As many of you know, my wife Kay used to live and work in Berlin, Germany. She was there for five years beginning in 1988, and reminds me, on occasion, that she almost didn’t come back. Kay loved the gritty romance of the city, its isolation, the persistent gray of its winter skies, and its inescapable damp chill. She loved curry wurst, Shrebergärten, and fog on the Landwehr Canal. She loved the language, the literature, and the intertwining of fable and philosophy. She loved the butter. The beer. Ultimately Kay fell deeply in love with Germany, full stop, and its mélange of fairy tale, magic, ancient ingredients, and mystical pharmacopoeia. Und. Und. Und.
Lately, Kay hasn’t felt the need to remind me that she almost didn’t return. From my vantage as Kay’s ad hoc pot washer and prep cook, I have the occasional furtive notion, expressed so eloquently in countless German fairy tales, that Kay still resides, romantically and intellectually, in Berlin.
But Kay did, of course, return to her writing and cooking career in the U.S., and since then a few of her closest friends—including me—have benefited from the nostalgia that comes over her when skies darken in December and she begins to bake. Most years her friends receive a note from Kay accompanied by a well-bundled rum-bathed Stollen and a bag of Pfeffernüsse. At face value, this gesture of friendship seems simple, but make no mistake: a gift of well-executed Pfeffernüsse, aka spice nuts, evokes the looking-glass view of a thousand years of German flavor.
This year, Kay’s Pfeffernüsse have new friends. There they are now, running down the page! Most date back to the Middle Ages and all are among the most iconic of all German Christmas cookies. Kay researched them in their native language and tested them exhaustively with Anson Mills flours to devise for home cooks the techniques that will assure success with these unusual cookies. Exciting to the eye and palate alike, the cookies evoke the pleasures of the past and new discoveries in texture and flavor layers.
A click on each image will take you to its recipe.