By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
Kids turned out in droves for the first of my new "baking appreciation" classes. They've longed for something sweet instead of those nasty old vegetables we usually cook all the time.
Since I'm not a professional baker, I was looking for something fairly simple but also seasonal and appropriate as a dessert for tonight's parents dinner, which has a Moroccan theme. Okay, so gingerbread cookies are exactly Moroccan (at least I don't think so). But spice-wise, they do have a passing affinity with North African cuisine. I'm referring to the cinnamon, of course.
One reason for baking with kids it to teach science and math. The components of baked goods often react with one another chemically in precise ways to yield the products we like so well. Also, we measure much more carefully when baking, hence the need to learn fractions and weights. In fact, weighing ingredients such as flour is more accurate than measuring in volume. So I brought along a scale as well.
Pretty soon, the aroma of our spicy cookies were drawing admirers from all over school.
This recipe comes from The New Best Recipes, from the same people who bring you Cook's Illustrated magazine. It's a big, thick book that's all about taking classic dishes and fiddling with them to come up with a recipe that produces the very best in its class. Thus, the authors discovered that the best gingerbread cookies require a little more fat (butter) than most traditional recipes call for. So we're going with that.
We've halved the published recipe and adapted it by hand, rather than with an electric food processor or blender. But you can certainly opt for one of those gadgets if you prefer. This recipe yields 40 cookies such as those you see above. To make ornaments suitable for hanging on your holiday tree, simply make a hole in the appropriate spot before the cookies go into the oven.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Mix together 7.5 ounces (1 1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour with 2.5 ounces dark brown sugar, 3/8 teaspoon baking soda, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/4 teaspoon salt. We used a pasty cutter to break up the brown sugar, then crushed any reamaining sugar lumps with our fingers.
Dot the top of the flour mix with 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces. Cut the butter into the flour mix: We used a pastry cutter first, then finished the job with our fingers, rapidly pinching the butter and flour together until the mix resembles coarse sand.
Use a greased measuring cup to add 3/8 cup dark molasses to the flour and butter mix. Add 1 tablespoon milk as well. Stir everything together with a wooden spoon. When all of the ingredients are incorporated, use your hands to form the dough into a ball, kneading it a few times if necessary to create a smooth mass.
Divide the dough in two. Place each half between sheets of parchment paper and roll the dough out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Lay the dough packages on a sheet pan and place in a freezer for 20 minutes to stiffen, or in a refrigerator for at least a couple of hours or overnight.
When the dough is chilled, remove the top sheet of parchment paper from one piece and invert it onto a floured work surface. Remove the second sheet of parchment paper. Use lightly-floured cookie cutters to create the shapes you like and place them on a greased baking sheet, or on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Place in oven and bake until cookies are firm when pressed in the middle with a finger, about 20 minutes.
Use an small, offset spatula to remove the cookies from the pans. When they have cooled, store them in a cookie tin or sealed container, using parchment paper to separate each layer of cookies.
You could decorate these cookies if you like. We'd need another class for that.