My Mother’s Favorite Cookies

By Lisa Melsted, Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my family always went a little nuts making holiday goodies. Over the years, my mother amassed a serious arsenal of Christmas cookie recipes, usually clipped from women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping or Ladies’ Home Journal. Baking began a couple weeks before the holiday, culminating in dozens and dozens of cookies.

As we kids grew older, the cookie mania waned. First, we became conscious of eating so many sweets. Then as the three of us left home, the holiday rush left less time to execute a large cookie assembly line. When my mother developed rheumatoid arthritis, it eventually became difficult for her to cook, let alone spend hours baking. Slowly, over years, holiday cookie production died out. We started to rely on gifts from family friends for our Christmas treats. It was easier—less volume, less labor and we could get rid of them quickly, sparing our waistlines.

In my mother’s holiday baking repertoire there was one cookie we kids never enjoyed: Pfeffernusse. Literally “pepper nuts” in German because they have pepper in them and are a dense, somewhat hard cookie, like a nut still in the shell. As a kid, I didn’t like them because of their anise flavor. Anise is a grown-up flavor, not one, I’m convinced, that appeals to little palates. Pfeffernusse were, of course, my mother’s favorite holiday cookie.

This year will be the first Christmas without my mother—she died earlier this year from complications due to what should have been a routine surgery. Forced to spend her last Christmas in the hospital hooked to a feeding tube, she was unable to eat anything in her last months, let alone enjoy holiday cookies. Despite her hospitalization, I couldn’t help myself when, much to my surprise, I found Pfeffernusse cookies at A Taste of Denmark in Oakland last year. Hopeful mom would be able to go home from the hospital within a month or two of Christmas, I bought those cookies to send home because they were her favorites, and I wanted her to be able to have them again someday.

This year I am making Pfeffernusse from my mother’s recipe. Sadly, she will not get to see me bake a cookie I hated as a child, but the rest of us will be able to enjoy and eat them in her honor, with our acquired, grown-up taste for anise and our memories of how much she loved them.

I took a couple of liberties with my mom’s old recipe. My modifications are the ones in parentheses.


Pfeffernusse Squares

3/4 c olio (butter)

3/4 c sugar

1/4 c molasses

1/8 c brandy flavoring (straight brandy – use the booze!)

4 drops anise oil (1 tsp. ground star anise)

2 3/4 c sifted flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. cloves

1/4 tsp. pepper (I used white pepper)

1/2 tsp. vanilla

Powdered sugar

1. Cream olio; gradually beat in sugar. Add molasses, brandy and anise oil. Sift flour with baking powder, soda and spices. Add to creamed mixture along with vanilla.

2. Line pan with wax paper. Pound dough into pan. Refrigerate overnight. Invert pan on board, remove paper. Cut in strips – 1 ½ inch wide and slices ¼ inch thick. Grease cookie sheet. Places slices on sheet. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes until done.  (They should be brown and somewhat crisp when done.)

3. Roll cookies in powdered sugar.

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