Painting of Christmas cookies on green and red tablecloth.

Christmas Eve. 8″ x 8″ watercolor pencil and white gouache. Sharyn Dimmick

A few years back, Mom had a hankering to make pfefferneusse, a cookie she remembered buying in her childhood in Illinois. Pfefferneusse are small round spicy cookies frosted with royal icing flavored with anise. They are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like gingerbread or chai and you eat Good ‘N’ Plenty or black licorice, these are for you.

Mom had a basic recipe for pfefferneusse, typed on an index card. The only problem I saw with it is that it called for candied peel — can you say “yuck?” I pictured the multi-colored tubs of peels and fruit that Mom kept around for fruitcakes. And then I had an inspiration: what if we substituted candied ginger for the nasty candied fruit? It wasn’t hard to talk Mom into the recipe alteration.

The first year we made them, these cookies were okay, but Mom said there was something missing. Thinking about the name, she combed around through other cookbooks and found that pfefferneusse used to contain pepper, in addition to mace, cinnamon and allspice. The second time we made them we ground some fresh white pepper in the coffee grinder and added that to the cookie dough. Now you are talking. This year I added back just a touch of my home-candied non-yucky orange peel, picking the last orange peels from the jar of mixed lemon, orange and tangerine peels that I made last March.

I present to you our version of pfefferneusse, a non-rich, spicy cookie that is a good foil for butter cookies and shortbread on the holiday cookie buffet. Pfefferneusse are cookies that get better as they sit around: the flavors mellow and blend and the icing keeps them from getting too hard. Make them ahead of when you want to eat them: the dough benefits from chilling for at least a day before you bake the cookies. I made my first batch of the season on Wednesday morning, baked them on Thursday afternoon, frosted them Thursday night and served them to guests on Friday.

The first day:

Beat 4 eggs (I use an electric mixer for this job, but you can beat by hand if you are a hardy type)

Gradually incorporate 2 cups of white sugar.

Add

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp cloves

1/2 tsp mace

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp  ground ginger

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground white pepper

a dash of minced, candied orange peel OR a grating of fresh orange zest (optional)

Add 4 cups of flour — it will make a stiff dough.

Fold in 1/2 cup minced candied ginger.

Cover the mixing bowl with something (a tea towel, waxed paper, or plastic wrap) and set in the refrigerator to chill for a couple of hours.

After a couple of hours, remove the dough from the refrigerator and knead it for awhile, in the bowl or on a board. If you use a board, try not to incorporate further flour. Return the dough to the refrigerator overnight.

On Day 2 (or 3 or 4):

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Lightly grease a couple of baking sheets.

Form dough into balls the size of a small walnut and place them on prepared cookie sheets.

Bake each tray for twenty to twenty-five minutes. Cookies should firm up but not brown much if at all.

Remove cookies from baking sheets and let cool completely before frosting with your royal icing

If you have a favorite recipe for royal icing, go ahead and use that except substitute anise flavoring for any vanilla, lemon extract or almond flavoring you usually use — if these don’t have anisette frosting they are not really pfefferneusse.

If you don’t have a recipe for royal icing, you can do what I do:

I separate 2 eggs, put the yolks in a jar covered with water in the refrigerator for another use, and beat the whites. When the whites are opaque, but not yet stiff, I start adding powdered sugar while continuing to beat them. When the icing is somewhat thick and glossy I stop and stir in some anise flavoring: you have to taste it to do this step — too much and it will remind you of toothpaste, not enough and what’s the point? If you are timid, you can add it drop by drop and stand there tasting it forever. I would recommend with beginning with 1/2 tsp and increasing the extract according to your tastes.

Frosting things is not my forte: I usually do it the quickest way, which is to pick up each cookie, dip it in the icing, twirl it to get rid of any drips and set it on brown paper. One further note: you need a dry day to frost them or your icing may turn tacky, even if it hardens initially. Let them dry fully before storing them in an air-tight container.

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