There once was a very small boy who loved to visit his Aunt Gertie. She was the boy's favorite among the relatives who took turns cooking for holiday family gatherings. None of the children could say "Gertrude," so she became "Gertie" to everyone but her husband.
Uncle Auguste was a stern-faced Lutheran deacon who paid him no mind at all, but Aunt Gertie let him feel important and skillful by allowing him to watch and help in her kitchen.
Aunt Gertie, in her white apron, was tall and round, like a box of Quaker oatmeal. The boy was fascinated by the fact that such a large person could stand on such narrow ankles, but then children can see facts. Facts like her hair was brown and so thin you could see clear through it to her scalp. Facts like a small round nose, crinkly eyes and wide grin that gave her the look of a huge Mrs. Kris Kringle.
In silent shoes she moved around the kitchen, her head down, humming softly to a Hoagy Carmichael song on the radio. The kitchen never seemed crowded, even when all the women in the extended family were there helping to cook dinner. Large bulky furniture stood facing each other on each side of the kitchen. The woodwork was still the dark varnished mahogany of the rest of the house, but the walls had been painted a soft cool white.
The stove, mostly black with shiny trim, squatted on curved legs in a Chippendale stance. The design ancestry was from wood-burning days, but the stove had new gas burners. When the stove was lit, the pungent odor of gas mingled with other, more pleasant aromas to give the kitchen it's unique fragrance. A white enamel-top table stood in the middle of the room between the stove and sink. Concentrating like a skilled nurse preparing for an important operation, Aunt Gertie set out the instruments and ingredients she would need on the table.
"Now, you watch everything I do, like a good boy," cautioned Aunt Gertie. ~He pulled up the step-stool and sat high on top to watch her with wide-eyed awe as she prepared the traditional cookies called peppernuts.
She filled a tin measuring cup twice with flour, trimming off the excess with a knife stroked across the top of the cup, and with a silent poof, dumped the flour into a bowl. Using a ring of measuring spoons, one-half teaspoon each of baking powder and salt, and one-eighth teaspoon of white pepper went into the bowl with the carefully measured flour.
"Where does white pepper come from, Aunt Gertie?" asked the boy.
"It comes from just using the kernel inside the black shell," was Aunt Gertie's answer to the pepper mystery.
The white mixture was sifted again and again and again through a sifter. The sifter looked like a tin can with a crank on one side and a handle on the other. Cranking the shinny tin can made sweeping squeaks as a snowfall of flour drifted into the bowl below the sifter.
Over another bowl Aunt Gertie held two eggs, and, moving her arms like a choir director, cracked them together. Then she separated the yolks and whites, manipulating the shells and eggs like a magician making things disappear. Into the bowl went the whites with two yellow yolks mysteriously remaining behind in a saucer. She whisked the whites to a lather with a motion too fast to see. You just heard the whop-whop-whopping. When she stopped, it was a stiff, white mixture that made peaked mountains in the bowl.
The tin measuring cup was this time filled with sugar from the large sugar bin and again carefully leveled with a knife passed over the lip of the cup. The sugar and the two yellow yokes went into the bowl with the egg whites and under the electric beater with gleaming interlocked blades. The mixer's low, clicking drone seemed to go on forever, but Aunt Gertie did other things while the mixer drowned out the radio.
"Now you can get my baking sheets out," said Aunt Gertie, pointing to a cabinet next to the sink. The boy, stooping to reach way under the cabinet, noisily slid two flat baking sheets out from under an assortment of dark metal shapes.
The stacked pots and pans began to wobble and tumble out of the cabinet onto the floor. The boy was unable to halt the avalanche of raucous metal clanging as the pots rolled over the kitchen floor.
The banging and clanging brought Uncle Auguste rushing to the kitchen, sure that a catastrophe had occurred.
"Gertrude, what is that boy up to? Why isn't he outside playing with the other children?" demanded the Uncle.
"It's alright, Auguste, just a little accident," answered Aunt Gertie. "He's a very good helper and will pick everything up."
Uncle Auguste glared at the boy sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by assorted pots and pans, then turned on his heels and strode stiffly out of the kitchen.
Sheepishly the little boy handed up the baking sheets to his Aunt and began to collect and stack the mischievous pots and pans back into the cabinet.
Placing the baking sheets on the counter next to the stove, Aunt Gertie dipped a cloth in what was called oleo and spread a thin coat over the sheets with circle movements of her hand.
When the mixer was turned off and the blades pulled up, the eggs and sugar had become a glossy ceramic liquid.
"Would you like to clean the blades?" she asked the little boy, knowing they would be delicious and lickable. The boy eagerly nodded yes.
Aunt Gertie moved the bowl of creamy ceramic close to her and picked up a slice of lemon. With a strange looking tool she called a spritzer, she scraped pieces of the rind into the bowl. A colorless cloud of tart lemon essence drifted over the bowl.
With a large wooden spoon in one hand, she slowly sprinkled the flour into the bowl with the other hand, moving the spoon over and under the white powder and frozen looking syrup until they gradually became one big cream colored glob.
Picking up the tin cup, she scooped some chopped citron pieces from a bowl and sprinkled them on the glob, mixing them in like confetti.
"Now I'll chill this in the ice box while you wash your hands," directed Aunt Gertie. "Then we'll be ready to make peppernuts."
She carefully arranged a cup of juice from an orange next to a wide bowl of sugar between the bowl of glob and the baking sheets. The instructions from Aunt Gertie to the boy were, "first pinch, then roll, then dippen-dippen."
The procedure was to pinch off a small piece of dough, roll it into a ball, dip the ball in orange juice, then into sugar and place the ball sugar-side up on the greased sheets. She placed the first two so that he could gauge two inches between each ball. While the child was doing that, Aunt Gertie lit the oven with a va-roomp sound and turned the burner down to a slow flame. By the time the little helper had pinched, rolled, and dipped two sheets full, the oven dial read 325 degrees warm.
It was then his job to peek at the cookies occasionally and alert her when the "lumps were just turning brown." It didn't take more than twenty minutes, as he kept watching them through the peep-hole in the oven door to see them grow. The sweet perfume of baking filled the whole house that day.
Aunt Gertie asked, "do you know your numbers?"
"Oh yes," he replied proudly, "I can count to one hundred."
Together, they slowly counted sixty small, perfectly formed cookies cooling on the oven racks. Each tasted one and found they were crisp and hard, like candy balls that you let dissolve in your mouth. They smiled at each other as they savored their mutual accomplishment.
By Christmas that year the world was at war, and Aunt Gertie never wanted to make German pfefferneusse cookies again. That was a long time ago. The little boy grew up to become an Uncle himself, and now it's time to make peppernuts again, while he still remembers the recipe.