Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pfeffernuesse You Say?

We are again honored to have a post from guest blogger No Handle. This time he brings the gift of a wonderful spice cookie, pfeffernuesse, perfect for Christmas. Thanks No Handle!

(The 'p' is silent, so it's feffernoose; with an 'uh' on the end if you're German)

Pfeffernuesse You Say?

It started as a simple question from a good friend, “Do you like pfeffernuesse?” or something like that. That brought a blast from the past. I did like pfeffernuesse, but hadn't had any home-made (and precious few store-bought) pfeffernuesse in decades. The name means spice nut in German. Mom made them in my youth (embarrassingly long ago) so I asked her for a recipe. She pointed me to the Encyclopedia of Cooking. A later conversation revealed that she had probably used the one in The Settlement House Cookbook (“The way to a man's heart”). As luck would have it, I owned copies of both. I also asked Elle, a fountainhead of flour-based recipes, as you know, and my friend who had one from “Foods of the World – Germany” which she transcribed. Elle had two from the same (un-named) German cookbook, which she transcribed. One was nearly identical to" Foods of the World". Email is great. I settled (pardon the pun) on the Settlement House version for no particular reason, except perhaps nostalgia. I will hit some of the differences later in this post.

My next challenge was one ingredient that appears in many German fruit bread recipes (think Stollen) and in this one: citron. The search for this led me to another sister, whose husband is German, and who bakes Stollen as yummy Christmas gifts. Citron is a very bitter lemon flavored fruit. It is available (when you can find it) with the candied fruit, wherever the grocery store decides to put it. I struck out at Whole Foods, but the local Kroger store had some. Under another name, “etrog”, citron is used for blessings in the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles, so I ask my friend Dave where he gets his. “From the Temple” was his response, but that holiday is in September or so, making that source interesting but impractical. Another closely related fruit is called “hand of Buddha” a visually interesting fruit in its own right, but I would have needed to candy it, and the hands are much too big for my needs. Whole Foods had that though, fresh in the produce section. If you strike out at your local grocery, you can use candied lemon rind in a pinch. It's a bit less bitter.

This is a sweet cookie using any of the recipes. It calls for brown sugar (8 oz.) and 1 cup each of corn syrup, and molasses (honey in the older recipes) which are heated before adding to the dry goods. Those are flour (5 cups), almonds ground to a flour, and baking soda (baking powder if you are using honey) with cinnamon for the spice, although other recipes often include cloves and allspice, which would be good. Add to this shortening (or sometimes lard and butter) and you have your ingredients.The recipe below uses double these ingredients (e.g. 2 cups each of corn syrup and molasses).

My recipe called for adding things in a particular order, but I simplified it some by sifting the dry ingredients together, adding the brown sugar, and then the warmed syrups, followed by the shortening. It is a very stiff dough (about like Play-Doh, or slightly stiffer) which makes mixing it an effort. I would recommend a stand mixer at low speed, but I can tell you that a really good hand mixer at low speed works too. It fills my largest mixing bowl, so care must be taken to keep it from flying everywhere.

Once mixed it needs to rest a while. The goal is small balls of dough, so I made a two foot long log of the dough and covered it in plastic wrap to rest overnight. Then I cut the log in thirds, reduced the diameter by rolling the log (just like in kindergarten) and cut inch-long slices and rolled them into balls in my palms. The result is a bit smaller than a golf ball, but I didn't measure them.

You get about twenty to a section, for about 60 total. They need about their own diameter separation on a cookie sheet, and cook for about fifteen minutes at 350 degrees.  This is something about which the recipe is curiously vague. It says to bake until brown, but the dough is quite brown to start with. Perhaps with honey instead of molasses it isn't. My recipe calls for a greased sheet, and some call for a floured and greased sheet, but with the shortening content, I didn't bother, and they came off easily. A bit of cooking spray wouldn't hurt if you want to be sure of an easy separation.

At fifteen minutes the cookie is crisp on the outside and somewhat soft inside. Sprinkle them with powdered sugar, or roll them in powdered sugar if you are a traditionalist.

As they cool, they get firmer within, and retain about the same crispness. The next day (and for a few days thereafter, the crispness softens some, and the interior firms slightly. This is the consistency I (vaguely) remember in Mom's (and I'm sure she rolled them in sugar; different health standards). Some recipes recommend keeping them in an air-tight container (cookie tins if you have them, Tupperware if you don't) for a week or so. They do keep well, so you can make these in Advent and enjoy them on Christmas day. “What about the taste”, you ask. My wife says they are unlike anything she has tasted, and that they taste different once they cool. Not much help for you. I will say they are similar to molasses cookies, almost like a soft ginger snap, but with that citrus bite from the citron. I think the citron (lemonish) flavor spreads over time. So that's my Christmas gift to you. Enjoy!

Here is the verbatim recipe (I halved it) from the Settlement House (The Way to a Man’s Heart ®) cookbook, 1965, which is still in print, but revised and expanded:

2 cups corn syrup
2 cups dark molasses
1 cup shortening
Rind and juice of one lemon
½ pound brown sugar
10 cups flour [I used unbleached]
1 teaspoon [baking] soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ pound citron, cut fine [more is OK]
¼ pound almonds, chopped fine [more almonds is good too]
1 egg white

Warm syrup and molasses, add shortening and lemon juice and the remaining ingredients in the order given, flour and soda mixed. Citron and soda may be omitted [ but don’t]. Roll into little balls, brush with white of egg, place on greased cookie sheet far apart, and bake until brown [15 minutes at altitude], 350 degrees F. Roll in confectioner’s sugar. Will keep.

Reply to this blog and I will send (or post) a few variations for your enjoyment.

  No Handle

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