It’s just not Christmas for me without gingerbread men. I love to eat them, and I bake a small army of them every year. Forget the houses — I have yet to do that. I just really don’t understand putting all that effort into a gingerbread house when you don’t even get to eat it afterward. Who’s with me on that one? I did not grow up baking gingerbread men with my mom every Christmas, somehow I just started this tradition many years ago. There’s just something about those cute little gingerbread boys with white icing swirled decoratively around the hands and feet, and little candy eyes and buttons. I guess it just brings out the child in me.
My Christmas tradition is baking sugar cookies and gingerbread men, along with a multitude of other Christmas cookies, and giving them away to family and friends as gifts. These cookies are time consuming, so I break it up into stages: dough making one day, baking them 1-2 days later, and decorating them and packaging them up the final day. The best part is the dough can be made a few days in advance and even frozen. Enlist some help with the rolling, cutting, and especially the decorating. I get my nieces or my kids to help, which eases my back pain.
It’s a small army, all right. This isn’t even all of them, either.
Years ago I was given a Christmas cookie book from a wonderful friend and co-worker of mine back when I had a paying job. It’s titled “The Christmas Cookie Book”, and the author is Lou Seibert Pappas. I’ve pretty much made my gingerbread cookies using the gingerbread recipe in this cookbook every year. My recipe is adapted from this cookbook. These cookies are special because they are soft and chewy. I roll out the dough to about 1/4″ to get thicker, softer cookies. I do not like thin, crisp cookies! I need a cookie with substance, not one that’s going to break in my hand or chip my tooth. I think I’ve made my point.
As I mentioned, I make all of these cookies in stages. I make a double batch of the dough one day, then I shape the dough into four disks and wrap them in plastic wrap to keep in the refrigerator. Oftentimes, I wrap two of the disks in foil and place them in the freezer to bake right before Christmas.
Now that’s a lot of dough! I’m going to mention that it’s hard to roll the dough until it’s completely smooth. Be warned that you may encounter small cracks in the surface of the dough. It’s completely cosmetic, and you can certainly cover it up with icing if it bothers you. Think of it as gingerbread man plastic surgery, if you will. When you’re getting ready to bake them, remove the dough from the refrigerator at least an hour beforehand so that it can soften. It will be too cold to work with straight from the fridge. I have to confess, I’ve even microwaved mine in the plastic wrap for only 10 seconds to soften it up slightly. Use that in case of an emergency.
I use a large silicone mat sprinkled with flour to roll the dough out on, and I highly recommend it for any of your dough rolling needs. Be careful not to use too much flour when rolling the dough, as the dough will become tough and dry. Working with one disk of dough at a time, roll the dough to about 1/4″ thickness for softer, chewier cookies, and 1/8″ thick if you like them thin and crispy. Make sure to keep flouring your rolling pin and cookie cutter to keep the dough from sticking. If the dough gets unmanageable, place in the refrigerator until it hardens up slightly. Place the cut out cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The parchment paper serves two important purposes: it will keep the cookies from sticking to the pan, and it will keep you from having to wash the pan. No washing? I’m there. Bake the cookies, then cool them on a wire rack. Once they are completely cooled, it’s time to decorate.
My favorite way to decorate the gingerbread men is with mini chocolate chips for eyes, red hots or mini M&M’s for buttons, and a simple vanilla icing to pipe on. Sometimes I get lazy and I buy the big Wilton’s squeeze bottle of white icing. Cutting corners is completely acceptable if you don’t want to dirty one more bowl or measure out one more ingredient. I’ve been there, obviously. There are, luckily plenty of really easy ways to make your own icing, too. One of my favorites is the dumping-powdered-sugar-in-a-bowl-and-adding-milk-until-it’s-thick-enough method. I will share the vanilla butter icing recipe was included with the gingerbread recipe in my cookbook and let you decide if you want to use it. Decorate the cookies on a sheet of waxed paper for easy clean up, and leave out at room temperature until set. Once they’re set, store between layers of waxed paper in an airtight container for up to one week. No refrigeration necessary.
These little gingerbread men are guaranteed to put a smile on the faces of all who receive them. Create your own army and your own new tradition. Bake some today!
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup molasses
Vanilla Butter Icing:
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 4-6 tablespoons water
- Red hot candies, mini chocolate chips or M&M's, or whatever candies or sprinkles you wish to decorate with!
For the Cookies:
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the egg and molasses, and beat until smooth. Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and beat just until combined.
- Scrape half of the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, flatten into a disk. Wrap it tightly and store in the refrigerator. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Chill for two hours or until firm enough to roll.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4" thickness for softer, chewier cookies, or 1/8" thickness for thinner, crispier cookies. Place cookies 1" apart on prepared baking sheet. Bake 6-8 minutes, or until edges become golden brown. Cool on wire racks.
Prepare the Vanilla Butter Icing:
- Beat the butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract in a medium bowl. Add enough of the water until the icing is the appropriate spreading consistency. Place the cookies on a sheet of waxed paper for decorating. Spread the icing over the cookies or pipe using a pastry bag fitted with a fine tip. Immediately decorate with the candies of your choice. Leave the cookies out at room temperature until set. Store between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
- Recipe adapted from "The Christmas Cookie Book", by Lou Seibert Pappas
- Dough can be made a few days in advance wrapped in plastic wrap. If you wish to freeze it, wrap the plastic wrapped dough in foil also and store in the freezer for up to one month. When you're ready to bake the cookies, leave the dough out at room temperature until soft enough to roll out.