With any luck, this post will be the second in a series of posts about Christmas cookies. Christmas seems to be sneaking up on me a bit this year, largely, I think, because I haven't made any of the Christmas comestibles that need to be done long in advance. I have not, for example, made black cake this year. Neither have I made vin de noix, though I still have plenty of that left from last year, for which I am very fortunate because if you make a list of all the very good things in the world, near the top of that list will be sitting down with a tiny glass of vin de noix and two or three of my very delicate black walnut tea cakes. In point of fact, I have not yet sat down with the tiny glass and the delicate cookies, but just thinking about the possibility of doing so makes me very happy. If I happen to have a very bad day in the next couple of weeks, I may have to go so far as to open the vin de noix bottle and the tea cake tin and smell them both at the same time.
Anyway, the list goes on: I haven't made any lebkuchen, I haven't made any fruitcake, and I haven't made any clementine ratafia. Evidently, I have been possessed by an alien. I must remind myself this weekend to look around the house for the pod.
Fortunately, most of the many, many kinds of Christmas cookies that I like to make don't need to be made long in advance, and I have both a few weeks left before Christmas and a chance to feed a lot of my friends next weekend. I also have four ounces of ground ginger that came in the mail this week from Penzey's, so I'm no longer cooking with old spice.
To be honest, I have never been able to get all that excited about gingerbread men. I mean, we've all seen Soylent Green, right? Rolling cookies and cutting them into shapes is great, and I have no qualms about eating, say, a sugar cookie angel, but, all other things being equal, I'd just as soon my food didn't look like people. (Though I will admit that I scoured the Internet to try to find a cookie cutter to make the shape of hot looking men for next weekend's party. Alas, there are no cookie cutters that are slightly suggestive without being downright pornographic and/or tasteless. Still, if anyone out there can tell me a source for twink cookie cutters, I'd be grateful.)
The dough I made is a bit on the tender side, so if you're going to try it, be prepared to either add another ounce or two of flour or, as I did, to use plenty of flour when you're rolling it out. If you're going to make gingerbread men, I think that the only way to really make it work is to take a hunk of the dough and either roll out a whole sheet and then transfer the sheet of dough to a greased cookie sheet or, better still, to roll a hunk of dough directly on a Silpat. If you take the Silpat route, you will still need flour for the top of the dough, but you won't need to flour the Silpat. When you have your sheet of dough on either your cookie sheet or your Silpat, press down with your cookie cutter, then remove all of the scraps of dough that don't look like part of a gingerbread man. If you used the Silpat, you can then slide the Silpat onto an ungreased cookie sheet.
I could only get about eight gingerbread men to a sheet, and I got bored with it, so I rolled out the rest of the dough and cut it simply with a round, fluted cookie cutter. For either the men or the rounds, the dough should be about 1/8-inch thick, though it can be a bit thicker without hurting anything. I had some orange glaze left over from the cookies I made in the last post, and when the round cookies came out of the oven, I brushed them with the glaze before removing them from the cookie sheet. With either sort of cookie, and with or without glazing, a five-minute rest after the cookies come from the oven allows them to be easily removed from the cookie sheet. Cool them thoroughly on a rack.
My recipe has more ginger than most, but I still think it could use a little more. I ground my own cloves and peppercorns. The latter adds a bit of a delayed kick to the recipe, and I really like their presence. You can adjust the spices as you like. I think that some ground cardamom would also be a welcome addition here, but I didn't think of it until it was too late. The same could easily be said of cocoa powder, though I think that if I continued down that line of thought, I'd soon be adding ground nuts and ground dried fruits, and I'd have lebkuchen.
I typically eschew brown sugar in favor of a combination of white sugar and molasses, but there happened to be a box of dark brown sugar in the pantry. It appears to have been there quite a while. I think that V. put it there in 1994 and vowed not to use it until the Democrats had retaken Congress. I'm not sure how you deal with rock solid brown sugar, but I just got out my chef's knife and chopped and chopped and chopped. Good exercise, I reckon.
1/2 pound butter, at room temperature
6 ounces dark brown sugar
1/2 t. salt (1.5 t., if you used unsalted butter)
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
2 T. ground ginger
1 T. ground cinnamon
1 t. whole peppercorns, ground
2 t. whole cloves, ground
1 cup molasses
25 ounces all purpose flour
Cream the butter and sugar together in the bowl of your mixer. Add the other ingredients, in order, letting each get incorporated before moving on to the next. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least half an hour, or up to several days.
Roll out and cut into desired shapes. Bake on lightly greased or Silpat-lined baking sheets in a preheated 350 degree oven until done, about fifteen minutes if you've rolled your dough out 1/8 inch thick.
Remove from the oven, glaze if desired, let sit for five minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.
If you want to decorate your gingerbread men to look more like surreal people, then make up some royal icing, split it into parts, add a different color of food coloring to each part, and spread or pipe decorations on the cookies. If you like, you can press currants into the dough before it's baked to make eyes or buttons. (Apparently, gingerbread men never wear pullovers, which is kind of weird since you'd think it would be tough to manipulate all those buttons without fingers.) I just leave mine blank, however, so that it's more like eating the outline figures that you see on road signs. Decorating them just makes it more like eating a real person, and why would you want to do that? It's kind of like giving names to all of the tomatoes in your garden and then having to deal with your kids sobbing "You ate Herbert!" while you're trying to enjoy your BLT.