Photo by Durova/Wikimedia Commons
I'm not a Pfeffernüsse expert nor did I grow up with them so, in the moment. But we make them at the Bakehouse, and more importantly, I think really good and definitely worth checking out.
Anyways, people who know my eating habits well like to tease that I'd probably put pepper on ice cream if I could. I used to be sort of embarrassed about it. But in doing some reading on the history of pepper I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in ancient times pepper really was used as often in sweets as it was savories. Romans had recipes for fresh fruit to be soaked in wine, than boiled, along with plenty of pepper, cinnamon, and vinegar.
They also made what was called cidonitum: quinces peeled, cut, and then boiled in honey, or a blend of vinegar and honey, then spiced with black pepper and sometimes with ginger. Medieval Europeans used to pass around spice platters at the conclusion of big meals, dipping a pinch of this and bit of that in the way moderns offer up bottles of sherry or port. Indians have long used it to spice hot chai. You can still see the vestiges of this tradition in baked goods like the Sienese panpepato, (an ancient, pepper-spiked version of panforte).
Interestingly spices like nutmeg, mace, and cloves have kept a much more prominent presence in modern day sweets, but for some reason black pepper has generally been banished from the pastry kitchen. Fortunately, not from ours. Here we do use the Balinese long pepper in the much-loved Gingerbread Cake. And Pfeffernüsse are right there in the tradition of using--and in this case, being named for--pepper. As you might have already figured out even if you don't speak German, Pfeffernüsse means "pepper nuts."
There are I'm sure a zillion versions of them, one per grandmother I'd guess. (Came across one interesting Dutch variant made with white pepper.) At the Bakehouse we're supporting the black pepper with a bit of nutmeg, cloves, anise, Indonesian cinnamon, and some Muscovado sugar. A touch of sea salt brings the flavors out beautifully I think. If you're serving them on a platter (as opposed to eating them out of the bag or the box) I actually recommend a fresh bonus grinding of black pepper over the top--looks good, adds a nice little aroma and added bit of pepper to the flavor. Great cookie, great with coffee, tea or just about anything else!