This snappy gingerbread recipe makes cookies that are perfect for decorating.
You'll need star-shaped cookie cutters in seven sizes, ranging from 3 1/2 inches to 1 1/2 inches; cookie maven Gail Dosik recommends using a graduated set of six cutters plus one cutter from a jelly/candy cutter set (for the smallest size). You'll also need a 2-ounce squeeze bottle or a 12-inch-long disposable pastry bag fitted with a coupler and plain round pastry tip #2, for "gluing" the stacked cookies together. If you want to pipe small leaves on the star points of the cookies, you’ll need a small leaf tip. The equipment is available at baking supply/crafts stores.
Pasteurized eggs are available at some Harris Teeter stores; look for Davidson's brand.
Make Ahead: The dough needs to be frozen for 1 hour or up to 1 month; do not refrigerate. Undecorated, baked cookies can be frozen for up to 4 weeks in airtight containers, with double layers of parchment between the layers of cookies. Defrost at room temperature in the wrapping so the condensation forms on the parchment rather than on the cookie. The icing can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several days; stir before using.
Yield: cookies (for 1 tree), plus extra single cookies
- For the cookies
- 3 cups flour, plus more as needed
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 6 ounces light or dark brown sugar
- 3/4 cup unsulfured molasses
- 2 tablespoons milk, at room temperature
- For the icing
- 1 pound confectioners' sugar
- 3 ounces pasteurized egg whites, from about 2 large eggs (see headnote; may substitute reconstituted egg white or meringue powder)
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
- Water (optional)
- Colored sanding sugar, for garnish
- Dark-green food coloring gel (optional)
- Silver dragees, for garnish (optional)
For the cookies: Combine the flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt and baking soda in large bowl. Whisk to aerate and mix well.
Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on low speed, then on medium speed until well incorporated. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the molasses and milk; beat on low speed until incorporated.
Add the flour mixture in thirds, beating on low speed until well combined after the first two additions and stopping to scrape down the bowl after each addition. After the last of the flour is added, beat on low speed until just incorporated. The dough will pull away from the sides of the bowl and be soft yet very pliable.
Prepare 6 sheets of parchment paper about 18 by 13 inches (baking sheet size). Divide the dough into thirds; place each portion of dough between two sheets of the parchment; roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Freeze for at least 1 hour before cutting the cookies.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, with racks positioned in the upper and lower middle of the oven. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
Working with one portion of dough at a time (while the other two remain in the freezer), peel away both sides of parchment paper, but lay the dough back down on one piece of the parchment. Use the seven graduated sizes of cookie cutters to cut 3 cookies each, for a total of 21 cookies. Cut the cookies while the dough is frozen and position them on the parchment-lined baking sheets. If the dough defrosts too much to easily move cookies that have been cut out, replace the top sheet of parchment and refreeze until the dough is easy to work with. Do that as many times as needed; scraps can be re-rolled twice. Use all of the dough.
Bake the cookies on the upper and lower racks for 9 to 10 minutes, then rotate the sheets top to bottom and front to back. Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, until the cookies have browned but do not appear to be burned on the bottoms; a few minutes after you rotate the baking sheets, check the smaller-size cookies for doneness, removing any that might be done sooner. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
For the icing: Working in batches, combine the confectioners' sugar and egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat on low speed until all is well blended. Add the lemon or lime juice, beating until the icing is smooth and fluffy and holds a soft peak, adding water if needed. The yield is about 2 1/2 cups, about half of which is used in this recipe. You will have leftover icing, which can be refrigerated (see headnote). Cover the bowl with a dampened dish towel until ready to use. (Exposed royal icing will begin to crust over, rendering it lumpy and difficult to apply, and the final product will be uneven.)
To assemble: Use half of the icing to cover the tops of the cookies; sprinkle the exposed star tips with the sanding sugar. Let dry for 1 hour. Alternatively, use enough food color gel to color all of the icing. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a small leaf tip and decorate the star tips. If desired, place silver dragees on some or all of the star tips. Let dry for 1 hour.
Use some of the remaining icing as "glue" to stack and build the cookie tree, using a pastry bag fitted with the round tip to place the icing at the center of each cookie, making sure they are centered atop each other as you work. Offset the stars so their points do not line up directly. Let the cookie tree set for 1 hour before serving.
From a Cook's Illustrated recipe, adapted by Washington native Gail Dosik, a.k.a. One Tough Cookie, who blogs at onetoughcookienyc.com.
Tested by Corinne Douglas and Gail Dosik.
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