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Created in 1753 in Hesse, Germany (where I often spent summers growing up), the name of these heavily spiced and delightfully chewy cookies literally translates to pepper nuts. They do look a bit like nuts before baking, and they do have a bit of pepper in them, so perhaps that is why.
These are a popular treat in Germany around Christmas, but I like to make them in the weeks after, as I find that the warm spices bring some extra cheer to the dark winter days that don't have holidays in them.
1 stick salted butter, softened (114 grams)
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed (160 grams)
1/4 cup molasses (80 grams)
1 large egg (56 grams)
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (270 grams)
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting
Preheat your oven to 350°F and line a couple half sheet trays with parchment paper.
In a stand mixer or using a hand mixer cream the butter, sugar, and molasses together until noticeably lighter in color and texture. Add the egg, spices, and baking soda and beat until well combined.
Slowly add the flour while mixing at low speed until it's all incorporated. The dough will be on the drier side but should stick together when you press pieces together. If your flour humidity is low and it's too crumbly, you can add a teaspoon or two of water to pull it together. If your dough on the other hand seems very wet, add a bit more flour.
Pinch off large olive-sized pieces of dough and roll them into balls with your hands, then evenly space them on the sheet pans.
Bake for 12-15 minutes, rotating the trays 180 degrees at the 7 minute mark.
Allow the cookies to cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes, then either dust with powdered sugar, or shake them in a bag to evenly coat them.
They will keep in a sealed container for a couple weeks at least. Just make sure they are completely cool or the sugar can melt from residual interior moisture.
• You can make an easy glaze by simply mixing confectioner's sugar and hot water (about 4 teaspoons of water per cup of sugar). For additional flavor you can add a splash or rum or vanilla extract to the glaze. Dip the baked cookies in the glaze then allow them to dry on a wire rack until set.
• If you'd like to make a gluten-free version I've found that substituting 1 3/4 cups of gluten-free flour (like cup4cup), plus 1/2 cup of almond flour creates a very similar final texture. You can experiment with melting the butter also as that will yield a slightly chewier result.
• It's not traditional, but I like filling these little cookies with a small piece of candied fruit, a marzipan cube, chocolate chips, etc. Just make a dent with your thumb and fill them like you would a meatball, then roll back into a ball before baking. Depending on the filling you may need to add a minute or two to your bake time.
Food images and recipe © Christian Leue
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