When Chris and I were first married nine years ago, and we approached our first Christmas as a married couple, he kept talking about something called “peppernuts” that his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother used to make for Christmas. He described them basically as tiny red and green cookies flavored with peppermint.
The name confused me.
“Do they have nuts in them?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said.
“Don’t think so,” he said.
Seemed a little odd to me.
Every year he raved about peppernuts, and one year he made some himself. It took him hours to do it, and he was really proud of what he’d done, but I wouldn’t touch the cookies.
“Peppermint-flavored cookies don’t appeal to me,” I said.
“Come on,” Chris said, “just try them.”
“No thanks,” I said. “Why don’t you have one of my family’s traditional iced Christmas cookies?”
“Can’t. I’m having peppernuts.”
“And I’m eating an iced Christmas cookie,” I said.
For the next several years, Chris kept his Christmas traditions, and I kept mine. He ate peppernuts. He reminisced about cherry moos and zwiebach. I ate iced Christmas cookies and talked wistfully about pecan fudge and date balls and spiced tea.
And then, this year, I decided to cross the great divide. It was time for me to connect with my husband’s German Mennonite roots, as they are my sons’ roots too. I want my sons to grow up in a home with traditions from both families.
So, in the fall, I learned about zwiebach and learned to make Chris’s family’s favorite buns. For Christmas, I planned to make cherry moos and toyed with the idea of making peppernuts. But I still thought the idea of peppermint-flavored cookies sounded a little odd.
Then two things happened that changed my mind: Chris tried to make his own peppernuts, and Chris’s mother sent home a peppernuts cookbook (yes, an entire cookbook full of nothing but peppernuts recipes).
This is what happened. After several years of not making peppernuts because I wouldn’t eat them or help him make them—and they are a lot of work—Chris decided to make up a batch for a bake sale at church. But he forgot to add the sugar. I found him in the kitchen late that evening, trying to fold sugar into the finished dough.
“That’s not going to work,” I said.
“Sure it will,” he said. “I’ve done it before.”
But it didn’t work. The test batch of peppernuts he pulled out of the oven looked awful. We both stared at the baking sheet full of discolored, flat lumps of baked dough, and Chris sighed. I threw away the botched cookies and the dough as he left the kitchen, dejected.
Then the next week, Chris’s mom told me she’d found a small cookbook about peppernuts and was sending it home in Jonah’s school bag for Chris to look at.
But it was me, not Chris, who opened the cookbook that evening and began to read.
I learned that peppernuts, the beloved little German spice cookie, come in many different versions, with and without food coloring, with and without pepper (usually white pepper), with different flavorings—many with anise, or molasses or cinnamon—in different shapes (round or like little pillows), even with and without yeast. And apparently there is much debate over whether the best peppernuts are hard and crispy, chewy, or soft.
I also read that Mennonite women used to make the dough several weeks before Christmas and let it chill for up to a week in a cold cellar to let the flavors mellow. I read about day-long gatherings of Mennonite women, mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and packaging peppernuts. I read about church ladies baking peppernuts to supply an entire town, children waiting all year to eat peppernuts, mothers making peppernuts for Christmas guests. I read about women grinding their own spices to flavor their family’s special peppernuts recipe. I read about star anise, cloves, and nutmeg. I read debates about the origin and meaning of the name “peppernuts.” I read grandmothers’ recipes, best friends’ recipes, recipes from Mennonites in South America, recipes from Kansas, recipes from Canada.
Then I put down the cookbook. And I got out the recipe that Oma, Chris’s great-grandmother, had passed down to her granddaughter, my mother-in-law. And then I mixed up a batch up peppernuts.
With eyes that were now a little familiar with the peppernuts tradition, I looked over the recipe. I saw that its unique features included the use of sour cream and the addition of food coloring to provide Christmas coloring. The recipe also called for wintergreen to flavor the green peppernuts, and I realized I could use anise instead, as in several of the recipes I’d read. And, of course, the recipe called for peppermint extract to flavor the red dough.
With determination, I set to work. And Saturday evening, after the dough was chilled and dinner was over, I called in Chris for help. We spent a couple of hours rolling and cutting and baking and pouring finished peppernuts into jars.
When we were done, we called in the boys for a treat. Jonah reached for a red peppernut, bit into it, and smiled.
“Can I have a green one too?” he said.
So now I get it. I understand where Chris got this passion for peppernuts. And now, although it’s my kids and my husbands who have German ancestry, not me, I am as proud as any German Mennonite woman’s daughter when I look at the glass jars of peppernuts sitting on my kitchen counter, right next to a tin of my family’s favorite “five-minute fudge.” And you can hear me talking about pfefferneusse at work just about any day this month, with the ladies who grew up making these cookies with their church youth group or dunking it in coffee or learning from their mother how to make it the way their family makes it.
Yes, now I understand.
2 2/3 cup sugar
1 1/3 cup butter (at room temperature)
4 eggs (at room temperature)
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cream of tartar
¼ cup sour cream
6 cups flour
1/8 tsp salt
Red and green food coloring
Flavoring: peppermint extract, anise extract, wintergreen extract, etc.
Cream butter and sugar on medium until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until well combined. Beat in baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, and sour cream. Stir in flour and salt until well blended. Refrigerate dough (for up to one week).
Divide dough into halves. Add red food coloring and 1 tsp peppermint extract. To the other half, add green coloring and 1 tsp anise extract. Roll into pencil-like rolls and cut into small pieces. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes for soft peppernuts or 1–2 minutes longer for crisper peppernuts.