Wonktheplank insisted on getting a really big Christmas tree this year—so big, in fact, we rearranged our living room furniture just to make room for it. The tree does look lovely, but I was faced with a decorating dilemma. I needed to supplement the paper decorations I created for last year’s table-top tree, but I had neither the money nor the inclination to go and buy a bunch of ornaments.
So I decided that the most cost-effective, yet festive, way to trim the tree was with gingerbread cookie ornaments. After all, I had almost all the cookie ingredients on hand (I had to replenish our stock of molasses). And all I had to do was pick up some string at the hardware store for hanging the ornaments.
I used an old-school gingerbread recipe from my old copy of Martha Stewart’s Christmas, which I stole from home a few years back. While the recipe doesn’t call for chilling the dough, I ended up in a time crunch and stuck it in the fridge overnight. Be warned—if you do chill the dough you have to let it sit out at room temperature for a long, long time before you can roll it out. I let the dough sit out for half and hour and it was still like rolling out a hockey puck.
I was worried that the cookies wouldn’t rise because of the long chilling time and because this recipe uses baking soda as a leavener. You’re supposed to bake cookies and cakes with baking soda right after mixing, because the baking soda is activated when it comes into contact with liquid. But in spite of my worries, these baked up just fine. In fact, I rolled out my first batch too thick and I had the opposite problem—the cookies rose so much that their surfaces split open.
While I thought that, all-in-all, the cookies made fine ornaments, I wouldn’t make them for eating. I can’t tell if the chilling time was the main culprit, but I thought these cookies were flavorless (although adding 1/2 a teaspoon of salt to the dough could help bring out the flavor of the molasses and the spices). But I’d much rather make Mary Todd Lincoln’s Gingerbread Cookies, which tasted wonderful and rolled out like a dream.
I decorated the cookies with white and green royal icing (I used Rose Levy Beranbaum’s ratio of one egg white to 1 1/3 cup powdered sugar). Also, I misread the recipe and poked holes in the ornaments before baking, which closed shut as the cookies rose. You’re actually supposed to poke holes through the ornaments right after the cookies come out of the oven. Still, I had no problem re-poking the holes with a large needle, even several days after I made the cookies. The dough is strong without being brittle, making this recipe ideal for ornament making.
Melissa’s Gingerbread Cookies
By Martha Stewart
1 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons ground ginger
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Place the molasses, sugar, ginger and cinnamon in a double boiler over medium heat. When the sugar has melted, add the baking soda and stir. When the mixture bubbles up, remove from heat. Place butter in a large mixing bowl. Add the hot molasses mixture and stir well. Let mixture cool to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, then add the eggs. Gradually add the flour, 1 cup at a time, while beating. (This is best done in an electric mixer, but you can use a wooden spoon.)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line thick baking sheets with parchment paper. Place dough on a well-floured board and roll out until 1/4 to 1/8-inch thick. Cut into shapes, place shapes on the parchment-covered baking sheets and bake 15 to 20 minutes or until firm to the touch.