Friday, December 19, 2008


When Christmas comes around, I love to bake American and German-style cookies. I can't think of similarly festive baked goods in France. Confections such as truffles and marrons glacés, yes, cakes such as a "bûche de Noël" (yule log), but no cookies. At least not that I can think of. Furthermore, what I find missing in French Christmas traditions is spices. While I'm not an unconditional fan of cinnamon or ginger year-round, I find no other flavor is as evocative of Christmas.

Above is a box of goodies I put together as a gift. It contains gingerbread, pinwheel cookies, brown sugar cut-out cookies, and "pecanios" or pecan tartlets. (The box was photographed in the snow on our balcony.)

I love to bake and decorate gingerbread. The house smells good of baking and spices. Gingerbread dough is sturdy and the cookies can be formed in intricate patterns for decorations.

This year the girls and I made a large gingerbread house as well as several smaller ones for their immediate consumption, and also some cookies for decorating Christmas trees.

For the large house I used a set of special cookie cutters for the roof, walls and chimney. For the smaller houses, I had a single smaller cookie cutter for the front of the house, and improvised some rectangles for the roof and low walls.

A gingerbread village!

The weather contributed to the seasonal cheer.

I wanted to photograph the cookies with a snow scene in the background but found it difficult to focus on both simultaneously

The box nearly toppled out the window...

A white plate is a good background

A box full of gingerbread, waiting to be decorated. Notice the house cut-out which I used to make the small gingerbread houses

My husband calls this my signature bear

So hard not to touch the houses as they dry!

Recipe: Gingerbread
For making gingerbread houses or cookies
Source: Joy of Cooking (1997)
[I haven't changed the recipe any, but the following is only a an excerpt of the detailed instructions for making a gingerbread house. This makes a lot of dough!]

Whisk together thoroughly:
- 6 cups all purpose flour
- 1/2 tspn baking powder
- 4 tspn ground ginger
- 4 tspn ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tspn ground cloves or allspice
- 1/2 tspn salt

Beat on medium speed until fluffy and well blended:
- 12 tablespoons (170g) butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar

Beat in until well combined:
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup dark molasses
[I find the taste too strong, perhaps European molasses are stronger? So I use half honey, half molasses]
- 1 TB water
[Careful, dough can get very sticky. I once forgot the water and it worked better, though the dough was a little harder to roll]

Beat half of the flour mixutre into the molasses mixutre until well blended and smooth. Stir in the remaining flour, then knead the mixture until well blended. If the dough is soft, stir in more flour until it is firmer and more manageable but not at all dry.
Place the dough in a sealable plastic bag or airtight plastic container. Set aside in a cool place, but not the refrigerator, for at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours. Or refrigerate the dough for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before using.

[I roll the dough without waiting between two sheets of parchment paper, then thoroughly chill the dough in the fridge or even freezer before cutting it out]

Divide dough in half (I rolled about 600g of dough at a time, if memory serves). Roll the dough directly on parchment paper so that there is no warping when transferring dough to the baking sheet. Roll it to a scant 1/4 of an inch.

[The dough is sticky. I roll it between two sheets of parchment paper, then freeze the whole thing before making my cut-outs. Otherwise it's hard to peel off the parchment paper. For more tips on this rolling technique see an explanation here; and some videos I made here.]

Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 11 to 15 minutes for large pieces, 6 to 8 for small pieces. Or until the edges are tinged with brown.
[I like mine quite dark and crunchy.]

These molasses are very dark, but I use only half the amount and complete the rest with honey, making a lighter but very flavorful dough.

Roll and cut the shapes directly on the final parchment paper, then peel off the dough that's in between the cut-outs so that you never move them. This helps the cut-outs keep their shape, which is important if you're building a house.


Nicole said...

I love your blog.
These photos of the cookies in snow, are awesome!
I am in San Diego,CA and we don't get snow...lots of gingerbread, but no snow.
I eagerly await your next entry.

Snooky doodle said...

wow the gingerbread hous is so nice and cute and the cookies so perfect ! You re really talented :)

Tanya said...

The gingerbread houses are darling!Your snowflake cutters are so cute. Where did you get them? I love ones with the insides cut out too.

Coffee and Vanilla said...

Beautiful and very creative!
I'm thinking of making some ginger bread cookies as well this Christmas... I have also bear and little heart cutter :)


Tartelette said...

All of these are so gorgeous!
I love the gingerbread housese too, so whimsical!
Happy Holidays Astrid!

Astrid said...

Thanks everybody, and happy holidays to you!

Tanya -- I bought the snowflake cutters in Boston last winter...

My Sweet & Saucy said...

Love all of the photos!

once in a blue moon... said...

beautiful i love your post!

Maggie said...

I love your piping on your snowflakes!

Claudia said...

Gorgeous work! You and my husband together can bake a metropolis of 'pepperkake'. I am not a fan of cookies myself but Norwegians, like Danish, Germans, Austrians and Swiss just to mention a few are crazy for cookies, aren't they? Where do you think Americans, from the Americas in general, inherited their love for cookies from? More than half of Europe is crazy for cookies, maybe more.

I am with the French, I prefer other tastes in my small treats but I love the ultimate French 'cookie', the 'petit fours'.

Happy Christmas!


brii said...

this is really super.
happy holidays, astrid...

Gay said...

what a feat!! It all looks amazing and I'll bet it tasted just as good! I never attempted gingerbread and certainly not a gingerbread house! The kids would make them in pre-school out of graham crackers. I used to bake tons of cookies that the kids could decorate. Now that it's just Allan and me I'm lucky if I get my curried walnuts done in time to hand out to friends! Hope you all had a merry merry!

Aran said...

beautiful! i hope you had a good christmas and i wish you a great new year!

Sandra said...

Really great pictures...Would love to try one of your cookie creations!

Anonymous said...

How utterly impressive! The houses are BEAUTIFUL and I can identify the cookies!

You must have a secret, I used the same recipe and came out with gooey clay that was cookable but not edible! Ariana

Astrid said...

Hi Ariana! Is this the Ariana I know? Long time no hear!
The dough can indeed be sticky. My solution to all cut-outs is to roll dough between two sheets of parchment paper and then either chill or freeze the dough. In this case I would recommend freezing it. The rolling-chilling-cutting out process is immortalized in these nearly-grammy-winning films I made... Though perhaps I already mentioned this in my post (I haven't reread it in a while). Good luck!