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Cookie cutter solution

Making gingerbread is a fun activity with kids
Gordon M. Grant/Newsday/TNS The holidays bring out the baker in many as traditional holiday cookies, such as these classic mini-gingerbread men cookies with decorations, are made for parties and gifts.
Tom Wallace/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNSGingerbread Roulade with Maple Whipped Cream and Candied Pecans.

Where holiday goodies are concerned, just call me the Grinch. I cringe at the thought of making and eating sugar cookies.

How could something so sweetly sentimental curdle my Christmas cheer? Too many times I’ve burned the midnight oil — crusted in dough, my kitchen counter spattered with frosting — trying to extract from four batches a half-dozen cookies appetizing enough to bestow as gifts.

Offered by kids, melting snowmen and lame reindeer have kitschy charm. Not so for those disfigured at the hands of grownups.

I may have deleted sugar cookies from my list of holiday rituals. But I can’t sacrifice my collection of cookie cutters, some passed down from my mom, some more recently tucked into my stocking.

Gingerbread is the solution. The distinctive dough works with all my favorite cutters — even better with the iconic gingerbread man. But it’s sturdier and, therefore, much easier for kids (and impatient, haphazard bakers like myself) to handle. Moistened with molasses, gingerbread can be rerolled without toughening, then go from oven to cooling rack a little rough but still tempting.

Plus, sugar cookies’ dark twin cuts some calories during this season of excess. Some are saved by skipping icing. Whereas sugar cookies are a blank canvas for coating with frosting, gingerbread’s inimitable hue is meant to shine through — with just a few curlicues of white icing and Red Hots for eyes, nose and buttons.

It’s a fun, rather than stressful, activity with kids. The results, instead of inelegant and amateurish, are homey and heartwarming. I don’t worry about my sons eating more than one gingerbread cookie, and I can munch more than one without my teeth aching. Ginger, in fact, has been upheld as a health tonic perhaps as long as the cookies have been around.

The Greeks originated the first known recipe for gingerbread around 2400 BC. The Chinese, who first cultivated ginger root, developed their own gingerbread recipes during the 10th century, followed by Europeans in the late Middle Ages, according to PBS’ “The History Kitchen.” Sometimes adorned with gold leaf and shaped like animals and royalty, the hard cookies were a staple at Medieval fairs in England, France, Holland and Germany.

Elaborately decorated gingerbread became synonymous with all things fancy and elegant in England. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the fashion, after gingerbread cookies resembling visiting dignitaries captivated her court.

Still captivated today, bakers in Southern Oregon throw months of effort and creativity into the annual GingerBread Jubilee, a November benefit for Craterian Performances that raised $230,000 this year. Viewing the entirely edible artworks for the first time this year, my kids have set their sights on entering the competition.

But we need to practice the basics before sculpting a masterpiece in cookies, candies and other foods. Haphazard baker that I am, I learned that much in 15 years of covering the Jubilee and bakers’ techniques for the Mail Tribune.

Here are a few more tips to perfect this tried-and-true gingerbread recipe.

A stand mixer is essential. Be sure to use tall-sided cookie cutters because little ones meant for sugar cookies will only get clogged with this dough. Don’t use insulated cookie sheets — they don’t get hot enough. And remember the cookies will seem a little soft when removed from the oven (they don’t get any more brown).

Avoid adding fresh dough to a still-hot cookie sheet — it can melt and spread. The easiest method is to line the cookie sheet with parchment paper, then slide it off to a cooling rack and rinse the sheet with cold water. You can portion out the next batch of dough on parchment paper too, so it’s ready to slide onto the cooled sheet.

Cooling matters. If you remove cookies from a baking sheet too soon, they’ll break or bend. If you don’t have a cooling rack, pull out the second rack of your oven or the rack from inside a toaster oven. (Cover rack with paper towels if it’s stained.) Always cool cookies completely before decorating or storing them.

Or opt for soft gingerbread — baked like cake — that’s been commonplace in American cookery since Colonial times.

Rolled Gingerbread Cookies

1/3 cup transfat-free vegetable shortening (if using old-style shortening with transfats, reduce flour by 1/4 cup)

1 cup packed brown cane sugar

1-1/2 cups (one 12-ounce bottle) dark molasses (preferably Brer Rabbit brand with the green label)

6-1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon each: ground allspice, cloves, cinnamon and ginger

2 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Food coloring (optional)

Red Hots, colored sugar, holiday sprinkles and dragées, for decorating (optional)

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix the shortening, sugar and molasses. Blend in 2/3 cup cold water — mixture will look curdled; that’s OK.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, soda, salt and spices. Add flour mixture to molasses mixture by thirds until flour is thoroughly incorporated.

Chill dough for a least an hour, but longer (even overnight) is better. Dough will be fairly sticky still.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out thick to very thick on a generously floured cloth — about 1/3 inch thick seems to work best. Dip cookie cutters in flour before cutting.

Place cookies on a lightly greased baking sheet, leaving plenty of space between them. Bake in preheated oven until, when touched lightly with a finger, dough does not retain imprint, for about 12 to 14 minutes. (Tops will be very lightly cracked.)

For icing, stir together the powdered sugar, vanilla and 2 tablespoons water, or enough to make icing easy to spread without being drippy. If desired, add a drop or 2 of the food coloring. If icing gets too thick to spread, add a few drops of water and stir well. Decorate.

Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size of cutters.

Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from the 1956 edition of “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book.”

Gingerbread Roulade with Maple Whipped Cream and Candied Pecans

Candied pecans (recipe follows), if desired

4 eggs, separated, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon each: ground ginger and cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons molasses, preferably dark

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Maple Whipped Cream (recipe follows)

Make the Candied Pecans as directed below.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and move rack to center.

Cut a piece of parchment paper or waxed paper to fit bottom of a 10-by-15-inch rimmed jellyroll pan and spray with cooking spray.

Beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar, slowly at first, then gradually increasing speed to high until whites hold stiff peaks when beater is lifted. Set aside.

In small bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, baking powder and salt.

Beat together the egg yolks and brown sugar until thick and light in color, for about 3 minutes. Stir in the butter and molasses, then flour mixture.

Stir 1/3 of beaten egg whites into egg-yolk mixture to lighten. Fold in remaining egg whites, using a gentle stroke that brings batter up from bottom of bowl and folds it over surface. Repeat, turning bowl, until no streaks remain. Gently spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven for 15 to 17 minutes or until cake springs back lightly when touched.

While cake is baking, sprinkle the powdered sugar over a tea towel. When cake is done, run a knife around edge to make sure it’s loose, then quickly invert it onto prepared towel. Peel off paper. Then, starting from short side, roll cake and towel. Place seam-side down on a wire rack until cool.

Meanwhile, make the Maple Whipped Cream according to directions below.

Carefully unroll cake and spread with whipped cream. Sprinkle with candied pecans, then roll up cake to form a cylinder. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for several hours, or overnight, to set.

Garnish with additional powdered sugar, if desired, and more pecans. Slice with a serrated knife. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

CANDIED PECANS: In saucepan over medium heat, stir together 1 cup chopped pecans and 2 tablespoons real maple syrup. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and continue stirring for about 2 minutes. Coat a plate with cooking spray and spread pecans on it to cool. Makes 1 cup.

MAPLE WHIPPED CREAM: Beat 1 cup heavy cream with 1/4 cup real maple syrup (or 1 teaspoon maple extract or 1/4 teaspoon maple oil) and 1/4 cup powdered sugar until it holds stiff peaks. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use. Makes about 3 cups.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.