Blog Gingerbread Cookies
Gingerbread, that traditional Christmas treat, has been a favorite at least since the 15th century; Queen Elizabeth I honored important guests by having gingerbread figures made in their likeness. Through the centuries gingerbread has been used as medicine, as home decoration, even as money.
Not surprisingly, given its long history, there are countless versions of gingerbread, in both its cake and cookie form. The combinations of spices and other flavorful ingredients you can put in gingerbread are almost endless. I like my gingerbread quite gingery, and the recipe I have used for many years has a healthy dose of this spice, along with aromatic ground cloves and a surprise ingredient—tea—that adds depth to the flavor. I've also come up with a heartier version that includes whole-wheat flour, black pepper for a little kick, and lemon zest for a subtle citrus note. For both of these recipes, the keys to success include thoroughly chilling the dough, and rolling it out to the right thickness. One-quarter inch will give you cookies that are soft in the middle (providing you don't over bake them), and flavorful, while rolling the dough thinner will produce crisper cookies with more of a one-note spiciness.
When the bare cookie is going to show through the icing design, its surface should be smooth and evenly colored. To prevent flour and crumbs from marring the surface of the dough, I flour underneath the dough but not on top; instead, I place the sheet of plastic that the dough was wrapped in on the surface before rolling it out. I have to lift the plastic off the dough every few rolls, but it keeps the pin from sticking and means I don't discolor the dough with extra flour (which can toughen the cookies as well).
As for the decoration, while I love all things colorful for Christmas, sometimes simple white icing can have a striking effect, especially when it's used on a dark cookie like gingerbread. Sticking to just white lets you concentrate on the design. For the snowflakes and angel wings, I sprinkled a heavy coat of sparkling sugar onto the cookie (which I held over a bowl) and then turned it upside down and tapped it gently to remove the excess. A little sugar clung to the bare cookie, which I think gives a nice effect. And I added a few gold or silver dragees to catch the light.
This seems like a good time to go over a few tips for success with royal icing:
Go easy on the water. It takes a little mixing to fully incorporate the water and what at first might seem like too little may actually be just right. Add more water by the teaspoon, rather than pouring it in.
Make sure you have a little extra confectioner's sugar set aside just in case (despite being careful) you add too much water.
A standing electric mixer is the best tool for mixing the icing, as it is rather thick, but take the time to scrape down the sides and into the bottom, to make sure the icing is smooth.
When it is mixed, transfer the icing from the mixer bowl to a smaller one, and place a folded damp paper towel on the surface, topped by a sheet of plastic wrap.
Resist the urge to overfill your piping bag. Particularly if you are using parchment paper, the temptation is to fill it full so you won't have to make/waste too many bags. But the icing will just ooze out the wrong end leading to sticky fingers and frustration.
Start small when you snip the tip off your parchment paper bag and see how the icing looks when it comes out. You can always cut a little more off, but you can't make the hole smaller.
Royal icing becomes spongy as it sits; always stir icing that you haven't used in awhile before spooning it into the pastry bag.
A nice mug of hot mulled cider is the perfect accompaniment to these spicy cookies, when you're baking them and when you're eating them.