Good morning, good morning! There are many good things that say Christmas to me and my family. A lot of those are foods. Of my favorite foods gingerbread is at the top of my list of traditions. Gingerbread reminds me of the good times when I was a child and my mom baking. I would come home from school and smell the wonderful cookies as I came in the door. It is glorious with a cup of tea and its history is long and interesting.
From the Tudor courts where royalty had a chef whose sole job it was to supply them with gingerbread to the lovely wood fretwork of Gothic and Victorian houses acquiring the vernacular name gingerbread, it is loved around the world for its taste and tummy-calming properties. Gingerbread is cookie to be made all year, but Christmas seems an extra special time for it. Perhaps it is the spices in the recipe that make it so holiday-happy. Here is my own recipe. It makes a lot, is easy to work with, you can re-use the scraps, it bakes well, and tastes lovely!
Heirloom Gingerbread Cookies
6 Cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 teaspoons ginger
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 & 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks butter
1 Cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 Cup unsulfured molasses
Mix together all dry ingredients with a wire whisk. In a separate bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together, butter and sugar, then add eggs and vanilla. Mix in dry ingredients and molasses altering cups of each until done and a dough forms.
Divide dough into 4 balls and flatten. This dough works best if you use it right away but can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated. Allow to come to room temp. before baking with it.
When ready to bake, roll out dough onto Silpat. First cover dough with a sheet of plastic wrap, then roll out with the rolling pin. Cut out cookies and gently remove negative or extra dough from around them. You can do this by rolling up the extra dough with your finger once you pull up a piece. Bake for 10 minutes in a 350 Farenheit oven. Let cool on the Silpat on the cookie sheet while another batch bakes. Then transfer carefully with a metal spatula to your storage container. This way your very large cookies won’t break. Put layers of wax paper between cookies so they won’t stick together in storage.
Of course you will want to add icing! Queen Elizabeth I had some of her cookies made to look like people in her court! Here is a “royal” Royal icing recipe.
Heirloom Royal Icing
2 large egg whites, or their equivalent in pasteurized egg whites
4 Cups confectioners sugar (powdered sugar)
1 teaspoon almond extract
3-4 teaspoons water or more depending on consistency desired
Consistency is so important with Royal icing. The best for your base layer is called flooding consistency. When you mix it up stop the mixer and watch how fast the swirls disappear into themselves and become smooth. This will tell you how your icing will settle on your cookie. You are looking for about 5-8 seconds for this to happen. Quicker- and your icing will be too runny. If it is slower it will have ripples. For thinner icing, add water. I usually end up doubling what the water (or liquid-some recipes call for lemon juice) is in a recipe before I can get a good starting consistency. (If it is a humid day you might need less water, if it is winter and your heat is running you might need more.)
When you are putting details on your cookie with icing you need something that will hold its shape and not smooth out. For a stiffer consistency icing, start with what the recipe is and add a little water and test. You don’t want it to have a lot of swirls, but it shouldn’t smooth itself completely. You want to be able to get it out of the decorating bag through a tiny #2 tip, but it shouldn’t flatten out on top of the cookie and loose the details. If your icing is too runny simply add powdered sugar back into it to get it where you want it.
Another way I work is I do the consistency after I portion the icing out into 4 cereal bowls and tint it. Then I know what each color is for and what consistency it should be. I just mix it with a spoon then and add drops of water to thin it.
This is a big learning curve. As much as possible try to get the color straight from the jar/bottle. Wilson has good colors. Country Kitchen (CK products) have excellent colors and are what Martha used. CK products are available on Amazon. I use a mix. Some, harder to mix colors I buy from CK such as their teal- which is the same color base for a lot of Martha’s iconic arcauna colors that she decorates even her cookies with. For everyday colors I just use Wilton. If you find yourself in trouble mixing, Wilton has a guide.
Color is a really fun part. Remember to go easy! Pastels are the prettiest with the dark brown of the gingerbread. My favorite thing to do is to use colors not typically associated with the season. Here are some fab ideas from the Martha By Mail catalogs.
How much time do you have? This is the most time-consuming part. I always reserve a separate day(s) for decorating because of this. Plan ahead! If you have more than one coat you will have to leave time for the coats to dry before adding to them. Drying time depends on humidity and warmth of the air, but I typically wait an hour then put on the second layer.
My favorite time and hand saver is putting on the base coat with a small angled spatula. If you make little swishing movements the icing will settle down nicely. It might have a few small waves but it looks fine most of the time. The other way is to outline the shape you are doing (which is much better if you have more than one color in your base coat) then fill it in, or flood it until it is covered with the color.
Details can be added many ways. Wet icing can be drug into other wet icing for swirls. A toothpick can be drug through a wet dot in the wet base coat. This forms a heart. Overlapping colored lines can be drawn to look like plaid. Sugar can be sprinkled over wet icing, left to dry and then the loose crystals brushed away. (This is shown in the pictures below.) This gives a lovely sparkly look. For more sparkle add nonpareils, or dragees (dragees cannot be eaten). Some sugars are sanding sugars and are colored or even look like glitter. (These can be eaten.)
When you are done let your cookie set. I keep the dining room closed during cookie making so my cat and dog don’t disturb them drying in their trays on the table. (Although last Thanksgiving someone left a door open and the dog ate a whole tray of cookies while we were away!) I typically leave them over night to dry completely before bagging them up.
You’ve spent so much time on your lovely cookies- now it’s time to dress them up! Big goody bags and your favorite colored ribbon can make your cookie gift extra special. Don’t forget to enjoy one yourself. They happen to be excellent with a cup of earl grey tea!
A Merry Christmas from Kansas Street to you!