I'm Dreaming of a European Christmas, Part I: Leckerli and Pfeffernüsse

I ended up making a number of traditional European baked goods for our holiday party this year. I didn't set out to have a European Christmas-themed menu, but it came about somewhat by accident. First I decided to make Dorie Greenspan's recipe for leckerli, a spice cookie that originates from Switzerland. I had never tried leckerli before but had added the recipe to my to-bake list even before I started thinking about our holiday party -- based solely on the photo in Dorie's Cookies (the same photo that appears alongside this online copy of the recipe) showing a scrumptious-looking pile of golden bars topped with glaze and studded with sliced almonds. While leckerli are associated with Christmas, the recipe appears in the section of Dorie's book covering "brownies, bars, break-ups and biscotti." When I realized that the cookbook actually has a section specifically devoted to "cookies for weekends, holidays and other celebrations," I paged through it and added Dorie's pfeffernüsse cookies to the menu as well.

The method for making leckerli was novel to me, and it's not a cookie you can make in a rush. Dorie emphasizes that the dough needs to rest for one to two days before baking to develop flavor, so you need to plan ahead. To make the dough, you bring honey and sugar to a boil; add candied orange peel and fresh lemon zest; cool the mixture; stir in sliced almonds and Grand Marnier; and gradually add the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper). You end up with a very stiff dough that you dust with flour and roll out between two sheets of parchment paper. I left my rolled out dough in the fridge for two days. Then I peeled the dough off of the parchment and baked the leckerli in a hot oven until it was puffy. While the cookies were still warm, I brushed on a glaze of Grand Marnier and water mixed with powdered sugar. The glaze was very thin, essentially colorless, and close to invisible.

I sliced the glazed cookies into rectangles after the sheet of cookies was fully cool. The bars cut cleanly into neat rectangles, but the cookies were soft -- you could bend them with minimal effort. I tried a cookie shortly after slicing and thought that the alcohol in the glaze was overwhelming. But I tried another cookie the following day and the alcohol had dissipated, leaving just orange flavor. These are incredibly interesting cookies. The cookie is aggressively spicy, and combined with the candied orange peel, lemon, and almonds, the end result is unusual and super flavorful. My favorite part of this cookie was the texture -- soft and very chewy. The flavors definitely scream holiday; we happen to have some Mrs. Meyer's seasonal orange clove hand soap in the kitchen, and you could easily rename the scent "leckerli" instead. I loved these cookies (I will admit to saving and devouring all of the odd-shaped scraps I trimmed off in order to cut the cookies into bars) and would absolutely make them again, especially for the holidays.
Pfeffernüsse also are spice cookies, and Dorie's version includes pecans, lots of spices (the name means "pepper nut" in German), and a chocolate-espresso glaze. In contrast to the leckerli, you can turn out a batch of pfeffernüsse in no time at all. You just rub together sugar and citrus zest (I used an orange) until the sugar is moist and aromatic; add softened butter and eggs; incorporate the dry ingredients (flour, cinnamon, salt, black pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, dry mustard, baking powder, and baking soda); and stir in finely chopped pecans. You can use the dough immediately; I used a #50 scoop to form the cookies and got 65 from a double batch. My cookies baked in 17.5 minutes, which was less time than the recipe specifies.

The cookies baked into neat domes with cracked tops. Once they were cool, I dipped them into a glaze made of bittersweet chocolate melted with a little espresso powder, finished with some butter. While the cookbook photo shows the pfeffernüsse covered in a smooth, shiny glaze (the photo that appears here on Dorie's website is the same one in the book), my glaze was quite thick and gloppy, so my cookies looked a little messy. Thankfully, the glaze set nicely, so at least the cookies weren't messy to handle. The pfeffernüsse were firm, dry, and crumbly -- and while those might sound like undesirable traits, I was surprised how much I liked this cookie. The flavor of the pfeffernüsse was quite different from the leckerli -- the pfeffernüsse had a softer, but still pleasantly warm spice flavor. I couldn't really taste the pecans (which were chopped very fine), but I thought the chocolate-espresso glaze was an excellent addition. While I preferred the leckerli between these two cookies, both were strong performers that were popular with our party guests.

Recipes: "Leckerli" and "Pfefferneusse" from Dorie's Cookies by Dorie Greenspan.