I am a little embarrassed to say then that despite the glory of the evening I only remember a few specifics. I remember the wine, spiced and warmed and, shock of all shocks, the first of its kind I had drunk. I remember a certain Nativity book that was beautifully illustrated, somehow hilarious, and so poetic in language that I fell in love with it immediately--despite my reservations. And lastly, though there was an entire table full of food I enjoyed enthusiastically, all I remember were these wee little cookies they called peppernuts. They were crunchy and sweet and haunted with a flavor I couldn't quite figure out, and I loved them.
Alas, I did not win the book. And though I asked my friend what was in the cookies that made them so good, she never really gave me the recipe. When I questioned her that night she responded with a candid shrug and slight dismissal, saying it was nothing special--just whatever Mennonites always have in excess: butter, sugar, flour. These were the cookies her mother made every year, and though it was obvious that everyone loved them and would storm the gates were they to go missing, the thought of peppernuts as anything out-of-the-ordinary was positively ludicrous. They were tradition. Plain and simple.
Now five years later and I finally asked for and received the recipe and the name of the book. I had googled around quite a bit, looking at pictures of versions of peppernuts, pfeffernussen, and so on, but I was never quite sure they would be exactly what I remembered. These types of recipes all make a lot of cookies and the process takes time. I was not willing to waste baking energy and eating power on peppernuts that were not right.
So I emailed. And lo! And behold! The book.
And lo! And behold! The recipe. (I don't have a picture of that. You'll have to scroll down.)
My friend and her mother tell me that this is a Russian Mennonite version of the Dutch Mennonite Pfeffernussen. I hear elsewhere that there are as many recipes for this cookie as there are households of the corresponding cultures. So. There are recipes with a plethora of spice, including pepper, and there are also recipes that call for nuts. This one has neither. It is subtle, lightly spiced, crunchy (even 'hard'), and endlessly addictive. They go very well with tea or coffee, and they keep a long time.
In fact, this is one of those perfect holiday baking projects. It is the kind of traditional cookie that one bakes at the beginning of the season and nibbles through the New Year. This is the kind of baking I love most. Baked goods like Springerle, shortbread, mincemeat, fruitcake, peppernuts, pannatone, plum pudding, and stollen make the season right. These are the kinds of sweets that don't need special keeping. They don't need to be consumed within a day or two. And if sealed away from critters and kids, they get better with time.
It's like the holiday stories to begin with. They start with something humble--a war, a waiting, a wee babe. They ripen. There are miracles. At some point the stories get twinkly around the edges, and out of gratitude and remembrance come the celebrations, the season, the baking, the cooking, the traditions. Now the season practically rings with magic, however humble and daily and practical its beginning.
So truly, happy everything this December. However you celebrate, however you prepare, I hope your cookies are ripe, your fruitcake mellowed, and your mincemeat is a treat worth waiting for.
PeppernutsThe key to these little darlings is to keep the dough cold and not let the sliced cookies thaw. If your cookie sheet is large, you might consider only filling it up halfway, or planning ahead (if you have two sheets) and putting it back in the freezer. That said, if shape is of no concern to you, disregard this message. They are very simple to make.
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 cups flour, plus a wee bit more
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground star anise
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
Add to butter/sugar alternately with the flour mixture
2 c. golden corn syrup (I used Lyle's)
Mix until the dough is workable. It will be sticky. Add a bit more flour a tablespoon at a time if it is impossible. Roll into long ropes about the size of your pointer finger. (Note: my fingers are larger than theirs, so I used just the tip of the pointer, eventually, as a guide. I like my peppernuts delicate and small.) Freeze until hard.
Removing only one rope at a time, slice cookies just less than 1/4 inch wide and place rounds on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 7-10 minutes, depending on the size of your finger (and the cookies).
Eat in small handfulls throughout the holidays, says my friend. And I add: Enjoy!
Adapted from "Auntie Val's" Peppernut recipe.