December 10, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown Part Two: Gingerbread Cookies

 Holiday Pop Quiz:
Gingerbread originated in which country?

a.  Sweden
  b.  Armenia
c.  France

If you’re anything like me, random facts, stats, historical footnotes and unusual bits of information intrigue and stick with me. For some reason, I can conveniently forget to pay the phone bill but miraculously remember that the name Wendy was made up for the play Peter Pan, or that Canadians eat more Kraft Dinner per capita than any other country in the world.

I especially love knowing those random and fascinating facts about food. Why mint with lamb? Is Greek yogurt really of Greek origin? And, as I baked more than 17 dozen gingerbread cookies this past weekend for our holiday Open House, I wondered - just where does gingerbread come from?

You’ll have plenty of time to decide if it’s Sweden, Armenia or France while you bake up a batch of my favourite, go-to gingerbread cookies. I’ll admit I’ve tweaked the recipe quite a bit over the years, adding more spices and heightening the ginger-to-molasses ratio. Before you do your own tinkering, try the original version below, from LCBO’s Food and Drink magazine.  And if you really need to know the answer about where gingerbread comes from before you break your first egg, scroll to the end of the post.

Gingerbread Cookies
from LCBO Food and Drink magazine
yields approximately four dozen*
*NB: The yield is entirely dependant on the size of the cookie cutters used.  Naturally, the smaller the cutter the greater the yield, but you are also limiting your ability to later personalise the cookies.

2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp powdered ginger
4 tsp cinnamon
6 c unsifted all purpose flour
1 c vegetable shortening
1¾ c brown sugar
1¼ c white sugar
4 tsp molasses
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ c milk

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2.  Sift together the baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and flour.  Set aside. 

3. In a stand mixer, cream together the shortening, the two sugars and molasses until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time and continue to cream until incorporated.

4.  Add a little of the flour mixture to the creamed ingredients, incorporating fully before adding more.  When the dough begins to stiffen, begin alternating flour mixture with milk, until both are incorporated.  Mix until a dough is formed.  Cover the dough and refrigerate for at least one hour.

5.  Roll out the dough on a floured surface, about a ¼ inch thick.  Cut out gingerbread with cookie cutters.  If you intend to use the cookies as ornaments, form a hole at the top of the cookie using a straw or chopstick, about a ¼ inch from the top. 

6.  Bake cookies until golden brown at the edges, about 20-25 minutes.  Cool on racks and store until ready to decorate.

Five Tips for Baking Gingerbread Cookies

1.  Start early.  Gingerbread is hardy.  If well cooled and stored in an airtight container, the cookies can be baked weeks in advance.

2.  Sift dry ingredients ahead of time.  If you`re making lots of cookies, sift the dry ingredients for each batch ahead of time and store in Ziplock bags.  It`s an extra step done and makes the work go much more quickly.

3.  Make the dough and prepare the cookies sheets in batches too.  Because the dough has to rest for at least an hour, I spend one evening making the dough and store it in the fridge and then do a massive baking the next night.  Instead of popping every tray in the oven as they're full, I do five full sheets at a time, eliminating the need to constantly open the oven door.

4.  Use chopsticks to form the holes...both before and after baking.  The holes tend to lose their shape during baking; a quick turn in each cookie ensures you`ll be able to thread ribbon through much more easily.

Reinforce ribbon holes in still-warm cookies

5.  Buy extra oven racks and use the convection setting.  I only really bake en masse once a year, but even so that one time made it worth it for me to buy three extra oven racks from my oven manufacturer for mass baking.  Plus, I`m able to use those extra racks for reheating hors d'oeuvres during the Open House.  I also started using the convection setting on my oven, shaving about 10 minutes from the baking time of each batch.

Click here for a super Royal Icing recipe that`s perfect to decorate these brown beauties.

So, where did gingerbread originate?  According to Wikipedia, gingerbread was brought to France via Pompeii in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis.  The recipe later spread to Sweden and to the nether regions of Europe, every country adding a twist to make it their own.  The constant is the spicy heat from ginger and the abundance of spices in general, reflecting the tendency to use the most rare and coveted ingredients for the Christmas feast.