Someone recently tried to convince me that Christmas is about the baby Jesus, and that there are over a billion people on earth who feel that way*. In my experience it’s about eating and bickering, and giving a nod to all those other holidays that conveniently land in late December.
Despite my general heathenish ways, during bicker season I operate under the assumption that spices probably weren’t something Joseph and Mary could afford (on account of all the times they had to move). I set aside my resistance, and I selflessly make Jesus some festively spiced birthday treats known as gingerbread cookies.
Gather ye your ingredients:
1 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup white sugar
1 cup molasses
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
5 cups flour (plus extra for rolling out dough)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons ground ginger (I use 3)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon allspice (if you can afford it)
1/8 teaspoon very finely ground black or white pepper (optional)
Have at a’hand:
rolling pin (for chasing your spouse out of the kitchen)
circus strong man with a pastry cutter, fork and wooden spoon, and/or a stand mixer
Using either a stand mixer with beater attachment or a pastry cutter, add the shortening and sugar in bowl, stir or cut up at first, then beat it into a fluffy dither.
Crack egg into a separate bowl and whisk it a little to break up the yolk. Check for pieces of shell or a funky smell, and if it passes those tests you can add it to the sugar and shortening. Also add the molasses and vinegar. Beat for about a minute.
Measure five cups of flour into another bowl and lightly stir it with the soda, salt and spices. I don’t bother to sift, but I make sure my cups of flour aren’t packed too tightly. A separate bowl allows you to recount your cups in case you lose track, which never happens to me**.
Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients a cup at a time, stirring between additions and scraping down the sides of the bowl to catch all the stray stuff. When everything is combined, turn the mixer up just a little and give it a 30 second fast stir. The dough with start to form a mass and will climb up the beater. If you are using the ‘circus strong man’ method, have him put a little elbow grease into it.
Pack the dough into a thick disk (sort of) and wrap it in plastic or put it in an air tight container. Let it chill for at least an hour.
This is a big recipe, so only roll out half the dough at a time using plenty of flour on your chosen surface. I roll it on the counter atop my dish washer so I can scrape the floury mess into the washer when I’m all done. (Make sure it isn’t full of clean dishes before doing this.)
I eyeball the thickness of my dough at about 3/16 inch, but some people like it 1/8 inch and some 1/4. If you have trouble visualizing these measurements, buy a ruler. No, really. I’m not a grade school math teacher, okay?
Cut out cookies using cutters that are sharp, aren’t too large, and don’t have a lot of very thin shapes because that sort of thing will break during the icing process. Plus those itty bitty stems of dough usually cook too fast. My fave cutter is actually an oak leaf, but it looks enough like a holly leaf, it can be iced in many festive ways and it doesn’t scream “CHRISTMAS!” at everyone on my Kwanzaa gift list.
Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet. Sometimes I use parchment paper underneath the cookies for easy removal after baking. Also, a very flat spatula is required for transport so you don’t smoosh your shapes. (If you want smooshed shapes, wear a tighter girdle.)
The cookies should be about an inch apart on the sheet. When you get your first sheet filled, pop it into the fridge for around 10 minutes (this prevents spreading); during which time you can preheat your oven to 375 degrees and get a head start on your next sheet.
Bake the cookies for 6-7 minutes. Do NOT bake them longer than that. You’ll be gathering up the excess dough from the first rolling and rolling it out at least once more to get more cookies to cut. These subsequent rollings can make for some proverbially ‘tough cookies’ if over baked.
Let the cookies cool for 10 minutes on the pan. Remove from pan and place in airtight container until you are ready to decorate, where they can live–unadorned–for up to two weeks, or freeze them for up to a month. Makes five dozen 2″x3″ cookies.
I’ll do an OCD, A-type personality bit about cookie decorating later in the season. Now go get your Xanax refilled before the Christmas rush.
*Sources close to home have revealed that they attend midnight mass, but as yet they haven’t provided any concrete evidence.
**Actually, it happens to me constantly. It’s a real problem and I should probably get it checked out.