Pfeffernüsse more than quirky holiday confection
The durable cookie summons precious memories of family.
Sally Jo Hahn just wanted to give her dad a taste of one of his favorite cookies for his 92nd birthday this month.
The South Austinite emailed me in October to ask whether I knew where to fflnd any old-fashioned pfefiernüsse recipes like her grandmother’s, which contained potash (potassium carbonate) and ammonium carbonate, ingredients used in the 19th century to add leavening and a crispness to the small, round cookies.
When her grandmother, Marie Rahn, and mother, Anneliese Hahn, died a year apart about a decade ago, the recipe got lost in the shuffle of their possessions.
The cookies Hahn remembered were heavily spiced with cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom and nutmeg, and because they were hard as nails, they shipped well and stayed good for months.
We published her request and were inundated with recipes. More than 30 of you sent in your own family recipes and stories about these German cookies, which are also popular in a number of northern European countries.
I forwarded all the notes, including the handwritten ones, to Hahn, and last week, I helped her make a batch.
While we were rolling out the long ropes of sticky, dense dough, I found out that there was much more to her family’s love of pfefiernüsse than its signature spice.
Here’s how Hahn tells it: Her grandparents and mother emigrated to Michigan from what was then East Prussia after World War I ended. In 1944, her mother married Jerry Hahn, a soldier who was also from Detroit.
All in all, Hahn was deployed for two and a
half years during World War II, including fighting under George S. Patton in the Battle of the Bulge, and during his time in Europe, his mother-in-law would send tins of pfeffernüsse in his care packages.
The irony is not lost on Sally Jo Hahn that her German grandmother sent German cookies to her father, who was fighting the Nazis not all that far from the part of Europe where her grandparents had left less than 20 years before.
The history of this particular recipe, of course, led to entirely different stories, a heartbreaking one of relatives, including young children, crossing heavily guarded borders in the middle of the night, and another of her dad staying up late to transmit Morse code with the help of coffee so thick that a spoon could stand up on its own in the middle of the cup.
For Jerry Hahn, slowly chewing on those rich, flavorful cookies from home made the nights pass a
Sally Jo Hahn lost her grandmother’s recipe for pfeffernüsse, a traditional cookie made in countries throughout Europe during the holidays. Her grandmother, Marie Rahn (left), used to ship the cookies to Hahn’s father, Jerry Hahn, pictured on his wedding day with Sally Jo’s mom, Anneliese.