Not just for European children lost in the woods
Gingerbread plays a prominent role in a fair number of children’s tales and Christmas lore, so it’s not surprising I had a very vivid image of this treat growing up. Humble peasant children nibbled it while traipsing the Black Forest of Germany. Witches could use it as tasty home construction material, perfectly suited to luring said peasant children. St. Nicholas delivered moist and spicy confections, complete with intricate icing scrollwork, to good little children in early December.
But my mother, even though she is German, never made gingerbread cookies. Nor do I recall them appearing at any childhood Christmas celebrations.
When I eagerly tried my first piece of gingerbread, a shrink-wrapped specimen from the local grocery store, I was sorely disappointed.
A dream undone
Once the plastic was peeled back, the cut-out slab of cookie most closely resembled stacked layers of cardboard. Dry and flavorless, it boasted the requisite white icing (albeit rock hard) but the cookie itself was the color of watery, gray mud. Nothing like the tender, aromatic, mahogany-colored treats that lived in my imagination!
My view of gingerbread remained tarnished for years afterward and descriptions of the treat no longer evoked the magical, cozy image they once had.
The vision restored
Thankfully, I found a recipe that produces the Christmasy treat I always envisioned. These cookies have a satisfyingly firm bite, yielding to a soft, cake-like middle. Their rich fragrance is matched by the warm and understated spicy flavor.
Sweet royal icing perfectly complements the subtle spiciness. And because the icing firms as it dries, the cookies are stackable and easily transported to parties and other holiday gatherings.
Gingerbread Molasses Cookies
(Adapted from Stan Hywet via the Akron Beacon Journal – I halved the recipe and increased the amount of flour)
Makes 50 cut-out cookies
1 cup molasses
1 cup white sugar
1 stick margarine
1 stick butter
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 eggs, beaten
6 cups flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch black pepper
1/4 cup cold coffee
Combine molasses, sugar, margarine, butter and ginger in saucepan – bring to a boil. Boil 1 minute. Cool to room temperature. Beat in eggs.
Sift together 1 3/4 cups flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. Mix into molasses mixture. Stir in coffee. Gradually add 4 1/4 cups flour, or enough to make stiff dough.
Halve dough and flatten into two disks; cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight. Roll 1/8″ thick on floured surface and cut out with cookie cutters. Bake on lightly greased cookie sheet at 375 degrees F. for 8 1/2-10 minutes. Cool 1-2 minutes on sheet.
Decoration is simple with a piping tip and plastic squeeze nozzle bottle using royal icing. Prepare the icing according to the instructions below and use to outline each cookie with a pastry bag and small piping tip. Once the cookies are outlined, scoop some of the remaining icing into a squeeze bottle and add water, a few drops at a time, to create icing of a runny consistency that can be “flooded” onto the cookie. Use a small paintbrush if needed to spread the icing over the cookie surface. Lightly sprinkle decorating sugar over wet surfaces of cookies if desired.
Combine 4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar, 3 tablespoons meringue powder and 8 tablespoons water. Beat on low in stand mixer 7-10 minutes (or 10-12 minutes on high speed with a hand-held mixer) or until icing has reached a workable consistency to use with pastry bag (should be stiff enough to form peaks).