Gingerbread is always welcome at the holidays, but in tackling WaPo Food’s cookie project this year, Amanda Cook has managed to give readers something a little different.
The pastry chef at Centrolina in CityCenterDC combined a technique she remembers from a cookbook in her childhood with an easy way to display all the handiwork that goes into a decorated cookie. And, oddly enough, she began with a sugar cookie recipe.
“When I have a recipe I really like, I tailor it,” she says. “This cookie comes out crisp and delicate.” Cook added a subtle batch of gingerbread spices for the lighter-colored gingerbread used here, and those spices plus cocoa and melted unsweetened chocolate for the darker gingerbread.
The chilled doughs cut cleanly and easily; here, Cook used cookie cutters from a Shiny Bright Ornaments set. Her tips are included in this Gingerbread Panels recipe; here’s a rundown of to assemble the panels for use as a mantelpiece or table topper, starting with the chilled, rolled-out dough:
Working with one sheet of either dough at a time, transfer it to a clean work surface and remove the top sheet of parchment. Invert the dough and remove the parchment on the other side. Use a straight edge to cut 2 3/4-by-5 1/2-inch and 3-by-3-inch panels — as many as you can without rerolling the dough.
Use lightly floured cookie cutters to cut out shapes from any scraps you can. Reroll the remaining dough, again between two pieces of parchment, and return it to the refrigerator just long enough to firm up.
Re-flour the cookie cutters as needed; cut out shapes in the tall and short panels. Interchange light and chocolate gingerbread pieces as you like, pressing them in gently.
Use the drinking straw to create pairs of holes (for joining the pieces with ribbon, later), making sure they line up with the panels you plan to connect. For a mantel set as shown in the photo at top, you would want to punch 2 holes on the right side only of 1 tall panel; punch 2 holes in the left and right sides of two short panel squares; punch 2 holes on the left and right sides of 1 tall panel; and punch 2 holes on the left side only of 1 tall panel.
Transfer the panels to the baking sheets, spacing the panels at least 1 1/2 inches apart; turn them over, because the seams will be cleaner-edged on the other side. Return them to the refrigerator to keep them chilled and shaped. Bake one sheet at a time (middle rack) for 12 to 15 minutes, until they are browned on the edges and set.
As soon as they are out of the oven, use the straw to reopen any holes that may have closed up a bit during baking. Let the cookie panels cool completely. Repeat to bake all the cookie panels.
Decorate the panels with royal icing (see the recipe) in a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. Sprinkle luster dust on top, if using. Let dry completely. (Or let the icing dry first and apply the luster dust with a brush.)
Use the Microplane zester to gently grate/smooth and straighten edges that may have spread during baking.
Lay the mantelpiece panels close together on a clean dish towel (for cushioning). Thread ribbons through the holes, connecting the pieces.
Carefully stand the panels upright, adjusting them so they zigzag.
Join pastry chef Amanda Cook for a Facebook Live demonstration of how to assemble this year’s cookie project on Wednesday afternoon: go to WaPo Food’s Facebook page.