Few recipes are as evocative of the holiday season as gingerbread cookies! Gingerbread appears around the holidays in many forms, from thin and crispy cookie varieties to sturdy candy-decorated houses to iced gingerbread men. I’ve had to wrap my head around the idea of gingerbread because I naively thought that there was only one kind of cookie that could be called gingerbread, and that is not so. Gingerbread cookies include various kinds of cookies and treats that are made with ginger, honey, molasses, or treacle, and they showed up around the 15th Century.
One of my favorite things about my passion for baking and blogging is that not only do I get to eat delicious treats, I get to experiment with a recipe, and oftentimes learn about its history and how it came to be. My most favorite recipes and treats are those that have stood the test of time and have been with us for centuries, evolving and changing as time went by, incorporating different ingredients, methods, and cultural twists as time went on. Gingerbread is one of those recipes. When we think of gingerbread, most of us think of Northern Europe, but ginger root does not grow in Europe; it was first cultivated in ancient China, usually for medicinal purposes. The very, very early growth spurts of globalization spread it from Asia to Europe via the ancient Silk Road. I love to imagine the merchants riding their camels with precious bags full of exotic spices and ingredients, and it’s amazing that those trade routes exist through today, even though today we have maritime and air travel. Needless to say, the missions and journeys from East to West and back again took a long time and were often dangerous, and protecting that trade route was one of the reasons why the Chinese extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the security of the trade route. So it is that ginger as an ingredient spread to Europe. By the Middle Ages, gingerbread was used as a spice to flavor meats and as a remedy for many digestive ailments. The first Chinese recipes for gingerbread developed in the 10thCentury, and by the late 10th Century, the Europeans had their own recipes for gingerbread. The first gingerbread was brought to Europe in the 10th Century by an Armenian monk living in modern-day Western Greece who settled in the French town of Pithiviers. He lived there for seven years, until his death, and taught gingerbread baking to the French. Usually the cookies were hard and shaped like animals, kings, and queens. They were often found at Medieval fairs in Germany, England, Holland, and France. Gingerbread spread to present-day Poland in the 13th Century, and to Sweden around the same time. Over time, elaborately-decorated gingerbread became associated with elegance, and Queen Elizabeth is credited with the idea of having gingerbread cookies decorated to resemble some of the nobles visiting her court. Gingerbread houses showed up in Germany in the 16th Century, and it is there that they became associated with the Christmas tradition, when the Brothers Grimm wrote Hansel and Gretel. In Norway, pepperkake is a quintessential feature of the Norwegian holiday season; and in Sweden, pepparkakor is its equivalent. Finally, gingerbread arrived in the Americas, brought by English colonists. The first American cookbook by Amelia Simmons includes three recipes for gingerbread. It was usually made with molasses rather than honey or sugar, and yielded a softer gingerbread.
In the present time, the obsession for gingerbread continues! The record for the world’s largest gingerbread house was set by the Mall of America until 2006—yes, right here in the North Star State of Minnesota! I think that since then, Texas may have broken the record with a house using about 4,000 gingerbread bricks—gasp! Yes, everything is bigger in Texas…but at least one thing that still makes Minnesota unique is that Norway House hosts an annual signature holiday tradition called Gingerbread Wonderland, featuring a local gingerbread house competition and setting up an exhibit to look at all the entries so everyone can share in the timeless experience of making and enjoying gingerbread.
The recipe of today is to make a gingerbread stamped cookie, which yields a super flavorful, spicy, and deeply satisfying gingerbread cookie, which is perfect for the holiday season. The cookies are thick and sturdy, and if you’re careful with the baking time, they can yield a soft cookie. Make sure that if you make them, you store them in an airtight container, because otherwise they will harden. The recipe is so simple, making the dough in a few easy steps, spending 2 hours in the refrigerator, and then rolling it out to ¼ inch thickness and cutting out cookies with a pretty cookie stamp of your choice. I used the snowflake cookie stamps by Nordicware, and it was so fun! If it’s fun for us grownups, I can’t imagine how much fun it must be to do this as a kid, so it can be an enjoyable project for the whole family. In true American fashion, I used molasses instead of honey, but honestly I am so obsessed with gingerbread that I think I’ll come out with many iterations of stamped cookies. They make a beautiful and delicious gift, too. So if you’re thinking of making something evocative and that speaks to the magic of the season, I hope you will consider making these snowflake gingerbread stamp cookies. Dust them with powdered sugar or glaze them. Either way, they’ll shine brightly at each of your holiday baking gatherings.
Gingerbread Stamped Cookies
Prep time: 20 minutes
Chill time: 2 hours or overnight
Bake: 8-10 minutes
Servings: 14 cookies
- 3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ tbsp cocoa
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
- 1 ½ tsp ground cloves
- 3 tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 cup butter at room temperature
- 1 cup cane sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp ground vanilla powder
- ½ cup molasses
- Sift together flour, cocoa, spices, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat butter and cane sugar on medium speed until light and creamy. Scrape down the sides of the mixer.
- Add the egg and vanilla powder and mix thoroughly.
- Add the molasses and continue beating until incorporated.
- Finally, fold in the flour and spice mixture and blend again and form a soft dough.
- Remove the dough from the bowl and and spread onto a sheet of parchment paper and roll out into a disc of ½ inch thickness. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and remove the dough from the refrigerator.
- Roll out the cookie dough to ¼ inch thickness using a rolling pin.
- Using a cookie stamp, the bottom of a glass, or a round cookie cutter, form the cookies; gently remove each cookie and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Bake for 8-10 minutes.
- Remove cookie sheet from the oven and cool for 10 minutes before transferring each cookie individually to a cooling rack.
- You can serve them plain, sprinkle them with powdered sugar, or glaze them after cooling.
- For the glaze: in a small bowl, mix 1 cup sifted powdered sugar with ½ tsp vanilla extract and 1 ½ tbsp melted and cooled butter. Add 2 tbsp of warm water, mixing well so no granules remain. If you want a thinner glaze, add a little bit more water. A thiner glaze will make it easier to see the design of a cookie stamp. Brush the cooled cookies with the glaze and let it dry before serving or storing.
© 2021 Carol’s Baking Adventures