Call me a stereotype of holiday cheer, but lately I’ve had an overwhelming craving for gingerbread anything — cookies, cakes, lattes, pretty much anything I can ingest. It’s like I’ve become the insatiable gingerbread woman. I’m a little worried that soon I will sprout raisin buttons and rock sugar freckles. I just can’t get enough.
Surely I’m not alone in my gingerbread fixation. This time of year, kitchens around the world bust out the ginger and cloves and turn up the spice. When it comes to spiced cookies, the Germans have lebkuchen, the Danish have honningkager, and in the States we have, among many kinds of ginger cookies, gingerbread men.
Gingerbread men will always hold a special place in my heart. When I was little, my mother used them as part of her carrot and stick approach to make my brother and I behave while she ran errands.
See, the Bloomingdale’s in the mall by our house had a little bakery in its kitchen section, and they sold the most wonderfully chewy and delicious gingerbread men. So she struck a deal: if my brother and I behaved and didn’t cause any trouble, we could each get our own gingerbread man when she finished her errands.
Parents around the world take note: her plan worked like a charm. In fact, not only would I be on my best behavior, but I’d also make sure my brother stayed in line so he wouldn’t spoil it for the both of us. She’s a crafty one, that mother of mine.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to recapture the same chewy, thick gingerbread sold at our Bloomingdale’s. I thought the recipe below might do it, but although the recipe yields delicious spice cookies (and is definitely worth making), the gingerbread men are not the same as the cookies from my youth.
These cookies, based on a Dorie Greenspan recipe in this month’s Bon Appetit, are crisp around the edges, with just a slight chew in the middle and are deliciously spiced. They are the perfect cookie with a cup of tea in the afternoon, or with a bowl of vanilla ice cream for dessert. But they aren’t the thick and cakey gingerbread men I remember.
So, alas, my quest continues. But in the meantime, I’ll have another one of these cookies. Cakey or not, they are still delicious.
[Edited to add: I have submitted these cookies to Food Blogga’s “Eat Christmas Cookies” event.]
Crisp Gingerbread Men
Adapted from a Dorie Greenspan recipe in Bon Appetit, December 2007
Note: You can actually use any shape of cookie cutter for these cookies. At heart, they really are just delicious spice cookies. And don’t be alarmed by the use of dry mustard; it makes the spice flavor more complex and is a great addition.
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup mild-flavored molasses (not blackstrap)
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Raisins and rock/turbinado sugar for decorating
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, spices, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until it is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the brown sugar and beat for 1 minute, until well combined. Pour in the molasses and beat for 2 minutes more. Add the egg and beat until well combined. Reduce the speed to low and add the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and mix at low speed just to blend.
Divide the dough into two equal portions, forming each into a ball and then flattening each into a disk. Wrap the disks in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days. You can also freeze the dough for several weeks (thaw in the refrigerator before continuing).
Position the rack in the center of your oven and preheat it to 350F. Line one or two baking sheets with parchment paper. Take one disk out of the refrigerator (leave the other in for now). Place the dough between two sheets of wax paper and roll to 1/4″ thickness (or 1/8″ if you are using cutters that are 2-inches or smaller). Cut out cookies and transfer to prepared baking sheet. There is a good chance your dough will have softened significantly, which will make transferring the cookies very difficult. In this case, stick the cookies on wax paper in the freezer for 5 minutes, then transfer to the baking sheets. Gather together the scraps and reroll them, cutting out more cookies until you have used up all the dough. If there is dough left after filling up the cookie sheet, place the dough back in the refrigerator while you bake the first batch.
To decorate, sprinkle with turbinado sugar (“Sugar in the Raw”), or use raisins to create buttons, bowties and other decorations. Use the tip of a knife, toothpick or chopstick to create eyes and smiles.
Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for about 8-10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies are set and look dull and dry. Remove the cookies and immediately transfer to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.
Yield: About 60 3-inch gingerbread men (yield will vary depending on the size of your cookie cutter)