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Cookie baking a family tradition
After an unsuccessful coffee-mug pilgrimage in and around my hometown in search of a cup with the look and feel of stone that’s been hollowed and polished by 1,000 years of tidal eddy, I return home dejected — and find what I’m looking for on the Internet.
A potter living several hundred kilometres away, over avalanche-hovered mountain passes, has in her photo gallery two designs that make me want to clear cupboard space.
One is a graceful spiral with a gothic glaze, the other a blue “belly mug” I can already feel warming my hands.
The spiral mugs are exactly what I have in mind for when I bake and serve holiday pfefferneüsse this year.
Pfefferneüsse (Mennonite “peppernut” cookies) are traditionally, even necessarily, served with coffee.
Ever since spending several days in the home and company of Hildi Froese Tiessen (professor emerita of Mennonite art and literature) last winter, I’ve been inspired by her cupboards and cabinets full of handmade pottery.
That, and her recipe collection, which I helped myself to at least once a day.
“The secret is using real anise oil,” Hildi said of the liquorice-flavoured knots of cookie she set next to our afternoon Americanos.
“I think my grandmother made pfefferneüsse,” I said after biting a coin-sized cookie in half and dunking the other in coffee.
“My mother says she did.”
Although, as I recall, these little “peppernuts” were never among the holiday baked goodies grandma stuffed into paper bags and gifted to each of her 25 grandchildren at Christmastime, along with assorted nuts-in-shells, a Mandarin orange, card and a new $20 bill.
I wonder now, were pfefferneusse for grown-ups only?
Reserved for coffee drinkers and not to be wasted on cream-cookie fanatics?
Were the pfefferneüsse too good?
If Hildi’s own grandsons are indicators, kids like pfefferneüsse just fine.
In Hildi’s Waterloo, Ont., home, after all, 13-year-old Dylan has a tradition of coming over in December to help his grandmother bake peppernuts (which contain no pepper or nuts, but anise, cinnamon, cloves and ginger).
And, this year, for the first time, three-year-old Oliver will also get his hands in the dough.
I am certain the two of them are not there to not eat pfefferneüsse.
Back at home, I have no idea whether my own family’s recipes (of which there are, no doubt, several evolutions, each one calling for “enough flour to make a soft dough”) make use of real anise oil or ground anise.
It’s with Hildi’s recipe on my kitchen island, therefore, that I begin to assemble today’s ingredients, together with mixing bowls, a whisk, measuring cups and spoons and a rubber spatula.
Later, when I have several dozen loonie-sized cookies cooling on a baking rack, I tap this morning’s grounds out of the coffeemaker and get ready to write to Hildi.
“I found anise oil,” I say.
“As for artisan pottery, the potter seemed happy to ship her wares, then stopped returning my letters. I had to visit a home-decor store instead.
“I also used a little less flour,” I add.
“Just enough to make a soft dough.”
By Hildi Froese Tiessen
1 c. butter (add a bit more if needed to make the dough roll well)
1 1/4c. sugar
2 tbsps. corn syrup
1/2 tsp. anise oil (oil, not extract)
2 1/2 c. flour (Hildi uses a cup more)
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground ginger
Cream butter and sugar. Add egg, syrup and anise oil. Sift in dry ingredients. Work together.
Place dough in a bowl, cover and refrigerate for an hour or more to make it easier to handle.
Traditionally, you would now roll the dough into one-centimetre-thick ropes and then slice the ropes into one-half-centimetre coins and place them individually on cookie sheets. We, however, not adverse to square cookies, roll the dough about one-half-centimetre thick and cut it into one-half-centimetre squares (way, way faster than ropes and coins).
Place these tiny cookies on a baking sheet and bake at 350 F until slightly brown, seven to 10 minutes.
These freeze well.
Darcie Hossack is a food writer and author of Mennonites Don’t Dance (Thistledown Press). For past recipes, go here. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.