Gingerbread cookies are one of the biggest Christmas seasonal staples there is. But with so many kinds around, some get overlooked more often than others.
One such overlooked variety would be pfeffernusse: a heavily spiced German gingerbread cookie that often either gets confused with lebkuchen or hardly even enters the conversation.
And it’s a grave oversight indeed, as pfeffernusse cookies might be the most original gingerbread variety of them all! So let’s break down what pfeffernusse cookies are, where they came from, and why you should consider adding them to your Christmas festivities!
What are pfeffernusse cookies?
Pfeffernusse (ger. “pepper nut”) are heavily spiced, dense, and chewy cookies from Germany. They’re typically tiny and round.
Pfeffernusse recipes differ widely, but they all traditionally call for a blend of spices made up of over half a dozen ingredients (with some recipes going up to a full dozen). The spice blend always contains ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, and black pepper - the unique ingredient no other gingerbread cookie incorporates traditionally. Other common spices found in pfeffernusse recipes include cardamom, coriander, and allspice.
The combination of their small round shape and the prominent use of black pepper earned them the name “pepper nut.”
The cookies are made with leavened dough (originally potash and ammonium carbonite, nowadays baking powder or baking soda) and traditionally sweetened with either molasses, (brown) sugar, honey, or some combination of the three.
Nuts are often added to the dough, most often almonds or walnuts. Northern German varieties also add citrus - either zest or candied peel - for extra flavor.
Pfeffernusse cookies themselves are not all that sweet, but they are often covered with either powdered sugar or hard sugar glaze to up the sweetness level.
What do pfeffernusse cookies taste like?
Pfeffernusse have a rather distinct, complex flavor due to the heavy spice use. Contrary to somewhat premeditated belief, they don’t pack any heat: a few pinches of black pepper are added for the aroma, but the amount isn’t enough to heavily affect the taste.
Pfeffernusse are somewhat more intense than traditional lebkuchen, with ginger and cinnamon more prominent than the more popular lebkuchen, as well as less sweet. However, if the pfeffernusse is covered with sugar glaze, it may feel sweeter than the regular lebkuchen, even though the dough itself may utilize a lower amount of sweeteners.
Is pfeffernusse the same as gingerbread?
Well, yes, but also no. Gingerbread cookies, in the traditional sense, that we use them, are not pfeffernusse. Pfeffernusse uses a rather distinct spice blend, and regular gingerbread cookies we’re most familiar with don’t add black pepper to the mix.
But if we consider gingerbread to be the umbrella term that covers all types of ginger-spiced cookies regardless of other spices - then yes, pfeffernusse is a type of gingerbread cookie!
What is the difference between pfeffernusse and lebkuchen?
Both pfeffernusse and lebkuchen are a type of gingerbread cookie, but they’re spiced, shaped, and even glazed differently for the most part.
First of all, classic pfeffernusse is only around 1 inch in diameter, while lebkuchen size can range from slight to the size of the palm.
Second of all, classic pfeffernusse is always round, while lebkuchen is often shaped as various figurines, like squares, hearts, horses, etc.
Last, but not least, classic pfeffernusse is supposed to be dense and chewy, while lebkuchen can vary from very dry to very soft.
Lebkuchen is also traditionally either not iced or iced with melted chocolate and not sugar glaze unless used for inscriptions (though nowadays, sugar glaze is becoming more common, so it’s not a particularly useful sign to distinguish between the two).
Who invented pfeffernusse cookies?
Unlike many other traditional German Christmas food, we do actually know who invented pfeffernusse cookies and when! Or, at least, the Germans are reasonably sure it was a German confectioner named Johann Fleischmann. Most records indicated that he created the recipe around 1753, and the cookies quickly became one of the primary attraction points of his native town, Offenbach am Main (Hesse).
Or, at least, this is the story the Germans have run with. The Dutch (another country where pfeffernusse is very famous) apparently believe that the exact origins of the cookie are unknown, and the story of Johann Fleishmann is largely apocryphal.
Considering that the pfeffernusse cookie profile only started rising in the 1800s outside the state of Hesse, we can’t precisely say their doubts are unfounded. We can, however, assume that the cookie being invented somewhere in the mid-to-late 18th century is true. There are records of German Mennonites bringing the recipe with them to Northern America in the early 19th century.
When did pfeffernusse cookies become a Christmas tradition?
Despite becoming a local favorite rather quickly, with the state of Hesse often serving them at state receptions as a “Hessian specialty,” it took about a century for pfeffernusse cookies to become a standard Christmas treat (assuming 1753 was indeed the year of their creation).
How did it happen? Through a tried and tested method, the majority of advertisement campaigns swear by - celebrity endorsement!
Okay, so they didn’t exactly run ad campaigns for pfeffernusse, but that was even more dangerous! Their endorsement was genuine!
The earliest mention of them that can be considered noteworthy comes from the Brothers Grimm’s letter to their sister Charlotte dated 1820. The note was private, and they were warning her against consuming too much, claiming “it caused a lot of heat!” It can’t exactly be considered an endorsement, but it does show that the cookies had already become more than just a “Hessian specialty” by then.
The second was Goethe, who apparently arranged to have pfeffernusse cookies sent from Offenbach to Weimar repeatedly for years! He rained praises on the pfeffernusse in his letter to his friend and one-time muse Marianne von Willemer dated January 13, 1832, writing of them: “Humanity, I notice, may advance to its highest goal, the sugar bakers always move up; by constantly purifying mind and heart, I fear, the stomach continued to be condemned.”
But their most fervent fan and most prominent endorser was undoubtedly composer Felix Mendelssohn, who was so fond of the spicy pepper treats that he once even refused an offer to conduct a music festival because he had already planned a trip to Offenbach, specifically to buy their famed pfeffernusse cookies!
“I can’t conduct the Düsseldorf Music Festival because I have to rest and move to Soden; I’m going to Offenbach with Ms. Bernus to buy Pfeffernüsse,” taken verbatim from one of his letters.
So we can assume that the consumption of pfeffernusse outside Hesse state was steadily rising from year to year, even if the production was primarily kept back in Offenbach. Since not many Germans could travel to Hesse for no other reason but to purchase the cookies (or arrange to have them delivered where they lived, for that matter), the cookies didn’t cement themselves as a staple for some time to come.
It was only around the 1850s that finding pfeffernusse cookies at the Christmas dinner table became a regular thing. But from then on, it has only grown in popularity - not only in Germany, but in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and even in the United States, where it has even earned a National Day!
Sinterklaas and National Pfeffernusse Day!
Calling pfeffernusse cookies the national German Christmas food may not be very accurate if we get down to the semantics. They’re a seasonal staple, but in Europe, the peak of their consumption comes on Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas name day), on the eve of December 5 (Netherlands), and the morning of December 6 (Germany and Belgium).
In America, pfeffernusse may not be the most popular or well-known cookie, but they’re big enough that they’ve earned their own holiday: National Pfeffernusse Day is celebrated on December 23. Close enough to Christmas to stock up on some pfeffernusse a few days prior and then enjoy the cookies throughout the New Year!
Is there any specific way the Germans eat pfeffernusse cookies?
No, nothing of the sort. Pfeffernusse can be enjoyed as any other cookie: either by themselves or with a cup of a hot beverage of your choice, as a snack, or as a dessert. There don’t seem to be any specific ceremonials attached to it, aside from serving it at particular times on Sinterklaas (on the eve in the Netherlands and in the morning in Germany and Belgium).
How long do pfeffernusse cookies last?
It’s more of a complicated question than it should be, by all accounts. As always, the question is, are the cookies freshly baked or commercially packaged? Because the distinction will spell a difference in months.
Pfeffernusse cookies are one of the sturdiest cookies, even among gingerbread ones. Freshly baked pfeffernusse cookies can last up to two or three weeks when properly stored. That said, being suitable for consumption doesn’t mean they can fully maintain the quality of their taste.
Pfeffernusse are dense, and on the drier side, so they take longer to go stale than most other cookies. Still, the taste quality starts to decline after the first week, with the complexity that the spice blends give it becoming harder and harder to detect and flavor becoming more muted, for lack of a better word.
It’s precisely due to this that most pfeffernusse recipes will advise to keep the cookies in an airtight container and consume them in a week after baking them.
Commercially packaged pfeffernusse, on the other hand, has a much longer shelf life. The cookies can last around six months on average, with a shelf life of twelve months not being uncommon. Inspect the packaging before consumption: the label is bound to come with the expiration date or at least the best-by date printed upon it.
Proper packaging is, once again, paramount. While hermetically sealed packaging preserves the freshness of pfeffernusse cookies, not allowing for taste and texture to start declining, once the packaging is open, their shelf life will begin to shorten. Keeping them in an airtight container will preserve the cookies, allowing them to last around three to four weeks once they’ve been unsealed.
Note: if the pfeffernusse packaging has been damaged, it may end up stale or even moldy. If you note any damages to the package, notify the manufacturer immediately for further instructions.
Do pfeffernusse cookies need to be refrigerated?
No, pfeffernusse cookies do not need to be refrigerated unless you’re in very particular circumstances. As long as the cookies are stored in an airtight container, they can be kept at or below average room temperature (no higher than 75 °F) without any threats to their texture or flavor quality.
But if you’re dealing with extreme heat or humidity, then it’s better to store the cookies in the refrigerator to preserve them without unnecessary risk to their shelf life.
Can you freeze pfeffernusse cookies?
Yes! Pfeffernusse cookies take very well to freezing: their dry and dense texture isn’t under the threat of breaking down due to freezing and defrosting as long as it’s done right.
Freezing pfeffernusse cookies extends their shelf life by additional three to four months. If you take the time and care to wrap each cookie in parchment or wax paper individually, they will last even longer. But if that’s too much effort, simply line the airtight container with parchment paper and freeze them as they are.
Don’t try to defrost the cookies in a microwave or oven: that may dry them out further and may damage their white sugar icing. Simply place them in the refrigerator overnight, and they should be ready the following morning.
Explore Yummy Bazaar’s Holiday Assortment for More Traditional Christmas Treats:
Yummy Bazaar hosts one of the largest online selections of gourmet holiday treats, with a wide variety of items from across the globe. Explore the Italian section for a wide assortment of gourmet panettone or pandoro, go to the Spanish section for authentic Christmas turron nougat candy or check out the German collection for high-quality marzipan, far too often overlooked during the Christmas celebrations. Or maybe you’d like to go a little original with your choice of Christmas gingerbread cookies? You’ll find an assortment from all over the world, from German lebkuchen to Swedish Pepperkakkor to French Nonnettes. All it takes on your part is sparing a few minutes to stock the cart with all your favorites, and we’ll take it from there, ensuring the goodies get delivered to your doorstep ASAP.