This is traditional Danish Christmas cookie recipe that my family has made them since I was a child, probably since my grandmother was a child too. The cookies are tiny shortbread cookies leavened with ammonium carbonate, sometimes called Hartshorn in old cookbooks. (Ammonium Carbonate can be purchased from King Arthur Flour and on Amazon, your local drug store might also carry it.) The ammonium carbonate makes an exceptionally crisp cookie and these keep well for months in an airtight container. I know this is because I always stash a little jar away in the pantry for myself then forget about them till about Easter.
In July I gave a jar I had found to a friend at the Farmers Market. Ruth is Danish and it has become a tradition for me to include her in my Christmas list of Pebernodder recipients and she was delighted to get the bonus cookies at mid-summer. Ruth told me about her childhood memory of games that were played with the cookies and how they would make little paper baskets and fill them with the cookies and hang them on the Christmas tree then at midnight on Christmas Eve after singing caroles, all the children would race around the tree finding the baskets of goodies. I am happy to help Ruth find that inner child each year!
What I remember about the Pebernodder was first, we called them Pivanewya, probably because my Danish Great Grandmother had a heavy accent and this is how the name came out. It took a little back-and forth before Ruth and I came to understand we were talking about the same cookie and she taught me the proper pronunciation. Second the cookies had to be baked in November to properly “age” before Christmas The cardamom, ginger and lemon in the recipe married into a delicate flavor that gets better with time. And third, the baking was a many-day process that yielded mounds of finished cookies.
The baking process began on day one with the mixing of the dough in my mothers trusty Sunbeam mixer (she still uses it today). Then after chilling overnight the dough was rolled into narrow “snakes” the length of the cookie sheets and layered on the pans with wax paper in between. This took all evening! Space had to be made in the refigerator, they barely fit. Another night in the fridge and then on day three the “snakes” of dough were cut, piece by piece into little 1/2 inch cubes with a paring knife onto the cookie sheets and baked, two pans at a time. It seemed to take forever but was fun and got us in the mood for the holidays. The house filled with the odd combination of the pungent smell of amonia and butter and lemon as the cookies baked. Opening the oven made your eyes water! But the result was delightful, crisp butter cookies that begged to be eaten by the handful. We did our share of sampling, all in the name of taste testing. My mom always turned the hot cookies out onto a large tea towel to cool, it was impressive to see the mound grow larger tray by tray, I still do the same. Once the cookies were cool they were packed away in cookie tins to age until Christmas when we would package them in little pint tubs and gift them to all our friends and relatives.
Here’s the Pebernodder process:
For many years while Mom and I were baking ours, Grandma and Great Grandma were doing the same. There was no shortage of cookies for the entire family.
I carry on this tradition at the bakery now and with the help of a very large mixer and sheet pans and coolers and really big ovens, I can crank out my “Piv” in a day. Mom stops by to help wth the rolling and we make lots of cookies to give to customers and friends and, of course, Ruth.
- 1 pound salted butter, softened
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 eggs
- 2 tsp lemon extract
- 2 tsp freshly ground cardamom
- 1/2 tsp ginger
- 4 tsp lemon zest
- 4 tsp ammonium carbonate
- 7 1/2 c. flour
- Cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs and lemon extract, the spices, lemon zest and ammonium carbonate, then add the flour till a stiff dough forms. Chill the dough, roll into 1/2 snakes, chill again. Cut chilled dough into 1/2 inch cubes and bake at 350 till golden, about 10 minutes. Let cool completely then store airtight for at least 30 days.