Jan Buerge is one smart cookie. After her mother, Ruth Hartzler, passed away in September, Jan and her sister, Judy Hartzler from Columbus, Ohio, continued the holiday traditions handed down to them.
Although an epicurean experimenter at heart, Buerge doesn’t deviate from a generations-old recipe when baking these goodies to share with Lonnie, her husband of nearly 40 years, their two daughters and two grandchildren.
When Jan and Judy bake together, there’s a whole lot of lovin’ that comes from the oven. “There are as many variations on the peppernut recipe as there are families,” Judy says. “Of course, we think ours are really special, and making them is really a family activity: You roll and talk and bake. Then repeat.”
Residence: Kansas City
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Special cooking interest: Cooking comfort and joy.
What exactly are peppernuts? Peppernuts are also known as pfeffernüsse, pepernoten and pebernødder. They are tiny, hard spice cookies, which are a popular holiday treat in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Russia. There are so many varieties of peppernuts, and while some actually contain nuts, I think its name comes from the size, spiciness and hardness of the cookie, and because they can be eaten in quantity, the same way one might eat nuts.
Peppernuts can contain aromatic spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper and anise. We’ve found that Russian recipes of peppernuts contain anise, which is a popular variation found in central Kansas recipes. Our family peppernut recipe is a German one, and doesn’t contain anise.
So what was your family tradition surrounding the small, but mighty, peppernut? These German peppernuts were the version we made for years and years as the Hartzler family with five siblings, when we were growing up in Pandora, Ohio, with a population of less than 1,000.
Our peppernuts are about the size of a nickel, and per the tradition in our community, Mennonite women use the recipes carefully handed down from generation to generation. My mother usually made the peppernut dough the day after Thanksgiving — usually triple or quadruple the recipe.
Then, as a family, we would sit and roll out the long “snake” rolls, enjoying the challenge of seeing how long we could make the rolls before they would break. The rolls would get laid on cookie sheets to chill so they would be easier to cut into the tiny little cookies.
It takes lots of patience to roll the dough, slice it and place the tiny unbaked cookies on the baking sheets. These were times of family storytelling and laughter. We were rewarded with a large tin full of the crunchy, flavorful nuggets that would be stored on a cool porch to “ripen” in flavor for the Christmas holiday.
Is your day-to-day cooking also very traditional meat-and-two-veg fare? Certainly that’s how I grew up eating, but given my schedule at our store, not much baking gets done and evening meals often get pulled together just as I arrive home. My cooking style is really spur of the moment, easy and healthy.
For the most part, I will combine several recipes found online to use what we have currently in the refrigerator, freezer and cupboards. We’ve added more vegetables to our diet, often roasted, steamed or stir-fried, than I would have had as a child. Dishes use many more spices than I grew up with, incorporating more international flavors.
If Lonnie or guests love a meal that I’ve prepared, I often laugh that I likely won’t be able to duplicate it since it was a combination of several recipes or ideas.
When Judy and you were baking peppernuts together, did you bring the memory of your mother into the kitchen, too? Memories attached to food are very visceral, and a taste of something can transport you back to your childhood. That’s why baking with my sister is so special. We aren’t just making food; we are reliving and making new memories, too. While I don’t always follow recipes in my everyday cooking, when I’m making peppernuts, cinnamon rolls, cherry or grape pie — or any of the traditional baking recipes from my childhood — I follow the recipes from my mother. Why mess with something that perfect?
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
The Hartzler Family Peppernuts
Makes approximately 220, 3/4-inch coin-sized cookies
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, pepper, salt, cloves and ginger. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, cream sugar and shortening together, using an electric mixer set on medium speed. Add eggs one at a time and beat well after each addition. Slowly add sifted ingredients to creamed mixture, and mix until incorporated and a soft, non-sticky dough forms.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, roll a portion of dough into a 3/4-inch-diameter “rope.” Place in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes, or until chilled through. Using a sharp knife, cut the “rope” of dough into 1/4-inch segments.
Place each cut coin-sized piece of dough onto a prepared baking sheet about 1/2-inch apart. Bake until browned, or about 15 minutes. Continue process until all dough has been cut, rolled and baked.
Allow cookies to cool completely before storing in tightly capped containers.
Per cookie: 18 calories (38 percent from fat), 1 gram total fat (trace saturated fat), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 8 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.