en Päpanät Re'ssapt
Peppernuts Flaten – Wall, from Mountain Lake, MN / Lustre, MT / Salem, OR / Falcon Heights, MN
1 cup sugar
1 cup lard or Crisco™
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cloves
4 cup flour
Heat milk and sugar over medium heat. Remove from fire and add lard or Crisco™. Set aside to cool. Sift dry ingredients or combine spices and baking powder, mixing well. Add to flour and sift with whisk. Add to cooled mixture. (We poured liquid mixture slowly into dry ingredients while mixing.)
Chill overnight (traditionally, many Mennonites keep the dough in the entry, garage or car during the winter). Next day, roll into pencil-thin strips, or the size of a thick crayon. Cut into ½ -¾” pieces and bake in 4000 oven until a light brown.
Peppernuts are eaten with coffee or soaked in hot chocolate. I find that their spicy flavor can also sensationalize a rich red or fruity white wine.
Peppernuts, pfefferneusse, papanuta, however you choose to spell their name, peppernuts are a holiday tradition that unifies Mennonite generations and the international diaspora of Prussian and Russian Mennonites into a single cultural identity, at least for those holidays.
Karen and I made these for Christmas out of a collection of family recipes, mostly relating back to the Kleine Gemeinde of Nebraska and the Bruderthaler of Minnesota. Enjoy!
Pfefferneusse & Peppernuts
More than theology, the presence of tweibach or pfefferneusse in a lunchsack or at parties, and fond memories of verenika, serve to tie the greater Russländer Mennonite diaspora together. Tweibach was perhaps the forerunner of the unifying foods. As they struggled across Eastern Europe, always just a step ahead of their persecutors, bits of meat and onion, and some cabbage would not have surprised me, were hidden by our ancestors deep inside tweibach that were purposely burnt to form a black skin sufficient for preserving the meat baked inside. This method of food preservation for long journeys was kept for hundreds of years. The memoirs of those crossing the Atlantic in the SS Teutonia in 1874 include mention of these buns stashed in crates and sealed wagon boxes, serving as both a food source for the long trans-Atlantic voyage, and later travel by rail to the Henderson, Nebraska, Immigrant House, and as much needed cushioning for the valuables inside. It was also tweibach that grateful trains of immigrants historically presented to the kings and emperors who granted them safe passage and future homes – whether the Kaiser and his wife in Poland, the Austrian Emperor, or the Czars of Russia, it is said that these wonderful, fat or butter-rich buns were often presented to royal parties and visitors as a symbol of our gratitude.
Today, it is verenika that separates the “true” Mennonites, or those who grew up in the old Mennonite communities, colonies, and churches, from those who had already been Americanized or Canadianized as children. Those wonderful cottage-cheese pockets are just too much of a chore unless you have a large country-style kitchen and the many helping hands of skilled neighbors and relatives to make preparation both speedy and fun.
As we continue to leave the farms and rural communities of our youth, it is perhaps the peppernut, however, that will survive as an indicator of our cultural past. For decades, it has been easily dried and shipped to college students, missionaries and far way grandchildren. There are so many varieties that it is almost always possible to find an easy, and fairly quick recipe, and due to their distinctive size and shape, whether the tiny, hard päpernate of Steinbach and Winkler, or the somewhat larger ½” to ¾” cookies from Henderson and Mountain Lake, they remain distinctive enough to set them apart from American-style cookies or other northern European biscuits and cookie-style treats.
For most of us, the pfefferneuse was known is three basic forms. The most formal was a sweet, white pfefferneuse that somehow always resembled small loaves of bread rather than cookies and was used exclusively for communion services. Some churches, such as the Mennonite Brethren, communion was celebrated once a month, and in others such as the Brüderthaler (most lately, the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches), communion was celebrated only once per season, or four times per year. While I have no documentation for this other than the speculation of elders when I was a child, we probably celebrated communion less often in order to separate that celebration of community and congregational harmony from the high church concept of the Eucharist.
Common, everyday peppernuts were found in either the hard or soft form. Soft peppernuts are lighter, usually larger, much softer, and usually flavored with peppermint, sternanise, or plain old black pepper. My instinct is that these were probably used more often for fancy occasions as their ingredients would seem more processed and hard to come by. Many non-Mennonites prefer these also because they are very much softer than the true hard peppernuts which they find difficult to eat.
For purists, the true peppernut is the dark, flavored with brown sugar, sometimes molasses or honey, deep rich spices, and sometimes even made with whole-wheat flour (Myrna Rauch used both honey and whole wheat flour to produce an excellent peppernut). These peppernuts could be eaten as soon as they were cooled, or were often aged for up to a year – frozen in snow drifts or stored in tin cans. Grandma Wall used to store hers in plastic ice cream containers to good effect. While most lighter pfefferneusse are cut like noodles or even formed by spoon, it seems that everyone has their own favorite way of cutting the long thin ropes of dark peppernut dough. Everyone does agree that frozen ropes are the easiest with which to work, but from there you can simply use a knife, cutting shears, thimbles, special cookie cutters, or almost any time-saving contraption you can think of. Once you have a favourite method, it is only that method that will yield the true peppernut for you. The most common form in Lustre was always to use a knife, but many Manitoba families in Steinbach and Winkler prefer to make thinner ropes and use thimbles. I myself, am happy to adapt kitchen shears to the cause.
There are almost as many ways to eat peppernuts as there are to shape them. Both dark and light peppernuts make excellent accompaniments to a mid-afternoon cup of coffee, or to go along with a nice red wine – Grandpa and Grandma Wall once encountered bowls of pfefferneuse in a Pennsylvania winery to use as a palate cleanser. Very small Manitoba-style peppernuts can be eaten like nuts or sunflower seeds, keeping a few in hand to pop in one’s mouth. Larger pfefferneuse are most often eaten as one would a small cookie – but you only get one bite. As children, we often declared our heritage as “dunkers” by dunking them into our hot chocolate, or later coffee, merely dropping them in to soak up the drink, and retrieving them with a spoon, sometimes surrounded by marshmallows. (The early Anabaptists were known as “dunkers” for insisting that Christians be “dunked” or (re)baptized as adults – in fact, the Mennonite church in Amsterdam is still known as the “Dunkers” Church). The oldest tradition is to hold the peppernut against your top teeth or against the top of your mouth and drink through the peppernut, thereby flavoring the beverage. You can also suck on the peppernuts, dunked or not, to gradually soften the cookie and release its spices. White peppernuts are of course more fragile and less adaptive – but they still float.
As the wife of a Trustee, it was often Grandma’s job to make communion “buns”, and she would usually make a batch or two of dark peppernuts as a treat for us kids. She used to bake on the old-fashioned Ovenex cookie sheets with the designs stamped into the metal – we still prize these cookies sheets for baking to this day – especially for her molasses cookies, but that is another story.
Two great peppernut innovations have been the fruit, nut, and coconut rich peppernuts nick-named Minnesota Pfefferneuse (though I have only encountered them Montana and Saskatchewan), and the so-called “stuffed” or “filled” peppernuts. Minnesota peppernuts are indeed an even greater chore to make as you have to grind all of the ingredients in a food grinder before you can begin making the dough. The result however, is truly one of the greatest desserts ever invented by man. These were one of Nancy Wall’s favourite foods, and became her trademark at Schmeckfests and the various holiday fastpas. They are miraculous morsels of taste and texture that rival chocolate for sheer luxury. Like dark peppernuts, the Minnesota variety is also best after a bit of aging – a least a day if not a week. The stuffed peppernuts are a bit more fun and a great way to make peppernuts with children. Generally, you spoon out a bit of white peppernut dough and make little balls inside of which you hide chocolate chips, a piece of hard candy or candycane, a quartered gumdrom or sliced candied fruit rinds, almost anything you can think of. You then squash the peppernut by hand, using the spoon, or with a greased glass. I have not encountered these peppernuts often, but they are also a great favorite in Lustre and Mountain Lake. Helena or Mrs. OJ Wall introduced these to our pastor’s wife – Lois Korns, who used to invite me over to her house to help make these. My reward was always a gallon or so to take home. My favorite were the plain chocolate chip or gumdrop ones. Lois’ favorite was the green colored, candy cane ones. Someday, I am going to try baking them with small pieces of black licorice.
I was disappointed to find that both the German and the Austrian Pfefferneusse is actually a different thing entirely – more like a cookie, often soft, and coated in powdered sugar. Some Austrian varieties even include a dollop of jam or preserves. Though these pfefferneusse are easily available commercially, it would be like a calling a Swedish Paperkrakor a gingersnap – two totally different concepts with the same name. I also found that the German variety is seldom small and seldom hard – but is soft rather, and a bit gummy. The Swedish Bakery in Chicago also sells pfefferneuse of the German type – very good with coffee, and also a treat, just not quite what I was looking for.
I was happy to see that the famous Old Mennonite-Amish communities of Kitchener and Waterloos, Ontario, have also adapted and retained the dark peppernuts and continue to eat them in the old way. Some day, someone is going to catch on to these wonderful little snacks and we will see them in Starbucks and independent coffee shops across the globe, but until then, they remain one of Mennonite-Hutterite-Amish-doms best kept secrets.