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!
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.