Friday, December 16, 2011

Of Pfeffernuss and Red Envelopes

Holiday spices, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and Tasmanian Pepper? Nothing is so evocative of the holidays as the heady scent of spice. But how or why do you introduce something new to your holiday traditions?

I think about being overwhelmed by the holidays. A constant bombardment of what to cook, how to entertain, what to buy, how to feel, how to worship. Commercialism aside, the expectations of the miracles of the season are alarmingly over-the-top even in the culinary world. It is hard sometimes to just breathe.

At certain stages in life, you must just learn how to edit. What is important to you now? This moment? As young marrieds, is it the excitement of the first Christmases. Tender ornaments hung together on a tree, celebrating that special union that is just two.  Along come the babes, and then recreate the magic remembered as children, anew in the light and delight of innocent eyes. Then the transition born as we all become aged and the threads of traditions are passed from parents to sons or daughters.

Some of us are clearly the conductors of the holiday orchestra and at each stage we edit and filter the score according to the needs of those we love. Gently weaving in the family traditions – just enough so the threads of our life’s story has continuity and meaning. Like the teachings revisited during the Seder or the retelling of Christ’s birth on Christmas Eve, or even reading again of the Night Before Christmas. Our own stories are retold around the family table as we share the dishes we always share on this, the most important holiday. Connecting the present with the past, laying the foundation for the future. If the main tradition is kept for family, then, the heartfelt meaning of "You are important and our love is important"  rings true. The details can then ebb and flow naturally without strict, rigid regimen.

Christmas cannot be that picture-perfect moment, frozen in time and repeated as remembered or pictured in Hallmark cards, captured with a cut and paste -- just press the repeat button and play every December.  The memories,  no matter how precious cannot be recaptured or recreated exactly the same way,  year after year. People change. Times change. Relationships change. Recipes change. Tradition then, is about adaptation and understanding the ties that bind it all together.

It is no secret that I am blessed having grown up a native Californian, five generations strong. Thriving on the central coast where the fruits of the sea and land are abundant and a family heritage that has echoed the traditions of many in this melting pot of a land. I was thinking about the dishes and their origins that have made up our holidays, the diversity and range of traditions we have adopted as our own. I only wish we all could accept as easily the peoples and cultures that produced them. If only.

On any Christmas Eve you will find us having a cioppino, a reflection of the strong Italian community of fisherman in Santa Cruz. A cup of Ibarra Mexican hot cocoa would warm us as we wrapped presents in the firelight with Danish vanilla wreaths or Italian biscotti to dunk in the rich, spiced chocolate. Come morning and possibly cinnamon rolls or abelskivers, sausage, and latkes would appear to fortify our constitution for the day ahead. After a traditional dinner of either turkey, ham, or roast prime rib might lead into a persimmon steamed pudding if Grandma had an inkling. After time, we celebrate the Lunar New Year, Gung Hay Fat Choy. Red envelopes and dishes for health, good fortune, and luck appeared at the table. Standing in the Buddhist Temple at midnight plus one. Bell ringing and deep resonate tones, shaking us to the core, reverberating into our very bodies. Echoing continuity and tradition. Transition, tradition, ever evolving and changing.  That is my America. My Family.

These reflections are in part a response to watching Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions (Dec. 20, 2011 8pm PBS) and my own reflections about family holidays. PBS and Lidia Bastianich score in a holiday special that relates to real people, real families without the overt contrivances of food TV specials.  Lidia is best in her kitchen, visiting new friends and treating family as family and friends as family.  Traveling with her to San Antonio, San Francisco and as a guest at her own table she makes you feel you are with a special friend. “Lidia Bastianich is someone you want in your life.” says Mo Rocca as he shops with her on Arthur Street in the Bronx.  (Spoiler note: Stanley Tucci is a stud in the kitchen and earns his ‘cred with Lidia in this special.) Over brisket and horseradish we tag along a Passover Seder with fourth generation owners of Russ & Daughters and talk about mothers, fathers and traditions. This is why I watch PBS and especially Lidia on the stations that are home to Julia and Jacques and America’s Test Kitchen. Programming is sincere, engaging and a truthfulness that is lacking in the over-produced, contrived foodie networks. I think you will enjoy the insights Lidia finds in her travels. It is refreshing to find someone so bold to still believe in the American Dream. If you missed the original presentation I hope you can catch the rebroadcast.

As I am baking with the grandbabies, and preparing our holiday meal I will be thinking of my friends and family and doing the best I can to breathe, edit and hold the simple truths of the why we really celebrate.   I wish for you blessings, peace and joy of season.

Boxed and Ready

Tasmanian Pfeffernusse - Pepper Spiced Cookies
Makes about 36 cookies
The flavor of the Tasmanian Pepper (also called Mountain Pepper) is an exciting change up in this classic German cookie. Sweet on first taste belies the woody, pungent pepper punch.

1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground Smaromi Tasmanien Pepper (Pfeffer)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Put powdered confectioner’s sugar in a 1 gallon zip lock bag. You will use this later for covering the cookies in a sugar coating. Shake and Shake.

Sift dry ingredients together (flour, spices, baking soda and salt.) Set aside as you beat butter, brown sugar, egg, vanilla and molasses in a large bowl until light and creamy, about 3-4 minutes on medium speed. Reduce mixing speed to low and slowly add in the dry ingredients. Mix until  just combined thoroughly. Form cookies by spooning about 1 tablespoon of dough and roll in a ball before placing on cookie sheet. Make sure you have a good inch and a half separation so cookies don’t touch. Bake for 15 minutes until golden and cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes before shaking a few at a time in the confectioners’ sugar.
Cool completely before storing in airtight containers. Best eaten next day! (If you can wait.)

Cook’s Tips
Of course you can use regular fine ground black pepper in this recipe.

Inspiration: Martha Stewart Pfeffernusse Recipe

About Tasmanian Peppers


Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions  

pfeffernusse taste test
Pfeffernuss on the Christmas cookie list to include Tasmanian Pfeffer from Smaromi.


  1. Wow. How perfectly insightful and eloquent. You've made our holidays for me today. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Robin for a year of humor and good recipies. Wishing a warm spicy holiday for you and yours. I bet your house smells amazing.


Comments have been disabled on the site. See my new site at

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.