Peppernuts (Mennonite Pfeffernüsse Cookies)

Growing up, I knew that every Christmas or visit to our Mennonite grandparents’ house would bring a taste of peppernuts. These little cookies are flavored predominately with warm spices like anise, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, etc. and are life-changing when served with a cup of coffee (okay, maybe day-changing, but that’s delightful enough for me). Even as a young child, I loved dipping the little cookies into black coffee (just for a second!) for the perfect crispy-soggy texture and sweet-bitter flavor.

There are so many different versions of these little treats—as I understand it, peppernuts come from the traditional German spice cookies called Pfeffernüsse and are very similar to Dutch pepernoten. They have evolved over generations in the United States by the various different groups of ethnic Mennonites* that emigrated from central Europe. The version I offer here is based on the anise-forward cookies that have always been served in my family and is adapted from cookbooks put together by the Mennonite churches around my hometown in Southwest Kansas. It is by no means the end-all-be-all on peppernuts! The recipes vary from community to community, and person to person. Oftentimes, you can find versions made with dark molasses, filled with chopped nuts, coated in powdered sugar, and the list goes on.

Peppernuts are only one of the many scratch-made foods that I didn’t realize were special to my “part of the world” until I left, and making them always brings me back to the memories of my grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen and community celebration days in my hometown. Someday, I’ll share others, like bierocks, cabbage borscht (nope, not the bright-red soup you’re thinking of), and graham cracker fluff, so that others can share in the simple but thoughtfully-made food of the Mennonites.

*For context, my family has roots in the Holdeman Mennonite faith. There are many different branches to the Mennonite anabaptist tree, and they vary from communities with lifestyles comparable with the Amish to other groups with Methodist-like practices. Growing up, my immediate family only participated in the faith peripherally—and I personally am Mennonite by ancestry only, not by belief or practice.

Peppernuts (Mennonite Pfeffernüsse Cookies)

This recipe was adapted from a variety of local Mennonite community church cookbooks.
Makes around 250-300 peppernuts (about 1 gallon of little cookies)

Ingredients

  • 660 grams all-purpose flour (5 1/2 cups)
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 198 grams granulated sugar (1 cup)
  • 213 grams light brown sugar (1 cup)
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (113 grams), softened
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk + 1/2 tsp white vinegar)
  • 1/4 tsp anise oil1

Preparation

  1. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and cloves. Whisk until spices are well distributed throughout the flour.
  2. Combine sugars and shortening in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, if using a handheld electric mixer). Beat on medium speed until uniform in color and a sticky-crumbly texture, about 5 minutes, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula halfway through.
  3. Add egg to sugar mixture and continue to beat until egg is fully incorporated. Add buttermilk (or milk and vinegar) and anise oil to bowl and mix on low until mixture is smooth and uniform in color (it will look curdled at first; continue mixing until the mixture comes back together). Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed to incorporate butter mixture.
  4. Add half of the flour mixture and mix on low speed just to incorporate (I like to “pulse” my mixer between low and off a few times to get the mixing started; this helps avoid a flurry of flour from shooting up from the bowl). Once flour is incorporated, add second half of flour mixture and mix on low until a stiff dough forms and no dry powder remains visible, about 1-2 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary to incorporate all of the flour.
  5. Turn dough out onto a clean surface and pat into a smooth, thick round. Split into 4 pieces. Roll each quarter into a log, about 1-1 1/2” in diameter (if dough is too sticky to work with easily, sprinkle lightly with flour). Wrap each log tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the logs for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days2.
  6. Preheat oven to 350°F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (or spray with nonstick cooking spray)3. Ensure two of your oven racks are set in upper-middle and lower-middle positions.
  7. Working with one log at a time (leaving the remaining dough in the refrigerator), remove the plastic wrap and place on a clean work surface. Using both hands, roll dough into a long, thin rope (about 1/2” in diameter, or finger-thickness). If the log gets too long to work with easily, cut it into halves or thirds to make it more manageable.
  8. Use a sharp knife or metal pastry scraper to cut cookies into 1/2” pieces. Distribute peppernut cookies evenly across the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1/2” around all sides of each peppernut.
  9. Bake cookies until lightly golden brown, puffed, and set to the touch—about 12-14 minutes—rotating the sheets halfway through baking from back to front and (if baking with two sheets at once) from the upper-middle rack to lower-middle rack and vice versa.
  10. Remove cookies from oven and leave them on the sheet pan until fully cooled, about 10 minutes. Transfer to an airtight container to store at room temperature4.

Notes

1Anise oil is a concentrated ingredient, lending potent flavor in just a few drops. Make sure you’re using food-grade anise oil—you can find it in specialty spice shops or in the hobby baking section of some grocery and craft stores alongside the candy flavorings (LorAnn Oils is the most common brand). Anise extract is much easier to find (alongside other extracts in the normal baking aisle) but not quite as potent, so use 1 tsp extract as a substitute for the 1/4 tsp oil.
2You can also freeze the logs at this point for up to 6 months. When you’re ready to make more peppernuts, just let the dough thaw in the refrigerator for 1-2 days before continuing with the next step.
3If you don’t have two baking sheets, just let the sheet cool down completely between each batch, about 10-15 minutes.
4You can also pack these cookies gently into airtight resealable bags and freeze them for up to 1 year. Peppernuts are a common Mennonite treat to share with guests, as the tiny cookies are excellent served with coffee and thaw at room temperature in moments.

In 2016, I developed a recipe for Peppernuts (Anise Cookies) for Savory Spice. I prefer the recipe published above, as the cookies are slightly softer and chewier, and have a milder (more “crowd-friendly”) anise flavor.