Although perfect for fall, many of these cookies were actually Christmas treats brought to America by European immigrants. For example, Pfeffernüsse are one of the traditional Central European Christmas cookies that have a great number of variations depending on where they are from. Pfeffernüsse is the German name, but they are also known as pepernoten in Dutch, pebernødder in Danish, pepparnoter in Sweden, and peppernuts in English (which is the literal translation). The pepper refers to the tiny bit of black pepper that is added along with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. And the “nut” part of the name does not mean it contains nuts, it is more likely a reference to the fact that the cookies are tiny, about the size of nuts.
Americanized versions had colorful names including cobblestones, German Christmas cakes, ginger nuts or spice nuts, which is what I made – combining a recipe from Mrs. Goodfellow and the 19th century magazine Table Talk. These are a bit different from the pepper nuts as they don’t contain pepper. They still call for many of the other spices as well as candied citron or orange peel – I actually used crystallized ginger (and then cut back a bit on the ground ginger), which worked beautifully. In America cooks also often used molasses in place of some (or all) of the sugar, which first made its way to America from the Caribbean as a by-product of refining sugarcane and quickly became a popular sweetener for cooking and baking. For quicker mixing, the butter or lard was heated in the molasses before the remaining ingredients were added.
The look of the cookies was as diverse as the ingredients. In addition to shaping the dough into round balls like nuts (which were sometimes slightly flattened before baking), they were also baked as little individual cakes, rolled out into ropes and then formed into circles (like jumbles), or rolled very thin and then cut out with a cookie cutter. The term “ginger snaps” was introduced around 1805. “Snap” came from the Dutch word snappen, meaning “to seize quickly.” These hard, crunchy cookies were often made with blackstrap molasses and tended to “snap the teeth.”
The Spice Nuts I made turned out to be crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside - both the flavor and texture were wonderful - one of the best cookies I've ever tasted! For a softer cookie, just cut back the baking time a couple of minutes.
- 3 cups flour
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
- 1 cup molasses
- 4 tablespoonfuls sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- 1/3 cup finely chopped crystalized ginger
- Preheat the oven to 350° F. Place the molasses and butter in a large saucepan and warm over low heat. When the butter is melted, add sugar, spices, baking soda and candied ginger. Stir until well mixed and then add the flour one cup at a time, mixing well after each addition until a soft dough is formed.
- Taking a softball-sized lump at a time, roll out onto a floured surface into a 1-inch wide rope shape. If the dough is sticky add a little at a time to make it easier to work with. Cut the rope into 1-inch size pieces and place on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Alternatively, roll small pieces of the dough into little balls and place on the baking sheet. Bake at 350° F for 10-12 minutes.
Sources: I Hear America Cooking by Betty Fussell, American Cookery by James Beard, The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink ed. by Andrew F. Smith, and A Sweet taste of History by Walter Staib