Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gingerbread Cookies

Yes, gingerbread cookies are generally associated with Christmas. And I'll probably make a batch of these for Christmas, because they're really good. Not too sweet (um, depending on whether they are iced or not) and perfectly spicy, this recipe turns out very pretty cookies with a beautifully smooth top and softly rounded edges.

I made a large batch of these cookies on Saturday night so that the church kids could decorate them for their parents on Thanksgiving Sunday. Nothing goes down after a giant meal like an overly-iced cookie!

These are easy to make, particularly if you have a hand mixer or stand mixer. The longest part of the whole recipe comes from waiting for the dough to chill. I recall that last year, the dough firmed up quickly and easily in the refrigerator. This year, the dough would not firm. I waited for two hours ... nothing. Finally, I threw them in the freezer and that worked out. I don't know what happened and why the dough was being finicky, but it was fine in the end.

If you try this recipe, keep in mind that it yields A LOT of cookies! This is a great recipe for sharing with others unless you can eat cookies for every meal (I can't). Royal icing is the simplest thing in the world to make- confectioner's sugar and lemon juice. Add some juice to the sugar and start stirring. Keep adding juice until the consistency is to your liking. Add food coloring, if you want. I used plain icing because I am lazy and also because I like the look of white icing on gingerbread. Plus, I had planned for the kids to use bright colors.

I've never tried another gingerbread cookie recipe because I trust Martha and also because it works really well. I feel no need to seek improvements, unless I can find a recipe that does not use molasses and has been thoroughly vetted. I really dislike buying molasses- I have no use for the leftovers!

Gingerbread Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes about 75 medium-sized cookies

6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
5 teaspoons ground ginger
5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 large eggs
1 cup unsulfured molasses
Royal icing

I'll tell you right now that the changes I made to Martha's recipes were in the spices. I added more of spice, because I'm Korean and all the food I've consumed since I was a wee thing have killed off my taste buds. And also because some of the spices are old. I only use ground cloves once a year and have been using the same tin of them for probably three years! The directions remain the same:

Sift together flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a large bowl. Set aside.

Put butter and brown sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then eggs and molasses. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture; mix until just combined.

Divide dough into thirds; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour. It's important to point out that the dough must be firm- a finger pressed in it should meet resistance, and you should dread having to roll the thing out because you know you'll get a workout. I ended up refrigerating for two hours and then freezing for half an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a lightly floured work surface to a 1/4-inch thick. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters. Space 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone baking sheets, and refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes. I didn't refrigerate, I just baked them immediately. I figured that they were still cold from being in the freezer.

Bake cookies until crisp but not dark, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.

Put icing in a pastry bag fitted with a small plain round tip and pipe designs. Let icing set completely at room temperature, about 1 hour. Store cookies between layers of parchment in an airtight container at room temperature up to 5 days.

If you don't have a pastry bag, all is not lost. I have a pastry bag and tips, and still just used a Ziploc bag with a tiny piece of the corner snipped off. It's easier and I don't have to wash it afterward- royal icing sticks to everything and hardens like glue, not fun when washing the inside of a pastry bag.

The dough, I remember, was darker than this last year. Something was off this time. I'm going to go ahead and blame the brown sugar, which I've had for too long. The amount of dough above is about 1/3 of the total.

Out of the oven, cooling on racks. I only use one cookie cutter for each set of cookies (two trays). Some of the cookies, based on their shape, will bake faster than others. So this batch was all acorns. Some batches were all maple leaves. Some were all turkeys. I burnt one batch of turkeys to a crisp because I got carried away while decorating.

The last of the dough was baked in a small round. Pretty impressive, no? To only have that much dough left? Yeah, it wasn't my doing, it was my mother. She has amazing dough-conserving skills. After cutting out cookies, the scraps were mushed together and frozen, then rolled out and cut again, and so on and so on until all that was left ... was this! The turkeys are perusing the leftover cookie thoughtfully.

I didn't ice that many cookies. Probably just about thirty or forty. This was about eleven o'clock at night, so do not judge my poor icing skills! I do much better during the day when I haven't been moaning about un-firm-able dough for a few hours.

Tons and tons of cookies. I really love my turkey cookie-cutter. I bought it last year and thought, "What a waste of two dollars. Thank goodness it was only two dollars." But I used it again and was still delighted by it! The acorn and maple leaf are much easier to use anytime, of course, and are just as lovely.

I also have a giant (probably 7-inch) gingerbread man cookie-cutter. He'll be getting some use this year, though it kind of sucks because I can only fit two (!) on a baking sheet.

Some random tips for these cookies that may help any but are just stupid things that I do:

- I rotate the baking sheets and their placement in the oven a little more than halfway through. At 8 or 9 minutes in, I'll open the oven and swap the top sheet with the bottom sheet (they're only about two inches apart, racks are in the middle of the oven) and then rotate them so what was left is now right and vice versa.

- I usually use four baking sheets, two with Silpats lining them and two with parchment paper lining them. I only have two Silpats, after all. I do not put not a new sheet of parchment with each batch, I just take the cookies off and re-use the parchment. This only becomes a problem if the parchment scorches, which it never does for me when I bake these cookies. Make sure the cookie sheets are completely cool before putting more raw dough on them!

- The whole clumpy brown sugar issue. I have one of those ceramic things that you put in brown sugar to keep it from clumping, and it helps. But it does not completely eliminate the problem. I had a few little chunks of brown sugar, which I ignored. They ended up staying chunky in the dough and then exploded into molten lava once in the oven. The final result? Little tiny brown craters in the cookies. Not a big deal, it only happened to maybe three cookies, but still! Annoying. Though stupid, I will be sifting my brown sugar for the next batch of these that I make.

- I add cream of tartar to royal icing on the cookies that will not be consumed immediately. Something about longevity? I don't know, I just read it somewhere and now I throw in a bit of the stuff. I don't even measure it, I just add it to the confectioner's sugar before stirring in the liquid (which, to be honest, was half-and-half for this batch- I didn't have the wherewithal to juice a lemon- but lemon juice works better, promise).

- Probably goes without saying, but dip the cookie cutters in flour!

Happy Thanksgiving Eve!