Or rather, his was the inspiration.
You see, for the past two years, at Yuletide, I set out to make one more new and interesting cookie to add to my growing list of sweets that beguile the senses with flavors that one does not expect to encounter in a dessert.
Two years ago, Zak and Morganna served as my inspiration when I made a lavender, almond and cardamom-enriched shortbread that I shaped into leaves and called “Lembas,” after the Elvish waybread in Tolkien’ s Lord of the Rings. Last year, I decided to make a brownie that Montezuma would have swooned over and came up with extremely moist and fudgy ones flavored with vanilla, chiles, espresso and cinnamon. I called them “Aztec Gold,” and proceeded to let them loose among friends and family, where they cut a wide swath of weak-kneed nibblers and chocoholics, many of whom have declared them their favorite brownie ever.
So, I was musing over what I should make for my new Yule goodie this year, when Zak piped up and said, “You know those German cookies with the black pepper in them? You should do those, only, instead of black pepper, put in Sichuan peppercorns.”
The problem with pfeffernuesse, however, is that I like them much better in theory than in actuality. A German Christmas specialty, “peppernuts” are quite hard, crunchy nuggets of a very dense dough flavored with a number of spices and fruits. The stiff dough is dried overnight–or allowed to mature for weeks–before baking, and the result is a cookie that dentists fear and those with dentures dread.
Being as I am not fond of confections that can chip a tooth, I decided to further tweak Zak’s idea. I resolved to look at the flavorings for pfeffernuesse and convert them into distinctly Chinese flavors, and then use a totally different cookie recipe as a basis for the dough.
Mexican Wedding Cookies, another Christmas tradition, became the template for the dough. They are not really a cookie so much as a pastry–the crumbly dough has no egg to hold it together, nor any leavening–it is quite simply a mixture of butter, flour, finely ground almonds and a tiny bit of sugar. All of the sweetness comes from the powdered sugar that the barely warm cookies are rolled in after baking.
Tender and light, the sweet round nuggets nearly melt in the mouth, which as far as I am concerned is about a thousand steps up from cookies make a hobby of chipping incisors.
When it came to researching pfefferneusse recipes, I ended up using Mimi Sheraton’s from her 1968 book, Visions of Sugarplums. This cookbook is a collection of cookies, cakes, candies, breads and pastries that are traditional at Christmastime all over the world. It was probably the third cookbook I bought for myself when I was around the age of thirteen or so, and I remember spending many afternoons reading avidly about all of the different interesting customary Christmas sweets.
I never really baked from it–but I loved reading it.
Well, since Sheraton’s pfeffernuesse recipe is unlike any other I have seen, I am not certain how traditional it really is, but since I wasn’t actually using it to make real German peppernuts, I didn’t overly concern myself with how authentic her ingredients and method were.
I just wanted to use them to give me a launching place for my new cookie recipe.
She called for the grated rind of one lemon, finely minced citron, finely minced candied orange peel, ground almonds, (that was what inspired me to use the Mexican Wedding Cookie recipe as a template for the dough), cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cardamom and black pepper.
As I looked at the ingredients list, I decided to drop the lemon rind altogether, and exchange crystallized ginger for the citron. In place of the candied orange peel, I used the freshly grated rind of two tangerines– Chinese cooks have used dried tangerine peel in braised dishes for centuries, and I wanted to echo that tradition. The cinnamon I kept–though I did use Vietnamese cassia–a slightly more delicate version of cinnamon. Instead of cloves, I used freshly toasted and ground star anise, and I replaced the allspice with the Sichuan peppercorns. The cardamom was replaced with dried ground ginger, and the black pepper I exchanged for a mixture of half white pepper and half black pepper, both freshly ground. (Many Chinese chefs prefer white peppercorns to black.)
Essentially, since I toasted the peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns and star anise, then ground them, I made my very own, extremely fresh “Five Spice Powder.” Since I ground more spices than I needed for the cookies, I decided to mix them all together and keep them in a tighly covered jar for use in my further experiments in Chinese cookery.
Mixing the dough was simple, even without eggs to hold it together.
It is only a matter of creaming the butter and sugar well, then gradually adding all of the rest of the ingredients, which have previously been mixed together.
If the butter is properly soft, the dough comes together quickly and easily. Creaming the butter and sugar together instead of cutting the butter into the flour results in a very tender cookie with a very light crumb that nearly melts in the mouth.
As I always do, I used a cookie scoop to portion the dough–however, even the smallest two-tablespoon scoop that I have made balls to large to bake properly, so as is illustrated below, I cut each ball in half and then rolled the dough into smaller balls, perfectly bite-sized.
As the cookies baked, the air was scented with spices and tangerine essence; it was as if some sort of tropical flowers had bloomed in my steamy kitchen, even as snowflakes drifted past the dark windows.
The final fillip, of course, is the coating of powdered sugar–this is the grace note that makes the recipe special.
I didn’t want to cover the inherent fragrance of these little cookies under a cloud of sugar, so instead, I added a teaspoon of the black and white pepper mixture to a cup of confectionary sugar and used that to coat the little speckled tan nuggets of pastry. The secret to a good sugar coating is to put the sugar and pepper in a plastic ziplock bag, and then closing it, shaking it vigorously to thoroughly mix the two. Then, three at a time, take the still slightly warm cookies and shake them in the sugar-pepper mixture, then set them back on the cooling rack until they are down to room temperature.
The still-warm cookies melt the first layer of sugar that touches them. This sticky layer makes the rest of the sugar adhere to the cookie much better than it does if you try and coat them when they are completely cool. However, if you put the cookies in while they are still hot, the sugar becomes a sticky, drizzly mess, and a very ugly cookie is the result.
And no matter how good they taste–cookies should really never be ugly.
All that remained was coming up with a name for my new creation.
Because of the cooling, tingly sensation that the Sichuan peppercorns leave on the lips and tongue after eating these cookies, and because the sugar coating looks like snow, we played with wintery words and concepts. Another strand of thought spun around the floriferous scent of the cookies that enchants and bewitches the consumer, daring him to guess the ingredients that went into its making.
We ended up calling them “Frostflowers,” thus capturing a paradoxical name for a cookie born from the widely divergent culinary traditions of several different cultures.
2 pieces star anise
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
1/2 tablespoon white peppercorns
3/4 cup ground untoasted, unblanched almonds
1/8 cup crystallized ginger, finely minced
1/8 cup finely grated tangerine peel (the peel of about two small tangerines)
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon all finely ground star anise
1 1/2 teaspoons finely ground Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon finely ground black and white pepper mixture
1/8 teaspoon ground dried ginger
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup softened butter
1/4 cup raw sugar
1 teaspoon black and white pepper mixture
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Pick through Sichuan peppercorns and take out any stems or thorns that you see among the flowerbuds and seeds. Toast whole spices separately in a pan until they are fragrant. Allow to cool, and then grind each into very fine powdered, separately.
Measure out proper amounts of spices–the rest you can use in other cooking projects.
Mix together nuts, ginger, tangerine peel, flour, salt and spices.
Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Add flour mixture in thirds, scraping down mixer bowl as needed, and mix until blended into a crumbly, yet still fairly cohesive dough.
Using a two-tablespoon cookie scoop (level the dough in the scoop as illustrated above) make rough balls of dough. Cut each ball in half and then roll into smooth rounds and set on cookie sheets about one inch apart. (There is no baking soda, so they do not spread out.)
Bake in a 350 degree oven for twenty minutes.
While they bake, mix together pepper and confectioner’s sugar in a ziplock bag.
Remove cookies when done (they should not brown) and allow to cool one minute on pan. Remove to wire rack and allow to cool until they are still barely above body temperature.
Shake them while still warm, three or so at a time, in the sugar-pepper mixture. Return to rack and allow to cool completely, then store in a tightly sealed container. They will keep for at least a week–that is, if no one eats them first.
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