As soon as Thanksgiving is over, the Christmas season begins. I’m talking about the second you put down your fork after that second slice of pumpkin pie. Not (as many retailers would like you to believe) sooner, not later. And for many (most?) of us, the best part about the holidays are the cookies. I’d give up a hundred candy canes for a single holiday cookie.
For years we’ve received boxes of gingerbread cookies from my aunt Sally. She slaves over a hot piping bag for what must be days, decorating gingerbread boys and girls for every member of the extended family. They are beautiful, her cookies, each one personalized with her artistic touch. Since Sally has mentioned to me on multiple occasions that I would one day take over this tradition, I figured I better get practicing. Lucky for me I had enthusiastic help, and my sister and I spent the majority of two days rolling, cutting, baking, and frosting dozens of cookies. (And what’ya know, Taylor actually picked up a piping bag and decorated a few, with surprisingly precise, and increasingly sarcastic typography. Just guess which one of the above morsels was his handiwork… that’s Taylor for you.)
This is the first time I’ve ever decorated anything with royal icing. It’s a bit tricky, and will definitely take a few more attempts before I feel like we’re really getting the hang of it. In my research, I did find a few very good resources and tutorials for making and using royal icing. If you’ve ever wanted to give it a go, I’d suggest reading these first:
– How to Make Royal Icing (with recipe and pictures)
– How to Flood Cookies with Royal Icing (the decorating technique used to get nice smooth frosted cookies)
The gingerbread recipe itself is my grandmother’s. Bettie Landis was the queen of precision (much like I am the princess of sarcasm… if you get my drift). Her recipes are anything but precise, consistent, or complete. But that just might be the thing that makes these cookies so special. In fact, when I went to roll out and bake the cookies, I soon realized that the copy of the recipe I was using had no baking directions. No temperature, to bake time, no nothing. One quick call to auntie Sal later and I had instructions to bake at “about 350” for “about 10-15 minutes, or you know, whatever”. Because that’s how we roll. I’ve elaborated a bit on the instructions for your sake, since not all of you have an auntie Sal you can call in a pinch.
Makes about 40 large gingerbread men and then some (in other words, lots. Halve the recipe to keep your sanity).
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 1/4 cups dark molasses (orange label)
7-10 cups flour*
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 + 1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon baking soda
*We've seen versions of this recipe with as little as 6 cups and as many as 10. I used 8 and the dough was quite sticky. Use more flour for a stiffer cookie (say, for gingerbread houses), and less flour for softer cookies. It's very forgiving.
Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add molasses and mix well.
Mix spices with 1 cup of the flour and add. Add the rest of flour about 1/2 cup at a time, alternating adding water and flour. Combine baking soda and final 1/4 cup water and add last.
Cover and chill dough for at least an hour before rolling out. (At this point you can also freeze the dough for up to a month. Thaw completely before rolling out.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to desired thickness (I found about 1/4 inch thick makes nice soft yet sturdy cookies) and cut out shapes. Arrange cookies on a parchment or silicone lined baking sheet.
Bake cookies for approximately 10-14 minutes or more (longer cooking times will yield stiffer cookies). Allow to cool a few minutes on cookie sheets, then transfer to cooling racks and cool completely before frosting.