Peppernuts (or Pfeffernusse Cookies) are a traditional German cookie often made in Mennonite communities in the US. They are a highly addictive, tiny, crunchy cookie filled with warming spices and are perfect for gift giving during the holidays!
Growing up in Kansas, there was one particular cookie that was a staple at every holiday event: Peppernuts. The area where I grew up (Hutchinson, KS) has a fairly large population of German Mennonite and because this is a traditional German recipe, these addictive little cookies are very popular during the holidays.
What are Peppernuts?
Peppernuts, also known as pfeffernusse cookies and very similar with Danish pebernodder cookies, are a tiny cookie about the size of a nut (this is where the name comes from) that are filled with all kinds of spices. The cookies are crunchy and flavorful and eaten by the handful. It is really hard to stop eating them, once you start. You are warned!
My family in particular did not make these amazing cookies, rather we would often receive them as gifts from various other people. The cookies from each person we received them from would have a slightly different flavor, and I personally loved them all. It seems each family’s recipe has a different variation on the spice combination, and in talking to friends from my hometown who do have family recipes, they are quite opinionated and passionate about what should go into them!
Spices in Peppernuts
The one main ingredient that seems to have a general consensus from the group is that anise (most recipes use anise oil) is an absolute must in a true peppernut. Beyond that, most recipes use ground cinnamon and ground ginger, and then others add various combinations of cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and some use ground nuts or nut flour.
One ingredient that I was surprised wasn’t a unanimous “absolutely yes” from the group, is the use of white pepper in the cookies. I have always added it to mine and had believed this is where the cookies got the “pepper” part of their name and really what makes them so unique and special. But I learned that this ingredient is also controversial. About half use pepper and half do not. I am very much on Team Pepper in these special little cookies!
How to Make Peppernuts
One of the other special things about these cookies is that they keep for a REALLY long time and the flavor actually keeps developing, getting better and better. In researching these cookies, I learned that traditionally these cookies were made about a month before Christmas and kept in metal tins to “age” before the holidays. I am FOR it!
The makeup for these cookies is very simple. The dough is a pretty standard cookie dough where the butter and sugar are creamed together and eggs and flour and leavening are added. I prefer to use dark brown sugar in these cookies because I love the color and flavor the extra molasses in it brings, but light brown would work as well. And then you just add your lineup of spices and extracts. I think this is one of those recipes that you can definitely play with the flavor combinations to find your favorite mix. I love to add cardamom to mine! This definitely isn’t traditional but the spice contributes such an interesting herbal citrus note that I enjoy.
The dough is chilled for about 30 minutes and then rolled out into little ropes and cut into tiny pieces. This might seem tedious, but the whole process actually goes pretty quickly and this is such a fun thing to do with the family. You can even get your kids in to help roll out the ropes. No need to worry about each cookie being exactly the same size. The inconsistencies is part of the fun of these cookies!
One of the other amazing things about peppernut cookies is that this makes about 12 cups of tiny little nuts. They are perfect for splitting up into little bags and tying with some ribbon to give out as gifts!
I truly hope you give this unique little cookie a try! I have no doubts they will become a fast favorite made year after year!
- 2 sticks (1 cup, 224 gr) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups (336 gr) dark brown sugar, lightly packed
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tsp anise extract (this is traditional in this recipe, but can be left out if you do not like anise. I have made them without several times and they are still delicious)
- 1/4 tsp table salt or Morton kosher salt (use 1/2 tsp if using Diamond kosher)
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp white pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom or clove (clove is more traditional, but I prefer the flavor of cardamom)
- 3 1/4 cups (390 gr) all purpose flour
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fit with a paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. About 3 minutes.
- Add the eggs, anise extract, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, white pepper, and clove or cardamom into the bowl and mix until everything is incorporated.
- Add the flour into the dough and mix just until it is incorporated. You do not want to mix for a long time, just until the flour is incorporated in.
- Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days.
- Preheat the oven to 350F (177C). Divide your dough into 8 pieces. Press 1 piece of dough into a ball and roll it out between your hands and a clean work surface to form a thin rope, about 1/4" thick. Use a sharp knife (or I like to use a bench scraper) to cut out tiny nut size pieces of dough. Place on a baking sheet. You can completely fill your sheet in a single layer, but you will need to bake these in several batches to get them all baked. It typically works out to be cutting out the next sheet pan of cookies while the one before it bakes.
- Bake at 350F (177C) for 10-14 minutes, until a dark golden brown. Check the cookies at 10 minutes and bake longer if needed. The cookies will be slightly soft when they first come out of the oven but will become very crispy as the cool. Store the completely cooled cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.
- This dough can be made up to 3 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to bake.
- These cookies keep a very long time, up to 1 month, and the flavor keeps developing. Make them far in advance of your holiday party or for gift giving!
- If the dough is too sticky to roll out, let it chill for longer and add a little bit of flour to your work surface while rolling them out.