When I was in my last year in college, I bought a full bottle of Jim Bean bourbon for myself, even though I had only had bourbon, whiskey, and scotch once each. I wanted to see if I could make myself develop a taste for it.
2016 holiday cookies: cranberry orange cookies
2015 holiday cookies: vegan snickerdoodles and vegan peanut butter cookies
2014 holiday cookies: cardamom molasses cookies
Fortunately, I could, or else I would have wasted a whole bottle of bourbon (I found some really good recipes for winter bourbon cocktails, all of which have since gotten lost in the sands of the internet.)
This year, I bought as much anise and fennel as I could get my hands on, to see if I could learn to appreciate those flavors. It took more than a year for me to finally be able to tolerate either flavor, but keep the licorice to yourself, please, and if you wouldn’t mind, keep it out of my sight, as well.
In light of my feelings towards anise and fennel, one might wonder why I have an anise star tatted on my back. The answer would be that cardamom pods have a less distinctive look and cardamom is what I really wanted, but I also wanted people to be able to recognize what the tattoo was.
Last December, I started becoming really interested in German and Scandinavian food (I vowed to find bakeries in my area that make kugelhof and stollen and never even made the attempt), and I tried pepper nuts for the first time. I bought a box from Trader Joe’s, snuck them into my bedroom so my parents wouldn’t steal them, poured myself a glass of CabSauv, and took a bite…and I wasn’t into it. Those ones were heavily anise-d and fennel-ed and I was just about completely turned off from the first bite. Cut to eleven months later and I find them at Harris Teeter (my standards are low and I’m not ashamed): I scurry on home, hide away in plain sight in the dining room because at this point who cares if my parents want some, pour myself a glass of Chardonnay that tastes like Gorgonzola (does all Chardonnay taste like Gorgonzola or is it just me?), and take a bite.
Molasses cookies. That’s it.
Of course, I should be using a real German bakery as my standard, but by now I have an idea of what these are meant to be: a little crispy on the outside, coated in powdered sugar, soft on the inside, and just lightly spiced. They’re like snack cookies.
At first I wanted to see if I could do them gluten-free for my uncle and for some coworkers, but that was an utter failure (I may never nail down this gluten-free thing), so after countless frustrating attempts, I decided just to go with the gluten-y recipes, and I found myself – *gasp* – craving fennel and anise.
Never mind that all I could find at the grocery store were anise seeds. I infused those into the butter for the pepper nuts, and for the first time in a year and a half, I finally began to appreciate the spicy star permanently inked onto my shoulderblade (nestled among Italian basil leaves, Persian limes, and a scattering of whole cloves because all of those things make complete sense together.)
On the one hand, there is pepper in these cookies, at least in most recipes. By default, though, there are no nuts. I ended up not putting any nuts in mine at all. The name, however, refers to the way they look: like nuts. Some recipes use almond flour, and some actually put pieces of nuts in the dough, while others use citrus peel. I keep mine simple with no add-ins.
Obviously, they’re vastly similar to my cardamom molasses cookies, but those cookies are heavy on the ginger, cardamom, and sugar, while these are soft, subtle, and, the way I make them, heavy on the anise.
Oh, and they’re coated with powdered sugar. They’re like delightful little bon-bons.
german pfeffernüsse with anise
makes 2 dozen small cookies
adapted from The Perfect Cookie, by America’s Test Kitchen
4 Tbsp (2 oz) unsalted butter
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp anise seeds or ground anise
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/3 c (4 oz) molasses
1/4 c (1.75 oz) dark brown sugar
2 c (8.5 oz) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg
1/2 c powdered sugar
Melt the butter in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat. Don’t let it brown or bubble too much.
Once the butter is melted, add the cardamom, anise, fennel, cinnamon, allspice, and black pepper, and whisk until smooth. cook for another couple of seconds, until fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.
Transfer the butter-spice mix to a large bowl and whisk in the molasses and brown sugar. Add the egg and whisk until smooth.
Using a wooden spoon or electric mixer with paddle attachments (like the whip/beater but with fewer loops), mix the dry ingredients into the wet until it forms a homogenous dough with no lumps of flour remaining. It may be a little bit sticky, but after you chill the dough, it’ll be easy to handle.
Form a rectangle with the dough and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least an hour.
While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C and line 1-2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Cut the dough rectangle in half and keep one half chilled while working with the other.
Cut the other half into 12 equal pieces, roll the pieces into spheres, and place on the baking sheets about 1-2 inches apart. Put the first sheet in the oven while preparing the other half of the cookies.
Repeat the previous step with the other half of the dough, baking each batch for 10 – 12 minutes until the tops are completely dry and the cookies are slightly lighter in color, but still a little soft.
Let the cookies cool on the pan for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely (about 15 minutes or more) before tossing in the powdered sugar.
Once fully cooled, add the powdered sugar to a bowl and toss the cookies a few at a time to coat completely.
Auf Wiedersehen und Frohe Weihnachten!
St. Nicholas 😉