Classic Gingerbread Cookies with Royal Icing

The best holiday cookie tins have a terrific balance of flavors and types of cookies. Like a classic, simple shortbread or sugar cookie, definitely a chocolate selection, something exotic and then something that brings the cute, festive factor that takes a little doing.

For the cute, festive cookie in my gifty tins this year, it had to be kitschy little gingerbread people--the ultimate holiday baking experience, right? But after some cheer-filled mixing, rolling and cutting (with Frank and Bing still playing in the background--not tired of it yet!) things took a turn. Sheet after sheet of spicy sweet little people began emerging from the oven. And then I started to panic--I knew there was no turning back. You simply cannot give someone a cookie in the shape of a person and not decorate it. That would be the saddest thing ever. And given my Type A baking tendencies, I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep until every last cookie had been given life in the form of royal icing eyes, mouths, clothing and accessories. What had I done? I had put myself in Martha hell, that's what. Oh, dear.

Thankfully, the anxiety was fleeting. As soon as I had put the finishing touches on the first cookie and saw its darling little face smiling at me, I let out a maniacal giggle much to the husband's great fear, and spent the next two hours hunched over a community of adorable gingerbread people that outnumbered the residents on my block. I mean--so cute! Can you stand it?!

But all of their adorable, sugary accoutrements aside, gingerbread cookies are one of those things that can be very, very good, or very, VERY not. Some are so spiced and pungent, they're almost soapy. Some are so weak, well...they might as well be snickerdoodles, people. And the right texture was of upmost importance--I definitely wanted crunchy, but not so hard they could be mistaken for dog biscuits. So in short, I wanted to make sure the base cookie recipe for my gingerbread friends was crisp and sturdy enough to decorate and had a balance of sharp spice and mellow sweetness, with a lush, buttery nuance as well.

I wanted them to be as cute as they were delicious, and to add the cuteness I needed a good royal icing recipe. Something that would be workable given my limited cookie decorating experience (and lack of piping bag--there are still five shopping days left until Christmas if you're trying to think of something to get me, I'm just saying) and also an icing that would set up firm so I could ship the cookies without freaking out about my hard work schmearing all over the insides of the tins.

I settled on a gingerbread recipe from Baking Illustrated with a few added tweaks, and consulted the fantasically handy Joy of Cooking for guidance with a royal icing recipe. To color the icing, I used my beloved gel food coloring for the most intense color, mixing red, yellow and blue like a first grader until I arrived at the perfect Christmas-y red and green hues. Filling the icing into plastic zip bags and snipping off a tiny corner of them worked really well considering the aforementioned lack of piping bag, and helped make this the most freakin' adorable Christmas ever.

Classic Gingerbread Cookies with Royal Icing
Adapted from Baking Illustrated and Joy of Cooking

Makes 3-4 dozen cookies, depending on shape and size

For the cookies, feel free to experiment with the amount of ginger in the recipe--more ground ginger equals more spice and heat. Or add additional spices like nutmeg, clove, even white pepper. Mild flavored molasses is recommended here, but if you love the flavor, try a robust molasses instead. For the icing, meringue powder is easiest to work with, but a large fresh egg white can be used in a pinch if you're not afraid of using raw eggs. The consistency of the icing is stiff enough to pipe smiling gingerbread faces and buttons, but adding a tiny bit more water will make it spreadable enough to smoothly cover larger surfaces. Any leftover icing stores for up to two weeks in an airtight container.

For the cookies:
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 12 pieces
3/4 cup mild molasses
2 tablespoons milk

For the royal icing:
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons meringue powder or powdered egg white
4 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon clear vanilla extract (optional)
Pinch salt
Food coloring (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and position the oven racks to the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.

In the bowl of your standing mixer with the paddle attachment, with an electric mixer, or in a food processor, mix the flour, brown sugar, soda, ginger, cinnamon and salt until well-blended. Scatter the butter pieces over the dry ingredients and mix again on medium low speed until the mixture is sandy and resembles fine meal. With the mixer or processor running, slowly pour in the molasses and milk, and mix until the dough is evenly moistened, no traces of flour remain, and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.

Scrape the dough out onto a work surface and divide it in half. Roll out each portion to about 1/8 inch thickness between two large sheets of parchment paper. Stack the two parchment-gingerbread sandwiches onto a baking sheet and freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. Working with one portion at a time, cut the dough into desired shapes and place on prepared baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes until the cookies are darkened in color and their centers are firm to the touch. Cool on the baking sheets for two minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely before icing.

Meanwhile, make the royal icing: In a medium bowl, stir together the confectioners' sugar, meringue powder, extract (if using) and water until well-blended. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of your standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, or using a handheld electric, beat on high speed until stiff peaks form, about two minutes. Divide the icing into smaller containers and color as desired with food coloring (use gel food coloring for the most vibrant colors and to avoid thinning out the icing). Embellish the cooled gingerbread cookies to your heart's content using a small spatula, a piping bag or similar. Allow the icing to dry completely, at least 15 minutes, before serving.

CookiesShauna Sever