By Christina Stock
One of the most beloved traditions for families is baking cookies at Christmas and the telling of stories.
In my family, the best storyteller was my grandmother, while my mom made the best cookies. I will share with you one of each, and of course, they are connected. The recipe for Pfeffernüsse (gingersnaps cookies) and the story of the queen who couldn’t bake gingersnaps cookies and the king who couldn’t play the mouth harp.
Pfeffernüsse literally means peppernuts. The word “Pfeffer/pepper” originated in India from the word pippali and the Greek and Romans adopted it. When the word Pfeffer, the pepper fruit and the spices from India arrived in the European cuisine, the word Pfeffer was used in the German-speaking areas to name a heavily seasoned or rather spiced dish. The word nut refers to the shape of the cookie, which is rather small and round.
Pfeffernüsse/ginger snaps cookies
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup butter, cubed
1/4 cup shortening
2 large eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons anise powder (or extract)
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 lemon, just the lemon peel, ground (careful not to go too deep, only the yellow peel)
1/2 cup candied orange and lemon peel, chopped very fine
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda (original recipe is 3 teaspoons of pearlash — Pottasche in German, which is potassium carbonate)
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup powdered sugar
In a small saucepan, combine molasses, honey, butter and shortening. Cook and stir over medium heat until melted. Remove from heat; cool to room temperature. Stir in eggs and the anise extract if using the extract instead of the powder.
Combine flour, sugar and spices. Gradually add molasses mixture and mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours, better if overnight.
Preheat oven to 325°.
Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Place the balls 1 inch apart on greased or nonstick baking sheets.
Bake 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove cookies and place on wire racks.
Roll warm cookies in confectioners’ sugar. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
These cookies go with the story by Richard von Volkmann-Leander: “The story of the queen who couldn’t bake ginger snaps cookies and the king who couldn’t play the mouth harp.” I always liked this story because it showed that female and male roles should be flexible and depend on talent, not gender. My grandmother loved it because she was a bad baker and never managed to bake cookies.
Von Volkmann wrote this story on the front lines in World War I in France. It is based on a French children’s story and part of his story collection under his pseudonym Leander, “Reveries at French Firesides.”
Von Volkmann is known in the medical field as founder of the modern scientific orthopedic treatments and was one of the most important surgeons of the 19th century. Pope Pius IX himself asked him to come to Rome to be his doctor.
“The Story Of The Queen Who Couldn’t Bake Gingersnaps Cookies And The King Who Couldn’t Play The Mouth Harp,” translated from German by Christina Stock — I think this story holds the record for longest title of a fairy tale story, the original title in German takes even more space.
The king of Macronia — who had had been in the prime of his life for several years — had just gotten up and sat undressed on a chair next to the bed. Standing before him was his household minister who was passing him his stockings — one of them having a large hole in its heel. Despite that he had turned the stocking just so that the king wouldn’t see the hole — especially as the king usually paid more attention to his beautiful boots — the royal eye didn’t miss it this time. Appalled, he grabbed the sock from his minister’s hand and put his finger through the hole up to his knuckle. He sighed and said, “What good is it that I am king if I have no queen?! What would you think if I would marry?”
“Your majesty,” the minister answered, “that is a sublime idea; an idea that your humble servant, myself, would have brought up, if I wouldn’t have felt that your majesty would have deigned to mention it today.”
“Nice!” the king replied, “but do you think if I can find a wife easily that would fit to me?”
“Pah!” the minister said. “Dozens!”
“Don’t forget that I have high expectations. Any princess I like has to be smart and beautiful! Then, there is another matter of importance: You know how I love gingersnaps cookies? In my entire kingdom there is not one who can bake them, bake them correctly, not too hard and not to soft — just crispy. She has to know how to bake gingersnaps cookies!”
Hearing this, the minister got scared, but he pulled himself together and countered, “A king such as your majesty will find, without a doubt, a princess who can bake gingersnaps cookies.”
“Well, then, let’s take a look!” the king said. This same day — in the company of the minister — the king set out to meet all of his neighbors who he knew had an unmarried princess or two.
But only three princesses that were beautiful and smart enough for the king were found, and neither of them could bake gingersnaps cookies.
“I can’t bake gingersnaps cookies,” the first princess said. “But very pretty little almond cakes. Wouldn’t you be content with those?”
“No!” the king responded. “They have to be gingersnaps cookies!”
The second princess, after hearing his question, clicked her tongue and angrily said, “Leave me alone with this silliness! There are no princesses who can bake gingersnaps cookies.”
It got even worse for the king when he went to the third princess, though she was the most beautiful and smartest one. She didn’t even let him ask the question, instead she asked him if he could play the mouth harp? As he denied it, she denied him and said she was sorry. Otherwise she liked him fairly well, but she loved listening to a mouth harp more than anything in her life and decided not to take a husband if he couldn’t play it.
So the king and the minister returned to his home. Getting out of his carriage, he said dejectedly, “Well, there went nothing!”
But a king has to have a queen and after some time had passed, he asked the minister to visit with him. He revealed to him that he had given up on finding a wife who could bake gingersnaps cookies and decided on marrying the princess that could bake little almond cakes. “Go to her and ask her if she wants to become my wife.”
The next day, the minister returned and said that the princess was no longer available, she had married the king of the country that grew capers.
“Well, then go to the second princess!” Alas, the minister returned again with empty hands: The old king had said that his daughter had died and so he could not give her hand in marriage to him.
This was sobering for the king, but he wanted to have a queen so much, so he ordered his minister to go to the third princess in case she had changed her mind. The minister had to obey though he didn’t want to and his own wife had told him it would be in vain for sure.
The king was waiting fearfully for his return because he thought about the question about the mouth harp. Thinking about it upset him.
The third princess, however, greeted the minister very friendly and told him that though she wanted to marry a man only if he could play the mouth harp, dreams are built on sand, especially youthful dreams! She admitted that her wishes may not come true and as she really liked the king otherwise, she would take him as husband.
The minister drove back as fast as the horses could go and the king embraced him and gave him medals over medals with attachments so he could wear them all at once. Colorful flags were raised throughout the capitol, garlands were pulled from house to house and the marriage was celebrated in such a grand fashion that the people still talked about it 14 days later.
For an entire year the king and the young queen frolicked in love and laughter. The king had forgotten about the gingersnaps cookies and the queen completely forgot about the mouth harp.
Then, one day the king got up on the wrong side of the bed and everything went wrong. It rained the entire day; the imperial orb fell down and the little cross broke off; the royal painter arrived with the new map of the kingdom and instead of being painted in blue, it was red; and finally — the queen had a headache.
And so it happened: The couple had their first argument. Why? They didn’t remember the next morning, or if they did, they didn’t want to say. For short, the king was cranky and the queen uppity and always had to have the last word. After they both were arguing back and forth for a while, she shrugged her shoulders and scornfully said, “I thought you would be finally quiet and stop criticizing everything that you see! You can’t even play the mouth harp.”
As soon as that slipped out, the king interrupted her and waspishly replied: “And you, you can’t even bake gingersnaps cookies!”
Speechless for the first time, the queen became very quiet, and both went — without saying another word — into their own room. There the queen sat in the couch corner and cried, thinking, “What a foolish woman you are! Where did your mind go? You couldn’t have said it any more stupid.”
The king was pacing in his room back and forth, wrung his hands and said, “It is so lucky that my wife can’t bake gingersnaps cookies! What else could I have said when she accused me of not being able to play the mouth harp?!”
After repeating this at least three to four times, he got more and more cheerful. He started whistling his favorite tune, looked at the large portrait of the queen which hung in his room, stood on the chair to wipe down the spiderweb that dangled over the nose with his handkerchief and finally said, “I bet she was quite upset, the good wife! I’ll take a look what she’s doing!”
So he went out of the door into the long hallway where all rooms were branching off. But, because everything was going wrong on that day, the valet had forgotten to light the candles although it was already 8 p.m. and it was pitch black. (Electricity was not invented yet).
The king put out his arms so he wouldn’t hit his head or shin and carefully faltered along the wall. Suddenly he felt something soft.
“Who is there?” he asked.
“It’s me,” the queen answered.
“What are you looking for, my darling?”
“I wanted to ask your forgiveness,” the queen replied, “because I had hurt your feelings.”
“You don’t have to do that at all!” the king said and embraced her. “It is more my fault than yours and everything is forgotten. But, you know, two words we should declare in our kingdom to be forbidden by penalty of death, mouth harp and —“
“And gingersnaps cookies,” the queen added with a laugh, while secretly wiping away some tears from her eyes.
And so the story ends.
I hope you enjoyed this story and that you don’t have any arguments during the holidays but if you do, remember the king and queen, make up and forget about it the next day.
From our family to yours, happy holidays and a merry Christmas!