Whenever I think of gingerbread I think of something really dark and spicy, the sort of thing you find in a fairytale cooling on a window sill in the most wicked little village. Here in the States gingerbread is all but extinct outside of Christmas parties or holiday bake sales and, after a pivotal experience last weekend, I have decided this is a travesty. Considering just how short the holiday season feels after the rat race of commercialism, limiting gingerbread to one month out of the year just doesn't make sense. Europeans have been enjoying the luxurious delights of gingerbread at festivals for centuries. At medieval tournaments these delightful cookies were given as tokens of good luck and courtly love. With that in mind I decided that instead of baking some insipid little sugar cookies (no offense) I would find a recipe that evoked the sort of spicy, haunting aroma that would tempt even the most well-behaved spirits the season has to offer. Cut out in macabre shapes you'll never miss those run-of-the-mill butter cookies drizzled with drippy icing.
Coincidentally, last weekend I bought a square of gingerbread dusted with powdered sugar to snack on while driving home from the orchard with a slew of other seasonal delicacies: cider, apple butter, pumpkins etc. Nonetheless, the dense, barely sweet loaf was a true testament to the aromatic-and according to medieval scholars aphrodisiac-powers of the stuff. I was smitten, immediately. That same powdered sugar dusting was so appropriate and so inspiring I decided my ghosts needed a similar treatment after cooling (see photo). The heavily molasses scented loaf is more of a recent occurrence nonetheless- traditional gingerbread came more commonly in the form of cookies cut into a myriad of shapes. Regardless, chased with a perfectly untraditional apple cider slushy the gingerbread was a definitive treat after trudging through snarled vines, pumpkin guts and squash hungry 5 year olds.
These cookies turn out beautifully and need very little flour to roll out. They will darken very slightly around the edges during baking but do an excellent job of retaining their shape. The first pan turned out a hair crispier than I had hoped but were just as delicious as the second pan which still had a little pudgy softness in the center. Do not roll your dough out too thinly to help protect your cookies from burning. The 2 teaspoons of finely diced crystallized ginger are optional, of course. I just really enjoy the surprisingly little crunch and spice the extra ginger provides. I can say honestly that this recipe is very close to perfection. My only complaint, if it can even be called a complaint, is that I personally would prefer a little less salt. The original recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons but I reduced it to 1 1/4. The difference is very subtle but for someone who is sensitive to salt it will make a difference. Listen to your own palate and bake accordingly.
Notes on spices: Ginger is a handy spice-I like to keep a little crystallized ginger in the pantry as well as a treat-especially during the colder months. Ginger has been toted for centuries for its digestive qualities. Try some Ginger Tea with lemon and honey to help relieve nausea or indigestion. You should already have cinnamon in your pantry but cloves will probably be a new addition to your spice cabinet. They are not the cheapest spice but because of their robust flavor you should use cloves very sparingly in your cooking and baking. Not being made of money, I like to keep ground cloves on hand but you can also buy them whole when they would be especially good for mulling wine or cider. Trust me, they are worth the investment.
"Patti Paige's Gingerbread" from "The Best of Martha Stewart Living Holidays"(1993)
1 stick plus 2 1/2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup molasses
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1. Cream butter and sugar together. Add the spices, egg and molasses and beat well.
2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix until combined.
3. Chill dough in plastic wrap or an air-tight container for a minimum of 2 hours.
4. Heat the oven to 350 and grease a cookie sheet.
5. Roll out the cookies on a well-floured work surface, or between two sheets of waxed paper dusted with a little flour. Roll to a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut out shapes using floured cookie cutters.
6. Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes. Cool completely and then dust with some powdered sugar, if desired.
Historical information provided by "A Brief History of Gingerbread"