Like many families in the 1970s, my family would go a little nuts making goodies at holiday time. Throughout my childhood, my mother amassed an arsenal of Christmas cookie recipes, usually clipped from women’s magazine like Good Housekeeping or Ladies’ Home Journal. Beginning a couple weeks before the holiday, mom would start baking – dozens and dozens of cookies. There were so many cookies, they called for special storage—old film tins that were about 3 inches thick, the circumference of a record album and only hauled out for use during the holidays.
As kids, we loved having all those treats to eat. But as we grew older, the cookie mania waned. First we became conscious of eating so many sweets and started to cut back production. Then, as each of us left the house for school, there was less time to plan and execute a large cookie assembly line, like we’d been enlisted to help with when we were younger. When my mother started developing rheumatoid arthritis it became difficult for her to cook much anymore, let alone bake. Eventually cookie production at the holidays all but died out, and we started relying solely on the kindness of holiday gifts from family friends for our Christmas treats. It just became easier—there was less volume, less labor and we could get rid of them more quickly, sparing our waistlines.
Of the cookies in my mother’s holiday baking repertoire, there was only one cookie we kids never enjoyed. Pfeffernusse. Literally “pepper nuts” in German, which may be because they do indeed have pepper in them and because they are a dense, coarse, somewhat hard cookie when baked, much like a nut still in the shell. I didn’t like them because they had anise flavoring in them. As kids, none of use liked anything that remotely smacked of black licorice. Anise is not a flavor, I’m convinced, that appeals to little palates. It is a grown-up flavor. My mother liked all of those old fashioned candy flavors—licorice, horehound—the stuff she’d grown up with but we wouldn’t touch. Pfeffernusse were, of course, my mother’s favorite holiday cookies.
This year will be the first Christmas for our family without my mother—she died earlier this year from complications due to what should have been a routine surgery. Forced to spend her last Christmas in the hospital, she was hooked to a feeding tube unable to eat anything, let alone holiday cookies. Despite her hospitalization, I couldn’t help myself when, much to my surprise, I found Pfeffernusse cookies at A Taste of Denmark in Oakland last year. Hopeful that she would be able to go home from the hospital within a month or two of Christmas, I bought those cookies to send home because I knew they were her favorites.
This year I am making Pfeffernusse from my mother’s recipe. Sadly, she will not get to see me actually bake a cookie I hated as a child, but the rest of us can enjoy them now and have them in her honor, with our grown-up, adult palates and our memories of how much she loved them.
I took a couple liberties with my mom’s old recipe. My modifications are the ones in parentheses.
¾ c. olio (butter)
¾ c. sugar
¼. c. molasses
1/8 c. brandy flavoring (straight brandy – use the booze!)
4 drops anise oil (1 tsp. ground star anise)
2 ¾ c. sifted flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. cloves
¼ tsp. pepper (I used white pepper)
½ tsp. vanilla
Cream olio; gradually beat in sugar. Add molasses, brandy and anise oil. Sift flour with baking powder, soda and spices. Add to creamed mixture along with vanilla.
Line pan with wax paper. Pound dough into pan. Refrigerate overnight. Invert pan on board, remove paper. Cut in strips – 1 ½ inch wide and slices ¼ inch thick. Grease cookie sheet. Places slices on sheet. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes until done.
Roll cookies in powdered sugar.
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