Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 12, 2007
When we visited Art's Mom Donna over the holidays, she announced that she hadn't made pfeffernuts this year. In the nearly 20 years I've known her, she always had at least two or three bags of the little brown cookies ready to give out as Christmas presents. At 96 years, Donna hasn't shown many signs of slowing down, but we can tell she's starting to eliminate some tasks.
So I saw this as an opportunity for daughters Mariya and Katie to learn a family recipe from their grandmother, who, in turn, had learned it from her mother. Even the name speaks of its and Donna's heritage, the name being a partial Americanization of Pfeffer and Nuss, the German words for pepper and nut. While there are nuts in the small golden cookies, the "pepper"comes from the "peppery" flavor of the cloves, allspice and nutmeg.
"We had them every year that I remember," Donna said. "As a kid, I helped squeeze them once they were on the cookie sheet."
Through World War II, her mother was the family pfeffernut maker. But then Donna took over and distributed them to her brothers and sisters.
"I first made them myself somewhere between 1945 and 1950," she said. "I had to get Mama's recipe down pat because she didn't follow a recipe exactly. She would take a teacup or whatever cup was handy and use it to measure."
Art's brother Tommy remembered his grandmother pouring corn syrup straight from the bottle into the mixing bowl, guessing on the correct amount. "But it always panned out," he added.
Katie has shown an interest in cooking, so I knew she'd help. Mariya, although not one to spend any more time than necessary in a kitchen, is interested in family traditions, so her job was to help me videotape the process.
On the morning of the big day, Art, the girls and I had gone shopping. When we returned, Donna already had the lard and sugar measured into the mixing bowl, emphasizing to the girls the importance of using lard. She added that she had tried shortening once, but didn't like the way the cookies turned out.
Then Donna began issuing instructions. She told Katie to turn on the mixer and to scrape the bowl as she creamed the lard and sugar together.
"There, you got it," Donna said. I could tell it was hard for her to stand by without doing it herself.
When it came time to add the egg, Donna told Katie, "Don't get the shells in. They don't taste very good."
Mariya and I took turns taping the different steps, even though Donna couldn't quite understand why. "OK, that's enough taping. It gets BORING!" she said.
I didn't think so. When it was time to add the molasses, Katie dripped some on her toe, which led to giggling fits. Donna, in her matter-of-fact way, said, "Oh, well, it's no tragedy."
I learned a couple of tricks from Donna as I watched her.
The recipe called for three and a third cups of flour. Katie added one cup and Donna put a pen on the table. Then Katie added another cup and Donna put a pencil on the table.
"What's that?" Mariya asked, pointing to the pen and pencil.
"It shows I've used two cups," Donna said. "Otherwise, I might get mixed up and not remember how much I added."
"Clever idea," I thought.
After the mixing was done, Donna cleaned the beaters, using flour to get every bit of the sticky mixture off and into the dough. "I never waste anything," commented Donna.
"But the best part of regular cooking, like baking brownies, is to lick the beaters," Katie protested.
Donna covered the bowl with plastic and put it into the refrigerator, where it aged a couple of days. When it was time to form the cookies, she scooped out some of the stiff sticky mixture and started rolling it into a one-inch diameter roll.
"Put some flour on your hands," she told Katie, explaining that she'd be able to roll it easier.
Katie rolled one herself and then cut it into ½ inch pieces following her Grandma's instructions. She and I formed the pieces into marble-sized balls and then squeezed them with our fingers on a cookie sheet as Donna had demonstrated.
With the oven preheated to 350 F, we set the timer and in they went. Twelve minutes later, Katie took them out. They looked good.
"They can't turn out bad," Donna said.
All of us but Donna tried them.
"Oh, no, you can't eat them right away. You have to put them in an airtight container for two weeks to let them develop their flavor," she said.
Mariya dutifully put them into a bread bag and wrapped it in foil.
So will the pfeffernut tradition survive another generation?
In a few days, we'll find out!