Every year I try and make a few homemade things for Christmas to send to friends and take to family. All right, not a few, a lot. There was the year I decided to make two sorts of truffles, dipped in tempered chocolate, and also candy about 5 oranges, slice the peel really thin and dip each piece individually in tempered chocolate. Very messy. I have done brownies, David Lebovitz’s Chocolate cherry fruitcake, and last year, Raspberry truffles. This year, I went for mainly biscuits (with a few caramel brownies thrown in for good measure), and the king of Christmas biscuits is the gingerbread man.
Gingerbread is something that seems quintessentially festive. It has the deep spices that I love about Christmas cooking and decorated with white icing, it reflects ideas of snow and decoration, without being showy. You can make gingerbread biscuits with holes in to hang on the tree – and they will keep remarkably well that way – but I prefer to heap them into a tin, and snack on them. They will always outlast my appetite for them.
This year I made some biscuits to send to friends, and some to keep. I took the leftover scraps of dough with me to my mum’s, as I hadn’t had time to roll them out and bake them. They came up a little chewier and puffier than the rest of the batch, but delicious all the same: my 99 year old grandmother had two (and she doesn’t normally have sweets). Something about the almost austere plainness of these biscuits appeals across the ages. My two year old nephew pronounced them very good, and my 5 year old niece had three in a row just yesterday.
The recipe for these comes from an old issue of the veteran US cooking magazine, Gourmet, now sadly deceased. A few years ago, they did a round-up of cookie recipes from their history, choosing one recipe to represent each year the magazine was in print. This gingerbread recipe was reproduced from a 1959 issue of Gourmet. Although the recipe has now disappeared from the website, you can see the gingerbread men in this video about the project, at 1:42. All the cookie recipes they selected are now in the Gourmet Cookie Book.
The first time I made these, I used currant eyes, and sliced almond mouths to make the faces. These were beautiful, but so time consuming to place every piece. I have decided I much prefer to ice with a little royal icing after they are baked instead. I can add faces and buttons to the gingerbread men, as well as dots and snowflakes to star-shaped cookies, and snow-laden branches to the christmas trees. Or they are very good just plain, as they are or dipped into a cup of tea to soften the edges a little. Like the best gingernuts you’ve ever come across.
The other benefit of not fiddling with currants before baking is that you can put the dough into the oven still cold, which makes the shapes better defined when baked, and less puffy. When first made, the dough will be quite soft. I have added even more flour than the original recipe states, to make it a little easier to handle, and to make sure that the cut-out shapes stay well defined. However, if the dough gets warm as you roll it out, the shapes will become floppy and will be hard to transfer to a baking sheet without distorting them. For this reason, I think the best answer is to make the dough ahead and chill it overnight, or for several hours at least, and then take out one piece at a time to roll out and cut. This should mean you can deal with the whole piece, and everything should remain cool enough, even in a warm kitchen. I tend to keep the scraps from each piece as I go, and then re-roll them all together at the end. The re-rolled shapes might be a little chewier and a little puffier than the earlier ones, but will still taste very good.
Recipe: Gingerbread men (or stars, or trees)
- 350g plain flour
- 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 150g light brown soft sugar (I use muscovado)
- 50g dark brown soft sugar
- 195g black treacle
- 30g golden syrup
- 110g unsalted butter, softened
- 1 large egg, beaten
Sift the flour together with all of the spices and the salt (or use a whisk to mix them all together in a bowl.
In a separate bowl (I use a mixer bowl), combine the rest of the ingredients. The butter must be soft enough to evenly mix with the rest of the ingredients – in fact, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit melted. When combined, stir in the flour and spices. When the dough is smooth, wrap tightly in cling film and chill overnight or for several hours until firm.
Heat the oven to 375°F/190°C/170°C fan.
Flour a work surface, and roll out to about 4mm thickness. Cut out shapes with a floured cutter. Transfer the shapes carefully to a non-stick baking sheet, or a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Bake at for 12 minutes or until very slightly browner at the edges.
Allow to cool completely, then decorate with royal icing (or icing sugar mixed with a little lemon juice).