The Christmas cookies called Pebernødder in Danish or spicy nuts in English are the oldest or one of the oldest Christmas cookies that we know of.
Pebernødder means spicy nuts, and they originate from Germany, as many traditions at Christmas do. While they are called spicy nuts, they are actually not that spicy, but they used to be in the 15th and 16th centuries. The spicy nuts were made every year leading up to Christmas in Germany since the 15th century, and it is a tradition that is known throughout many countries in Europe.
The spicy nuts, or pfeffernüsse as they are called in German, used to be made from rye flour, honey, and strong spices, and unlike today, they were not crunchy. Ammonium bicarbonate and baking soda were not something our ancestors knew about, and these ingredients made a big difference when it comes to baking Christmas cookies.
While the word Pebernødder translated from Danish directly into English is ”Pepper Nuts” the correct translation is still spicy nuts. That is because, in the 15th century, the word pepper was not referring to the peppercorns from a pepper tree, but as something that was spicy.
The word Pepper in this context comes from traveling merchants from the 15th century, who was called a pebersvend. These merchants traveled under the trade association called the Hanseatic League, which was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe.
A Peppersvend traded with all kinds of spices from near and far, and the spice pepper was just one of those expensive spices. However, they also traded with products such as hops, butter, corn, tar, and many others products.
Although traveling around Europe would result in a lot of pleasure and experience from different cultures, it also hurt the changes in starting a family, and many of these merchants remained unmarried. During the 15th century, people around Europe began to refer to these unmarried men as a ”Pfeffersack” in English which means a Pepper sack.
Today we have a tradition in some parts of Northern Europe, for instance in Denmark, where we give a bachelor (an unmarried person) peppercorns and a pepper shaker when they turn 30 years old. Our way to tease them is that they are still unmarried. If you think this is cruel, then you should know that it is even worse when an unmarried person turns 25 years old. Because at that age they are not only given a lot of cinnamon powder as gifts, but the powder is also thrown over them, so they are covered in cinnamon from head to toe.
Pebernødder – Spicy nuts recipe
There are many ways to make these spicy nuts, and the Christmas recipe below dates back to a Danish cooking book from 1884 called “Kogebog for husmødre af Bondestanden”. This is also the recipe they use in the old town of Aarhus (Den Gamle By), during the Christmas month.
- 125 grams of syrup
- 125 grams of brown sugar
- 250 grams of butter
- 1 teaspoon of ammonium bicarbonate
- 500 grams of wheat flour
- 3 teaspoons of cinnamon powder
- 1 teaspoon of cloves powder
- Put the butter into a bowl and add the sugar, syrup, ammonium bicarbonate, cinnamon powder, and cloves powder while mixing it together.
- Slowly add the wheat flour while mixing the ingredients together.
- When the dough starts to take shape, empty the bowl onto the table with a bit of flour and knead the dough.
- Roll the dough out into long sausage pieces and put them in the refrigerator or somewhere cold for about 45 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
- Then cut the long pieces into little pieces, and place them on a baking sheet.
- Place the baking sheet in the oven for 7-8 minutes, they are done when they are light brown.