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National Pfeffernusse Day? The story of a holiday cookie

Hans Rockenwagner, owner of the Rockenwagner Bakery in Los Angeles, and corporate pastry chef Anthony Nigro hold a tray of pfeffernusse cookies just out of the oven. The cookies are a holiday tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe. In the United States, National Pfeffernusse Day on Dec. 23 celebrates the spice-laden cookie, which likely made its way across the Atlantic long ago with German immigrants.
Hans Rockenwagner, owner of the Rockenwagner Bakery in Los Angeles, and corporate pastry chef Anthony Nigro hold a tray of pfeffernusse cookies just out of the oven. The cookies are a holiday tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe. In the United States, National Pfeffernusse Day on Dec. 23 celebrates the spice-laden cookie, which likely made its way across the Atlantic long ago with German immigrants.
LESLIE BERESTEIN ROJAS/KPCC
Hans Rockenwagner, owner of the Rockenwagner Bakery in Los Angeles, and corporate pastry chef Anthony Nigro hold a tray of pfeffernusse cookies just out of the oven. The cookies are a holiday tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe. In the United States, National Pfeffernusse Day on Dec. 23 celebrates the spice-laden cookie, which likely made its way across the Atlantic long ago with German immigrants.
Hans Rockenwagner, owner of the Rockenwagner Bakery, prepares traditional pfeffernusse cookies.
LESLIE BERESTEIN ROJAS/KPCC
Hans Rockenwagner, owner of the Rockenwagner Bakery in Los Angeles, and corporate pastry chef Anthony Nigro hold a tray of pfeffernusse cookies just out of the oven. The cookies are a holiday tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe. In the United States, National Pfeffernusse Day on Dec. 23 celebrates the spice-laden cookie, which likely made its way across the Atlantic long ago with German immigrants.
A tray of freshly-baked pfeffernusse at the Rockenwagner bakery in mid-city Los Angeles. National Pfeffernusse Day on Dec. 23 celebrates the spice-laden cookie with German roots.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Hans Rockenwagner, owner of the Rockenwagner Bakery in Los Angeles, and corporate pastry chef Anthony Nigro hold a tray of pfeffernusse cookies just out of the oven. The cookies are a holiday tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe. In the United States, National Pfeffernusse Day on Dec. 23 celebrates the spice-laden cookie, which likely made its way across the Atlantic long ago with German immigrants.
The finished product: glazed pfeffernusse cookies at the Rockenwagner Bakery in mid-city L.A. The cookies, made with spices like ginger and cinnamon, are often lightly glazed or dipped in powdered sugar. These pictured have a thin coating of chocolate on the bottom.
LESLIE BERESTEIN ROJAS/KPCC
Hans Rockenwagner, owner of the Rockenwagner Bakery in Los Angeles, and corporate pastry chef Anthony Nigro hold a tray of pfeffernusse cookies just out of the oven. The cookies are a holiday tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe. In the United States, National Pfeffernusse Day on Dec. 23 celebrates the spice-laden cookie, which likely made its way across the Atlantic long ago with German immigrants.
A tray of traditional pfeffernusse cookies is prepared for the oven at the Rockenwagner Bakery.
LESLIE BERESTEIN ROJAS/KPCC


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It's the week before Christmas, and Hans Rockenwagner's bakery in mid-city Los Angeles  is humming.

Giant side-by-side mixers beat egg white and sugar, along with a mix containing almond paste and honey. They're just some of the ingredients that go into making the spice-laden cookie known as the pfeffernusse.

"We have ... candied citrus fruit, we have flour, baking powder, cocoa powder, and proprietary spice mixture," said Rockenwagner, a German immigrant and the owner of Rockenwagner Bakery.

The spices include a generous pinch of black pepper, which Rockenwagner folds into the mix. 

"Pfeffernusse, it's pepper and nuts - pepper nuts," he said. "That is the literal translation."

The small, round spice cookies are popular in Germany and parts of northern Europe. But in the U.S., the pfeffernusse has enough fans to have its own food holiday: Dec. 23, otherwise known as National Pfeffernusse Day

It's not clear just how the pfeffernusse got its own holiday. But it most likely hitched a ride across the Atlantic centuries ago, said Walter Staib, a chef and culinary historian based in Philadelphia who hosts a history-themed cooking show.

"It would have been the Amish, it would have been the Mennonites," said Staib, a German immigrant himself, referring to the early German-speaking settlers who were coming to the American colonies as early as the 17th century.

"People travel, they leave their countries, and they bring something along with them," he said. "And a tradition like pfeffernusse is an easy tradition that you can bring along with you. You don't have to go through a lot of hoopla to maintain your roots."

Staib said those early settlers brought with them Christmas traditions like pfeffernusse and stollen, a dried fruit bread, and continued to make them here. 

The pfeffernusse cookies eaten in the U.S. aren't too different from the ones his grandmother made when he was growing up in Germany's Black Forest region, he said.

"We celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6," Staib said. "And what happens as a child is you put your shoes outside your bedroom, or your living room, or wherever ... and Saint Nick comes and gives you  presents. And pfeffernusse is one of the things [you would get] if you were good. If you were not good, you maybe would find yourself with coals in your shoes." 

From then on, he said, there would be pfeffernusse around to eat throughout the holidays.

Food blogger John-Bryan Hopkins, who chronicles food holidays on his Foodimentary blog and has even coined a few of his own, said he has found references to National Pfeffernusse Day dating as far back as 1963, in a women's magazine.

He says this is how many food holidays likely got their start.

"A lot of ladies' magazines were around that created food holidays," Hopkins said. "That's where a lot of these holidays came from, not actually from the people that make these foods."  

Back at the bakery, Rockenwagner said he didn’t know there's a National Pfeffernusse Day. But no matter. He still plans to sell thousands of the cookies over the holidays, along with all manner of German holiday baked treats like stollen and lebkuchen, the pfeffernusse's larger, softer gingerbread cousin. 

Some of the treats will be sold to cafes and stores, he said, and also at his Culver City cafe bakery, where he has a regular clientele of German expatriates.

"We do the holidays right," said Rockenwagner, who grew up in Germany and has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. "No one does the holidays like the Germans. It's the Super Bowl of holidays."