Traditional Cookies with a Peppery Kick

Though more than 150 years have passed since my mother’s ancestors came to the U.S. from Germany, traditional recipes continue to migrate down through the generations. We are Jewish and light the Hanukkah menorah, but I also grew up making traditional German holiday sweets, including lebkuchen (a cookie similar to gingerbread) and pfeffernusse (small spice cookies).

I recently pulled a recipe from my mother’s collection and made a batch for a cookie swap. Its name, “Pepper Nuts,” is the translation of the German word pfeffernusse. The name is a bit misleading, as the cookies do not contain nuts but instead resemble the size and shape of nuts. The word pepper is more accurate. This ingredient is part of a long list of spices (I sneezed when adding it), giving the flavor a kick. Though the cookies are traditionally rolled in powdered sugar, I decided to use a chocolate glaze to make them more attractive for the swap. They keep well so I look forward to munching them throughout the holiday season. I also remember my mom, who passed away earlier this year, with every bite.

Family Pepper Nut Cookies (Pfeffernüsse)

Makes about 100 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
1 beaten egg
1 tablespoon molasses
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and molasses.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and pepper.
  3. Mix the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. The batter will be very stiff. [I added a few drops of water just so it would cling together]. Form into small balls (about 1/2 inch in diameter) or roll the dough into a tube shape about 1 inch in diameter and cut into 1/4 inch rounds.
  4. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly brown. Cool on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or melted chocolate.
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For Mother’s Day: Grandma’s Apricot Bars

Though I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen with either of my grandmothers, I enjoy remembering them by making the recipes that they left behind. For Mother’s Day this year, I wanted something sweet and brightly flavored, so I pulled out Apricot Bars from Grandma Bertie. Her typewritten recipe isn’t attributed to anyone, nor does it list a cookbook as its source, so perhaps she developed it herself. Its shortbread base reminds me of lemon bars but its apricot topping adds an unexpected flavor. The fruit is sandwiched between a crunchy, buttery bottom and a golden, egg-and-sugar laced top. This one is a keeper. Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Grandma Bertie’s Apricot Bars (circa 1960)

Makes 16 squares

For the base:

1 cup flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

For the filling:

1 cup cooked apricots

1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1 teaspoon vanilla

  1. To make the base: Sift the flour and sugar together. Cut in the butter. Pat down quickly into an 8 or 9 inch square pan (ungreased). Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.
  2. To make the filling: Wash the apricots well, cut into slivers with scissors, and cook 5 minutes with 3-4 tablespoons water. [Alternately, use dried apricots. Cut into slivers, place in a pot, and add water to cover. Simmer 5-10 minutes until soft.] With either method, set aside to cool before continuing the recipe.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Add the sugar gradually and beat until thick. Add the vanilla and apricots.
  5. Add the sifted dry ingredients with a wooden spoon, cutting through quickly so that the apricots will be well distributed throughout the batter.
  6. Pour onto the cooled base and bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes or until golden brown and set in the center.
  7. When cool, cut into squares. Dust with icing [confectioner’s] sugar, optional.
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Maple Sugar Season in March

Warm days and cold nights keep the sap in sugar maple trees flowing. In New England, Native Americans  taught settlers how to slash tree trunks and extract the sap to use as a sweetener. These buckets from a local farm are collecting sap near my house, a sure sign of spring! Once the buckets are emptied, boiling begins. It takes about 35 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup.

Hardy New Englanders pour maple syrup right onto a bowlful of spring snow, but I wanted something warm so I tried a Maine Maple Brown Betty from Wild Maine Recipes by Kate Krukowski Gooding (Northern Solstice Publishing, 2007). I liked her variation on a traditional brown betty recipe, with maple oozing from every spoonful. With a breakfast like this, who needs pancakes?

Maine Maple Brown Betty

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup rolled oats

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup graham flour [I couldn’t find this, so I used whole wheat flour]

3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon mace

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/3 cup water

1/2 cup pecans [the recipe calls for maple-roasted, but I skipped this step]

3 tablespoons maple syrup

4 cups apples, peeled and sliced (preferably Northern Spy or Granny Smith)

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Combine the brown sugar, oats, flours, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, pecans and butter. Stir with a fork until well-mixed and crumbly.
  3. Layer one third of the apples, then one third of the crumb mixture in a greased, 7 x 11 inch [I used 8 x 8 inch] baking dish. Repeat until all apples and crumb mixture are added.
  4. Pour water over the mixture and bake for 30 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream [I used plain yogurt].

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Vodka with Old-World Elegance

Raspberry vodka 1In between a one-two-three punch of snowstorms, I pulled out The Russian Tea Room: A Tasting (Clarkson Potter, 1993), a book of recipes and reminiscences from then-owner, Faith Stewart-Gordon. I never went to the Manhattan restaurant but its tea (and everything else on the menu) is steeped in history. Continue reading

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A Sweet Ending

Stuffed Cougar Chocolate ShortbreadFor a dessert to end 2018, I found a recipe with just eight ingredients, all of them pantry staples: butter, two kinds of sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, chocolate, and nuts. The shortbread base with melted chocolate and nuts on top looks good and tastes appropriately decadent for a New Year’s party. The recipe comes from a classic Richmond cookbook, The Stuffed Cougar (William Byrd Press, 1973). Continue reading

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Here We Come for Cider Wassail

Cider Wassail done

Who remembers the English folk song that starts, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? That’s what I hummed when I saw the recipe for Cider Wassail in The Blue Ridge Cookbook. Continue reading

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Cranberries in a pie crust

Cranberry pie doneJust in time for Thanksgiving, my neighbor organized a pie swap. Each of us baked a pie, then sliced it up and shared a sample with the other participants. For ideas, I looked through handwritten recipes from my grandmother and baker extraordinaire, Bertie. At first all I could find was a cheese pie, which specified using “Swiss cheese from Switzerland” – perhaps an exotic ingredient in the 1930s and 1940s, when she collected most of the recipes. A more careful look yielded the far more seasonal Fresh Cranberry Orange Pie. Continue reading

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