What are pepernoten?
Pepernoten are small Dutch spiced cookies, traditionally consumed during the holiday season in the Netherlands and Belgium.
They are flavored with honey, cane or maple sugar syrup, and a mixture of various spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ground ginger, cloves and anise. These spicy round cookies stand out for their very small size and fairly soft texture.
What is the origin of pepernoten?
Pepernoten (singular pepernoot) are typical treats from the Netherlands. In Dutch, pepernoten literally translates to “pepper nut”, in reference to their spicy taste and their size no larger than a nut. These little festive cookies are mostly found from October until Christmas, and more rarely the rest of the year.
The origins of pepernoten date back to the 16th century. At that time, the Netherlands controlled a large part of the spice trade with the Far East. Spices such as ginger, cinnamon or even cloves, previously very rare and expensive, became more accessible to residents.
The Dutch began to make various sweets flavored with spices, including pepernoten. As these remain fairly luxurious ingredients, the locals reserved them for special occasions, including the end of year celebrations.
The Saint Nicholas tradition
Since then, these small spiced cookies have been associated with the tradition of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas in Dutch. This event, deeply rooted in local culture, takes place on December 5 every year and results in numerous celebrations throughout the country.
According to the custom, Saint Nicholas of Myra arrives by boat from Spain to offer all kinds of gifts and sweets to the children. Upon arrival at the port, handfuls of pepernoten are thrown into the crowd to celebrate the occasion.
This custom refers to a legend which says that Saint Nicholas would one day have thrown gold coins at three young girls, so that they could constitute a dowry and marry. The gesture is also associated with a symbol of fertility, such as the farmer sowing his land.
The Belgians, who also celebrate Saint Nicholas, are also great fans of pepernoten and thus make them during the holidays every year.
Pepernoten or kruidnoten?
Pepernoten are often confused with kruidnoten, another kind of spiced cookies, also enjoyed during the Saint Nicholas holiday. In fact, the Dutch themselves sometimes don’t make the distinction between the two cookies.
In reality, although they are very similar, their ingredients differ. The composition of kruidnoten is indeed closer to that of speculoos, the famous cookies of Belgian origin. They also do not contain anise, are even smaller than pepernoten and have a crunchier texture.
Originally, the first pepernoten did not have the same appearance as today. The authentic pepernoot thus had a very random shape. Nowadays, they are practically found only in their round form, similar to a cookie, which explains the confusion with kruidnoten.
In the Netherlands, pepernoten come in all kinds of flavors and scents. The chocolade-pepernoten are coated with milk chocolate or dark chocolate, while others are filled with almonds or other dried fruits. Some recipes also use molasses instead of honey.
During Sinterklaas, the Dutch also enjoy taai-taai, literally “hard hard”. These are small flat cookies, molded into figurines representing animals, hearts or even Saint Nicholas himself. The taai-taai recipe contains honey and anise, two of the main ingredients of pepernoten. In fact, it was common at the time to make pepernoten from the remains of taai-taai dough.
Finally, the Germans also enjoy small dry cookies similar to pepernoten during the holiday season. These are called pfeffernüsse, a word which is also the translation of “pepper nut” in German. Unlike pepernoten, pfeffernüsse are however covered with a layer of white icing, or sometimes simply rolled in icing sugar.
- 3 cups flour sifted
- ¾ cup salted butter melted
- ¾ cup brown sugar or vergeoise
- 3 tablespoons cane sugar syrup or maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons honey
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon green cardamom powder
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground anise
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flour, spices, sugar and yeastm then add the butter to this mixture and continue mixing the flat beater. Then add the maple syrup, honey and milk.
- Mix quickly until obtaining a fairly solid dough.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F (180°C).
- Form balls about 1 inch (3 cm) in diameter and arrange them, well spaced, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are golden.
- Cool the cookies on a wire rack and store them in an airtight container.