today. They have such a pretty color and zesty flavor, which sets them apart from other spice cookies. Plus they’re glazed, always a bonus in my book. Every year I try to nail down a different traditional cookie to add to my tried and true holiday cookie collection. Last year’s classic Christmas cookie was Toasted Almond Russian Tea Cakes (so good!) The year before that? Swedish Cardamom Walnut Crescent Cookies. I think it’s about time we paid a visit to Germany!
What is pfeffernusse? (pronounced FEH-fer-noos-eh)
Pfeffernusse cookies are German (also Danish and Dutch) spice cookies that have been around for centuries and have always been associated with Christmas. There are tons of variations since they’ve been around for so long, but mostly they’re a spiced dough sweetened with molasses, honey, and/or brown sugar that is rolled into small balls before baking. They can be glazed or rolled in powdered sugar for serving.
I think half the fun of holiday baking is in making your family favorites, the recipes you return to year after year, to solidify family traditions and memories. The other half? It’s venturing out of your comfort zone, maybe into another culture’s cuisine, and trying something new. Enter, pfeffernusse!
The spices in pfeffernusse cookies
- The basics are cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and, the defining spice: black pepper! Don’t let the black pepper worry you, it adds depth to the flavor, but not heat.
- Sometimes the cookies will contain cardamom, allspice, mace, star anise depending on the recipe and the chef’s taste.
What’s the pink stuff on top of the cookies?
That’s crushed pink peppercorns. You can find pink peppercorns in most large grocery stores, and specialty markets, right in the spice section. The pepper echos the spicy flavors you’ll get when you bite into these little cookies and the color is perfect on these festive cookies.
Pink peppercorns aren’t actually pepper, they’re the berries of the Brazilian Pepper Tree, and they’re related to the cashew family. They’re not as spicy as black pepper, but are used in similar ways in cooking. I used them in my Quick Pickled Vidalia Onions, if you want to have a look.
Warning: pink peppercorns are a nut allergen!
Because they’re related to cashews, don’t use if you’re allergic to nuts. If you like you can use a sprinkle of nutmeg or cinnamon instead. You can even use red colored sugar or nonpareils for a nice look.
Brazilian pepper trees grow here in California and there’s one growing along the street in my neighborhood. The branches are conveniently low and when the berries are ripe (right now!) I make a point to harvest a few of the clusters. The berries have a brittle outer coating and it crushes easily between your fingers. If you buy your peppercorns they might be an even darker shade of red, perfect for the holidays.
This recipe makes a LOT of cookies, over 70, in fact, but they’re small. Because of this, I like to glaze the cookies in batches to avoid the problem of it getting dirtied with random crumbs. You also freeze the unglazed cookies and glaze them later if you like.
Tips for making pfeffernusse
- This particular dough is sticky, so the chilling phase is important. Leave it overnight if you like.
- I think the cookies are best when they’re made small, so I use my smallest cookie scoop to portion out the dough.
- Definitely do a test cookie or two before committing an entire pan to the oven. This helps make sure your oven is hot enough, etc. Even different cookie sheets can affect how a cookie bakes up. I ended up preferring my cheap dollar store pan best for these cookies.
- Do use parchment paper, it helps the cookies cook evenly.
- Because the cookies are small, be careful not to over bake. They will be slightly soft when they are done, and will firm up as they cool.
- One way to tell if they’re done is that they will puff up and dome toward the end of baking. Sometimes they’ll start to crackle on the top.
- When making your glaze, go slow when adding hot water to your sugar. You want the glaze to be fairly thick so it stays snowy white on the cookies. If your glaze gets too thin it will dry to a dull beige. Again, do a test cookie or two first.
Cookie Scoops ~ the key to perfectly uniform cookies!
Cookie scoops are essential to getting perfectly uniform and round cookies. I highly recommend getting a few standard sizes (As a bonus, you can use them for all sorts of other things in the kitchen, too, I especially like to use them for forming meatballs.)
A set like this one from Amazon includes a small 1-inch size, perfect for smaller cookies, a medium size (a sort of classic, in between size, think chewy ginger cookies, sugar cookies, etc.), and a large scoop which is perfect for big, bakery-style chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies. I like that these are all stainless steel for easy washing.
Tips for using cookie scoops ~
- If you find your dough is sticking to the scoop, you can try a light coating of oil
- When you scoop dough, scrape the filled scoop against the side of the bowl to remove any excess.
- Use the scoop to portion out the dough, but then roll the dough into a round ball with the palms of your hands.
Can you freeze pfeffernusse cookies?
Yes, you can several choices here:
- Freeze the unbaked dough balls and bake straight from frozen, adding a little extra time if necessary. Then glaze.
- Freeze the baked cookies, either glazed or unglazed.
- In any case, put the cookies on a baking sheet and put in the freezer for an hour. Remove the cookies to a freezer container, using parchment or waxed paper between layers.
German Spice Cookies ~ Pfeffernusse
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (230 grams)
- 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar (100 grams)
- 1/2 cup honey (170grams)
- 1/2 cup molasses (170 grams)
- 2 large eggs
- 3 3/8 cups all purpose flour (420 grams)
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg (more to taste)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 6 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
- 12 Tbsp very hot water, plus more if needed
- Beat the softened butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the honey and molasses, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and scrape the bowl well, making sure to incorporate all the butter from the bottom of the bowl as well as the sides.
- Blend in all the spices, and then the baking soda and salt. Finally fold in the flour and mix just until combined and no streaks of flour remain ~ don't over mix.
- Cover the dough and chill for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350F Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Scoop dough using a small 1-inch cookie scoop and roll into smooth balls. Place 2 inches apart on the parchment paper and bake for 8-10 minutes until just puffed. Let cool for a few minutes on the pan before transferring to a cooling rack to cool completely.
- Mix the sugar with the hot water to make a smooth glaze. Stir well to remove any lumps. Dip the cookies in the glaze and set them on a rack. Immediately top them, while the glaze is wet, with the crushed pink pepper if using. Let them dry for at least 12 hours or until the glaze is fully set.