If wood ran low, you would pay a few hard earned dollars for a load of coal. In a pinch, you might resort to burning railroad ties, items of furniture and even cow patties. Imagine cooking Christmas dinner on that!
Add to that, those old stoves didn't have a temperature guide. Skilled cooks could "guess" the oven temperature by placing a hand inside and counting how long they could hold it there. Twenty seconds might be just right to bake a cake.
Recipes didn't give an oven temperature. Rather, they used terms like slow (300F), moderate (350F), hot (400F) and quick (450F). Give or take 50 degrees. Given the temperature variability, it was impossible to say how long an item would take to bake. A recipe for cake might say "bake in a moderate oven until a knife comes out clean."
This little holiday cookie was brought to the prairies by settlers from Germany and northern Europe but has, it seems, largely disappeared from modern cookbooks. Pfeffer refers to its peppery spiciness. Nusse is a hard little nut. If you're using a wood stove, cook in a moderate to hot oven until lightly brown and no longer soft to the touch.
Pfeffernusse (Pepper Nuts)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup soft butter
Grated peel of one lemon
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp black pepper
Powdered sugar for dusting (opt)
Cream eggs and sugar. Add butter and lemon peel. Mix well. Sift together flour, baking powder and spices. Add to the egg mixture. Blend just until incorporated.
With the fingers, roll small balls of dough about the size of a cherry. Place on a cookie sheet (greased or covered with parchment paper). Bake at 375F for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack. When the pfeffernusse are cool enough to handle, but still warm, toss in powdered sugar.
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(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)