Christmas cookies and the magic of baking together
Gingerbread (and letting go a bit) evokes the magic of the season
This holiday season will be different than last year for so many reasons. One primary change is the fact that I won't be living in a small apartment where the fire alarm goes off if you so much as glance at the oven.
There's nothing wrong with apartment living. I rather like the fact that someone takes care of all of the not-fun parts of adulting, including landscaping and leaf removal. In this particular apartment, someone even grabbed the trash. That was amazing.
But those smoke detectors. They were on another level. If you so much as sizzled a little bacon or roasted tomatoes, those things would start caterwauling until you threw open all of the windows and danced around with kitchen towels, waving the essentially invisible smoke out of the apartment. It's awfully hard to get rid of something you can't see. Perhaps this is how exorcists feel.
More from Southern Kitchen:Sugar & Spice: Southern Kitchen presents the art, culture and science of holiday sweets
At any rate, even cookie-making was out of the question. The baking equipment I stored over the fridge gathered dust. The cookie sheets sat unused in the weird little drawer under the oven. The sugar turned hard because, even in the dead of winter, it was unusually humid in that lower-floor apartment.
Now, this was hardly depressing even if it sounds like I'm painting a sad picture. We turned our attention to other fun holiday things, cruising Nashville for holiday lights, hot chocolate and other peoples' cookies. OPC, if you will. Everything was perfectly fine and festive.
But this year will be even better because there will be baking.
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Before my family moved from Asheville to Nashville, we had started a little tradition of gingerbread making. My then 5-year-old daughter would help me roll out and cut the dough, I would bake the little people and candy canes and snowflakes, and then I would set up the decorating station once the cookies cooled and sit back for some holiday magic.
Just kidding. I would have a lowkey anxiety attack while I watched my small child smear icing on every surface into which she would then stick edible decorations that would find their way onto the bottom of my socks and soles of my shoes until the new year. I would talk myself down off the ledge while reminding myself that a little green icing on the walls is just part of learning how to decorate. A little cookie dough ground into the carpet is fine. It's a sticky reminder of the holiday spirit!
Now, my daughter is 6. She'll be 7 by mid-December. She can bake fairly well. We made apple pie this weekend, and she only ate one small fistful of sugar. The messes, the sticky fingers, the flour all over the kitchen ‒ even though it all aggravates some latent OCD, it becomes part of a landscape of family memories I hope to never forget.
My favorite photo out of the pandemic was taken by my daughter's dad. He stood behind us, watching us use the violets we had plucked and candied to decorate a carrot cake we had made. Now, that carrot cake had the density of a doorstop. Cake flour, by that point in the shutdowns, was hard to find. We'd had to use whole wheat. The icing was a touch grainy because we ran out of powdered sugar and the violets were in clumps because it's hard for a tiny child to dip a flower in egg wash and then granulated sugar with the dexterity of a veteran baker.
But none of that comes through in the photo. Lily is looking up at me from her stool at the counter, grinning around the forefinger in her mouth, undoubtedly having just swiped some icing. I'm grinning down at her, even though I might have been silently wishing she'd stop sticking her hands in our lovely spring cake. But I let her steal icing with her sticky fingers. Because of that, happiness will remain the central memory preserved in that snapshot. And that's what I'll remember when I look at that photo as she grows up into a teen who'd rather fling herself from her bedroom window than bake cookies with her mom.
Until then, we'll bake. We'll occasionally drop sprinkles and set off smoke detectors. And we'll hold on to every memory we make, perhaps through the lens of slightly rose-tinted glasses.
This recipe comes from our recent holiday cookie feature, "Sugar & Spice: Southern Kitchen presents the art, culture and science of holiday sweets." It's by Lisa Marie White, pastry chef Nashville's popular Biscuit Love restaurants.
White's secret to amazing gingerbread is golden syrup, a British ingredient that can be found online. It's also known as "light treacle."
"When I'm creating recipes, I love to find things people have forgotten about or don't know about," she said.
White also tested the recipe with King Arthur's Gluten Free Measure for Measure Flour, to make sure even people with gluten allergies can enjoy her Christmas cookies. "You want to make everyone happy," she told Southern Kitchen reporter Todd Price.
- 2½ cups (375 grams) all-purpose flour (or substitute a 1:1 flour substitute)
- 1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
- ½ cup (125 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
- ½ cup (90 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
- Zest of half of a small orange
- 3 teaspoons (6 grams) ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons (5 grams) pie spice
- 1 teaspoon (3 grams) kosher salt
- ½ teaspoons (1.2 grams) ground black pepper
- ⅔ cups (230 grams) golden syrup
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
In the bowl of a standing mixer with a paddle attachment, combine room temperature butter with the dark brown sugar and the orange zest. Then beat on medium for 7 to 10 minutes until light in color and creamy.
Scrape down the bowl of the mixer to make sure everything is incorporated, then add spices, salt and black pepper. Mix another minute and scrape bowl afterwards. Now add the golden syrup and mix until combined. Scrape bowl of mixer, then add dry mixture a third at a time, mixing on medium speed until smooth.
If the mixture is not coming together and is crumbly at this point, then add 1 tablespoon of maple syrup. If the mixture is a bit too tacky or sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour.
Once the mixture comes together in a smooth ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. The dough can also be frozen for up to 2 months at this point.
This dough makes a great edible cookie, but it can also be turned into a gingerbread ornament. The only difference is in the baking time of the cookie.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Line baking sheets or cookie trays with parchment paper to avoid sticking.
Roll dough out to about ⅛ inch thick. Use cookie cutters or a paring knife to cut the dough into shapes. Make sure the dough remains chilled so it can be moved from the cutting board to the baking trays.
Depending on the thickness, bake for about 10 to 15 minutes until golden and dry to the touch. Allow the cookies to cool completely on trays. They will get stronger as they cool.
If using the cookies for ornaments, do not forget to make holes at the top for yarn or ribbon to hang the cookies. Also, cookies that will be used as ornaments should be baked a few minutes longer so the edges are brown but not dark.