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When I was a university student, I had a part time job working for a woman who ran a gingerbread cookie bakery. It was my job to mix, knead, cut and bake the warmly spiced dough into every conceivable shape. Once I’d earned my stripes, I graduated to decorating them with swirls, dots and letters to create little edible masterpieces. They were the best ever gingerbread cookies.
To say I loved that job would be an understatement, and the cookies were truly special. One thing bothered me, though: the recipe was a secret the owner wouldn’t part with.
It was an heirloom recipe passed down by her German ancestors and although I knew the quantities of some of the ingredients, she premixed other things, including the spices – the essential part for getting the flavour just right – away from the prying eyes of her staff.
I understand why it was a secret.
Those cookies were, after all, my boss’s livelihood. But I couldn’t let it go. At home in my own time, I would try to recreate the same dough we baked at work.
It took several years, long after I’d finished up my job at the bakery, but I eventually settled on something I was thrilled with. This recipe is the one I’ve baked ever since. Some years I’ve baked thousands to sell at Christmas markets and in gourmet stores, other years just a few dozen for family and friends.
The festive season would not be the same without these cookies all tied up in little cellophane bags, ready to hand out to everyone we see during December.
What makes a great gingerbread cookie?
I have some non-negotiables when it comes to baking gingerbread cookies which are outstanding, instead of something people just eat because they look pretty. Not that I’m fussy or anything. Here’s what sets the best gingerbread apart from the rest.
Gingerbread cookies absolutely must have enough ginger to make them worthy of the name – none of this supermarket style dough that’s sweet but doesn’t taste of anything. The spices should be balanced. Ginger obviously comes front and centre, but you want a blend of other warm spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and no single one should overpower the others.
The baked cookies have to keep well, which might not be so important if you only want to bake a few to eat at home, but it’s essential when you’re working with large quantities that need to be decorated and stored ahead of time.
The cookies need to be cut thick enough to be sturdy for decorating, and so the super sweet icing on top doesn’t dominate when you take a bite.
Finally, if you really want to go the extra mile, I like an icing or frosting that’s spiked with lemon, which counteracts the ginger and cuts through some of the sweetness.
No biggie, right? I bet most people never think that hard about their cookies, but if you’ve been around these parts for any length of time you’ll know I’m not most people when it comes to baking. Ha.
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Decorating and storing gingerbread cookies
I haven’t given an icing/frosting recipe today but I always use royal icing for my gingerbread. It sets hard and stays nice and white, and also takes on other colours very well.
Royal icing can be thinned down for ‘flood work’, where you outline your cookie with icing that’s a firmer consistency and then flood the shape with a wetter icing which dries to a very smooth, flat finish. It’s beautiful to look at but though the kids love a cookie completely covered in what amounts to pure sugar, as I get older I find I prefer the eat the more minimally-decorated ones.
You can make your own royal icing from scratch, though I stopped making my own years ago and now buy a powdered mix (basically just powdered sugar, corn starch and dried egg white, which gets mixed up with water).
I decorate so many cookies and houses most years that the premixed stuff is necessary – I need something which mixes up to the same consistency every single time, and which stays relatively stable after mixing. If you aren’t too worried about the keeping or setting qualities of your icing, a simple powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze is really delicious and easy to deal with.
Gingerbread cookies baked with this recipe will keep, well-sealed in a cool dark place, for up to a few months. This means you can bake them anytime from the beginning of November each year, ready for Christmas gifting.
They are very crunchy just after baking, mellowing to a sturdy but chewy cookie after a few days. The spices ‘settle’ a few days after baking too, making them much more rounded in flavour. Beware that gingerbread cookies are affected by humidity and will eventually soften to the point of breaking if they aren’t sealed up in a container or bag. After decorating I usually seal them up individually in little clear bags, or if I’ve made a house I’ll wrap the entire thing in a sheet or two of cellophane to protect it.
I hope you find the time to bake a batch of gingerbread for Christmas. Even undecorated they make a lovely gift, or a welcome treat to have on the table when people drop by during the holidays.
Happy baking, see you here again soon.
Best Ever Gingerbread Cookies
- 8.8 oz unsalted butter 1 cup, cubed, cold from the fridge is fine
- 1 1/3 cups dark brown sugar 8oz, firmly packed
- 1 cup golden syrup 11.5oz, I know this can be hard to find in some parts. If you absolutely can’t get any I suggest you substitute with half treacle and half clear honey, which is different in taste but will be similar for colour
- 7 cups all purpose flour 1lb 12oz, plain flour
- 0.6 oz baking soda bicarb soda, equivalent to a tablespoon plus a teaspoon
- 6 tbs ground ginger 1oz
- 1 tbs ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- Preheat your oven to 350°F/180°C, fan forced/convection heat (some of you will be looking for a steam oven setting here but this is a conventional oven recipe, so no steam!). Grease several cookie sheets (or line with parchment paper) and set aside.
- Put the butter, brown sugar and golden syrup into a pan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the butter and sugar have melted and the mixture is smooth. Increase the heat to bring the mixture to the boil, then cook for 1 minute before turning off and removing from heat. Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes while you get the rest of the ingredients ready.
- Sift the flour, baking soda and spices into a very large mixing bowl. Give it a whisk to make sure the soda and spices are incorporated through the flour. In general I can't be bothered sifting ingredients, but here it really is necessary so you don't have lumps of flour or soda in the dough later.
- Pour the hot mixture over the flour mixture and use a wooden spoon to stir everything together. It’s hard work but keep mixing until it’s smooth with no lumps of flour remaining.
- Tip the dough out onto a clean surface and knead until smooth and firm (it will be hot – my hands cope fine after years of practice, but if yours can’t, a very clean pair of kitchen gloves will help). If you’re finding the dough too much to handle as one mass, split it into two or three portions for kneading.
- Take a portion of your dough and roll it out to 6mm/¼ inch thickness. You shouldn’t need to flour the surface as this dough is firm and smooth enough to lift cleanly after rolling. Rolling tip: I have a couple of narrow lengths of lightweight scrap wood exactly the right thickness, which I sit either side of the dough – as the rolling pin flattens the dough it rolls over the wood and you end up with a very uniform sheet of dough, exactly the same thickness all over. Have a look at the process photos for an example. Want thinner dough? Just get thinner wood! Your local home improvement store is bound to have some offcuts for cheap or even free.
- Cut your chosen shapes from the rolled dough and lift them gently onto the prepared baking sheets. Leave about 1.5cm/¼ inch between each cookie.
- Bake the cookies until they’re evenly golden. 12 minutes is my standard time – a little less for thinner or very small cookies, a little more for large gingerbread house panels. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Decorate the cookies as you like and store in a well-sealed container, or package into clear bags for gifts.
- Mostly I double this quantity of dough, mixing it in an enormous bowl I’ve kept from my commercial cooking days. If you don’t need to bake gingerbread for everyone you know, this batch size will still give you a good four dozen large Christmas shapes, or the panels for a couple of gingerbread houses plus some cookies. Feel free to halve the quantity if that’s still too much.
- If you aren’t already in the habit of weighing your ingredients for baking, can I strongly suggest you give it a go here? Kitchen scales are pretty inexpensive nowadays and very easy to use (they’re also a great and practical Christmas gift for the baker in your life. Or, uh, yourself). I have given cup and spoon measures, but they’re open to wild fluctuations in weight, especially with dry ingredients. I can’t guarantee the success of your recipe if you end up way off on measurements.
- The dough is easiest to work with straightaway, when it’s warm and pliable. Happily, you can re-knead and re-roll all your scraps as much as you like without really affecting the texture of the finished cookies, so you’ll be able to use up every last scrap of dough.
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And if you’re after another of my most popular (and delicious) Christmas gift recipes, try this panforte with ginger, apricots and macadamia nuts. It’s a total winner which can be made well ahead of time like these cookies. If you still want more Christmas goodness, check out the Combi Steam Cooking at Christmas digital cookbook, for a selection of my all time favourite Christmas recipes suited to steam oven cooking.