You see, I have a flawlessly executed candlelit dinner every Christmas Eve with one of my closest friends from high school and her family. This tradition is 15 years on now and I enjoy it as much as my own people’s Christmas Day tradition of Chinese and a movie. Last year, she told me that her brother and his wife had wanted to decorate gingerbread men but realized they’d have no time to bake them. I saw my window, searched MarthaStewart.com for a recipe and got moving.
Why Martha Stewart? Because I trust her implicitly on certain topics. I’m not particularly interested in how she makes steak au poivre, but when I want the lowdown decorating cookies, doweling a wedding cake, if I want some templates for crafty-awesomeness (she hasn’t yet requested my Jacob-Lantern template or had me demo my snowflakes on her show, but I know she will any day now!) or a lead on making the kind of gingerbread that will make your German grandmother applaud because you finally got it right, I know Martha’s my lady.
And so I made her gingerbread and took a bite of it and it tasted, uh, alarming. I mean, not terrible but not the mild, middle-of-the-road gingerbread I’d expected from the patron saint of Nutley, New Jersey. I pulled up Twitter and asked “If I just made gingerbread so spicy my eyes watered a bit, does that mean I did it right or wrong?” and learned that Martha had actually helped me knock the ball out of the park. Apparently — and you’ve probably figured out by now how little “real” gingerbread I’ve experienced in my 34 years — this is the way it is done. A chewy, sturdy cookie that could be used for anything from a gingerbread house to gingerbread men to snowflakes. A spicy kick that lingers. A subtle sweetness that is harmonized by a sugary finish.
I didn’t mean to wait a year to tell you about these, but I figured that gingerbread was about as relevant the day after Christmas as heart-shaped boxes of candy are the day after Valentine’s. And so I blinked and a year passed and I would have completely forgotten about them had someone (hi, Sally!) not nudged me over email to post it. I’m glad she did. If you’re in a pinch and need a hostess gift or one last kid gift to take on the road with you, I can’t recommend a “kit” of these cookies with some shiny baubles for decorating enough. Or, you could just keep them for yourself, decorate them like snowflakes, serve them with a little eggnog and beckon the flurries to start already.
One year ago: How to Host Brunch (And Still Sleep In) and Spinach and Cheese Strata
Two years ago: Cranberry Vanilla Coffee Cake, Italian Seven Layer Cookies and Grasshopper Brownies
Three years ago: A Slice-and-Bake Cookie Palette and Winter Panzanella
Four years ago: Dutch Babies/German Pancakes
Spicy Gingerbread Cookies
Barely adapted from Martha Stewart, who knows a thing or two about gingerbread
This gingerbread is spicy and dark, chewy but sturdy and only a little sweet. If you’re used to more tepid gingerbread men, it will surprise you. If you always found gingerbread a little boring, it will delight you.
Yield: 16 very large cookies (with a 7-inch snowflake-cutter)
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 teaspoons ground ginger
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon finely ground pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1 cup (2 sticks or 1/2 pound) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup unsulfured molasses
Various fine sanding sugars and sugar decorations
Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, spices and salt in a large bowl and set aside. Beat butter and brown sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy. Mix in eggs and molasses. Add flour mixture, mixing on low until just combined. Divide dough into thirds and wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate until cold and firm, about one hour or up to two days.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a lightly floured work surface to a 1/4-inch thick. Cut into shapes of your choice, such as snowflakes* or gingerbread men. Spread two inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, and refrigerate until the cookies firm up again, about 15 minutes.
Bake cookies until crisp but not dark, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.
When cool, you can decorate the cookies with icing and sprinkles. When you pipe designs, sprinkle the icing with sanding sugar and let it sit for five minutes before tapping off the excess sugar. Then let the icing set completely at room temperature, which will take an hour or so, depending on how thick it is.
Store cookies between layers of parchment or waxed paper in an airtight container for up to a week.
* By the way, I don’t recommend my snowflake cookie cutter set as you will grow gray hairs trying to get the cookie cutter back from the dough without pulling off some icicles. Look for a set with less intricate details.