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Whether you call them pfeffernusse, pepernoten or peppernuts, small, crunchy spiced cookies are a holiday tradition for many South Dakotans.
Whether you call them pfeffernusse, pepernoten or peppernuts, small, crunchy spiced cookies are a holiday tradition for many South Dakotans.

One Contentious Cookie

Dec 6, 2012


For me, the holiday season is all about baking…and eating. Christmas wouldn’t be complete without certain foods — crispy, wafer-thin sugar cookies, krumkake, rosettes, lefse, and most important of all, pebernødder, or peppernuts.

But which peppernuts to make? In The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, Beatrice Ojakangas describes peppernuts as “a cookie that starts arguments! Every Dane insists that the only person who really knew how to make them was Mother, Grandma or Aunt Brigitte.” I had two Danish grandmothers with wildly different peppernut styles. I always felt a little disloyal to Grandma Maridell Mark for preferring Grandma Rachel’s white pepper and ginger cookies to her molasses-based models. 

After consulting six different cookbooks, I found 12 recipes for peppernuts. None of them were the same, and none of them resembled the crunchy little cookies that showed up in Grandma Johnson’s kitchen every December. There were recipes that called for pulverized filberts, anise, sorghum, lemon rind, eggs, allspice, goose fat, chopped almonds — some didn’t include pepper at all! Even within my mother’s family of Viborg Danes, there is no agreement on how peppernuts should be made. I’ve included her great-aunt Nina (pronounced nynah) Mark’s recipe below, and her Aunt Marilyn has promised to send another once she tracks it down. Grandma Maridell's version was different yet. Please feel free to share your family's version in the comments section.

The Germans and the Dutch also have variations on this cookie theme, pfeffernusse and pepernoten. The Danes call them pebernødder. Some recipes make a cookie so hard that they must be dunked in coffee to be eaten, but mine are easily chewed, even by my false-toothed father. Although the dough can be a strain on one’s mixer, forming the cookies is a snap — especially if you have small children around who can be coaxed into making snakes out of the dough, as one would with play dough. 



Recipe from Rachel Skoven Johnson

1 cup white syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter or other shortening
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
5 cups or more of flour 

Combine white syrup, sugar, butter and sour cream. Add white pepper and ginger. Stir soda into flour. Slowly mix in flour, a cup or so at a time, until the batter is quite stiff. Be prepared — your mixer may struggle making these cookies.

On a lightly flour-covered surface, take handfuls of dough and roll them into snakes about ½ inch around or so. Cut the snakes into 1/2 inch bits. Bake at 390 degrees for 6-8 minutes or until browned.



Recipe by Nina Mark from the Viborg Centennial Cookbook 

2 1/2 cups dark Karo syrup
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter

Heat and cool above ingredients. Add:

2 tablespoons warm milk with 1 teaspoon baking soda mixed in
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
2 eggs
10 cups flour (stir in six cups, then add the remaining flour one cup at a time, stirring thoroughly) 

Roll dough into small strips. Cut strips in small pieces. Bake at 275 degrees for 45 minutes.



01:55 pm - Thu, December 6 2012
*Just Fran* said:
My MIL always made peppernuts, but hers were softer and colored pink with beet juice. I need to look for her recipe. I believe it was German in origin.
03:01 pm - Thu, December 6 2012
Laura Andrews said:
Beet juice? Now that's a variant I haven't come across yet. Please share!
03:30 pm - Thu, December 6 2012
*Just Fran* said:
It appears that the beet juice variation is more of a tiny sweet bread than a cookie. Unfortunately, I didn't sample them often, and can't really describe them first hand.

"German" Peppernuts
1 can beets
1 cup water, divided
1 cube (I assume this is stick or 1/2 cup) melted margarine
3 room temperature eggs
2 packages active dry yeast (2 tablespoons)
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 heaping teaspoons black pepper
6-8 cups flour

Blend beets in a blender with beet juice. Rinse blender with 1/2 cup water for more liquid. Warm beets to a medium temperature, not hot. Put in large bowl. Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Add dissolved yeast, sugar, eggs, 4 cups of flour to the warm beets. Beat with a mixer or spoon until smooth. Add margarine, 1 cup flour, salt and pepper. When the dough begins to stiffen add flour slowly. Finish kneading by hand. Dough should be firm, but not stiff. Let rise in warm place 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Punch down and let rise for another 10 minutes. Divide dough into two parts, rolling each half out into 8x10 rectangle. Cut into strips. Roll each strip into a round shape (snake). Cut into slices. Put on pans and let rise again. Bake in 400degree oven for 10 minutes.

This was shared by my MIL's sister in a family cookbook created around 1995 for a reunion.
07:40 pm - Sun, December 9 2012
Marlys said:
For comparison purposes:

1 C. shortening
1 C. sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. black pepper
4 T. anise seed, crushed
1/4 C. light corn syrup
1/2 C. molasses
1/3 C. water
1 tsp. soda
6 2/3 C. sifted flour
Cream shortening and sugar; add beaten eggs and spices. Combine syrup, molasses, water and soda; add to creamed mixture and mix well. Add sifted flour. Chill at least 4 hours. Shape into long rolls about 1/2” in diameter; cut into 1/3” pieces. Place cut side down on greased baking sheet; bake at 350 about 10-12 minutes. Makes about 400 cookies.
12:04 pm - Sat, December 22 2018
Tanya Lemmon said:
Nina Mark is my grandmother!! I grew up making these with my mom every Christmas!

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