German Christmas baking smells enticingly of spices and orange, and plays an important role throughout the celebration. Some cookbooks separate their recipes by the period of baking: November, Advent, Christmas or New Year. The batches the recipes make are often enormous, but there’s no hurry to eat them all since the biscuits and cookies baked through Advent often last for weeks at a time. In the case of Pfefferkuchen, that goes for the dough as well as the finished product. In fact it’s best to let the dough age for at least three days to let the old-fashioned raising agents in the Honigkuchen dough do their work.
The raising agents are Potash and Salts of Hartshorn, or more chemically described potassium carbonate and ammonium carbonate (normal baking soda is sodium hydrogen carbonate). This does begin to sound more like instructions for chemistry than baking, but that makes the recipe all the more fascinatingly unusual. There are two types of dough for Pfefferkuchen, both of which contain honey, explaining the alternative name Honigkuchen. One dough is kneaded and the other stirred and they’re used for biscuits and cakes respectively. Only the kneaded biscuit dough uses Salts of Hartshorn, because baking in a thin layer removes any residual taste of ammonia. It’s certainly smelly when you dissolve the raising agents, but don’t fear, there’ll be no trace left in your Christmas Cookies.
Once you’ve made up the dough you can let it stand for between three days and a fortnight. The longer you leave it, the spicier your biscuits should taste. I found that after five days the dough had appreciably expanded, so I baked my biscuits then. Another option is to cook small batches of biscuits freshly each day until you’ve used up the dough, with the batches becoming increasingly spicy as time goes on.
The basic dough can be made fancier by adding chopped nuts or peel, and the final biscuits can be decorated with icing sugar or chocolate. All these different variations have different names. The ones I made look rather like Pfeffernüsse, although those are usually made without added peel. The peel adds a pleasant touch of citrus to the spicy fragrance of these soft biscuits. They go very well with a nice cup of tea.
Ingredients for Kneaded Honigkuchen Dough
Adapted from a second hand copy of ‘Wir Backen Selbst’, a lovely old cookbook from the Verlag für die Frau, a publisher for women based in Leipzig.
500g plain flour (or half hazelnut meal and half gluten free flour)
20g Pfefferkuchen spice blend (including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamon, star anise, pepper)
5g salts of hartshorn
2 tabs milk or rum
100g candied orange peel
Warm the honey, sugar and butter together until the crystals have dissolved.
Mix the flour and spices.
Dissolve the two raising agents in milk or rum.
When the honey mixture has cooled slightly, add the dissolved raising agents to it, and then add the dry ingredients. Finally add any additional peel or nuts.
Mix to a kneadable dough. If it is too wet you may need to add a little more flour, especially if you have replaced some of the flour with ground nuts as I did.
Wrap in baking paper, or place in a large container and allow to rest for three days, or up to two weeks.
After resting the dough should have expanded slightly.
Make balls of dough, about 2 teaspoonfuls in size, and place on a baking sheet. Flatten them slightly with the back of your hand or a fork.
Bake at 180 degrees Celcius for 6-8 minutes.
This recipe makes around 4 dozen biscuits.