Gingerbread Decorating Day

(PCM) Gingerbread!  The very thought of it brings to mind the scents of cinnamon, cloves, allspice and let’s not forget ginger.  Gingerbread is part of our culture.  We, of course use it as food, but it plays a part in stories such as The Ginger Bread Man and Hansel and Gretel.  We see it in art first as illustration for the stories mentioned above but also in art as part of Christmas Cards or paintings of scenes of home and hearth.  Gingerbread is also an art in itself.Gingerbread1Clarissa  Dickson Wright of The Two Fat Ladies said that, “bakers were born and not made.”  In saying that, she puts the art of baking into the category of any other artist.  With gingerbread, though, it goes beyond the art of baking.  Gingerbread itself can be turned into great art.

On the second Saturday of December we celebrate Gingerbread Decorating day. Gingerbread can be traced back almost to the beginning of history.  It is a recipe for Gingerbread that is second only to bread as the oldest written recipe.  Gingerbread comes in two forms.  The first is a cake.  This is usually served frosted with chocolate or dusted with confectioner sugar; some even top it with apple sauce.  Gingerbread was also used to settle upset stomachs and ginger is still used for that today only more in the form of tea.  Ginger tea is also good for headaches.

The second form is a cookie.  This second form is used for many types of decorating.  Decorating Gingerbread can be dated back as far as the 1400s.  It was first used as decoration as round cookies painted with different colors and hung in windows.  Gingerbread has staying power so after you have decorated it, because ginger itself is a preservative, it can last for years.

The decorating of Gingerbread has an interesting history.  As mentioned above gingerbread was first used as painted window decorations.  As time moved on the decorating of this cookie became more complicated.  Gingerbread was shaped and decorated for weddings.  If you were catholic, the gingerbread would become a portrait of your patron saint and given to you on your birthday.  Gingerbread men, a flat cookie, shaped like man, and decorated with icing and candy was also, and still is, a popular treat.

Gingerbread houses began to be popular in the early 1800s.  People began to make small houses and decorated them with icing, candy canes, hard candies and dried fruits such as raisins.  These were displayed, and eaten, mostly during the holiday season.Gingerbread2People have been given great imaginations and so Gingerbread houses evolved into many different and more complicated structures.  There are Gingerbread trains and Carousels.  You can see Gingerbread stables with gingerbread horses, even Gingerbread castles or miniature copies of famous structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building.  Recently people with great artistic and architectural skills have reproduced copies of Hogwarts form The Harry Potter series, and tower of Barad Dur from The Lord Of The Rings.

So today bake up some fresh Gingerbread cookies and use your imagination to lead you in how to shape and build with them.  This could be a great day to spend with family and friends.  You could have a contest to see who can come up with the best decorating ideas.  To help you with this, provided below, is a recipe for Gingerbread cookies as well as a recipe for royal icing, which is the best for decorating these delicious treats.  Remember when it comes to decorating Gingerbread you can go as far as your imagination can take you.

Gingerbread3Gingerbread Cookies

Ingredients
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly milled black pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup unsulfured molasses
1 large egg

Royal Icing
1 pound (4 1/2 cups) confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons dried egg-white powder
6 tablespoons water

Directions
Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.

Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, salt and pepper through a wire sieve into a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer at high speed, beat the butter and vegetable shortening until well-combined, about 1 minute. Add the brown sugar and beat until the mixture is light in texture and color, about 2 minutes. Beat in the molasses and egg. Using a wooden spoon, gradually mix in the flour mixture to make a stiff dough. Divide the dough into two thick disks and wrap each disk in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until chilled, about 3 hours. (The dough can be prepared up to 2 days ahead.)

To roll out the cookies, work with one disk at a time, keeping the other disk refrigerated. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature until just warm enough to roll out without cracking, about 10 minutes. (If the dough has been chilled for longer than 3 hours, it may need a few more minutes.) Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with flour.

Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick, being sure that the dough isn’t sticking to the work surface (run a long meal spatula or knife under the dough occasionally just to be sure, and dust the surface with more flour, if needed). For softer cookies, roll out slightly thicker. Using cookie cutters, cut out the cookies and transfer to nonstick cookie sheets, placing the cookies 1 inch apart. Gently knead the scraps together and form into another disk. Wrap and chill for 5 minutes before rolling out again to cut out more cookies.

Bake, switching the positions of the cookies from top to bottom and back to front halfway through baking, until the edges of the cookies are set and crisp, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on the sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire cake racks to cool completely. Decorate with Royal Icing. (The cookies can be prepared up to 1 week ahead, stored in airtight containers at room temperature.)

ROYAL ICING
Make ahead: The icing can prepared up to 2 days ahead, stored in an airtight container with a moist paper towel pressed directly on the icing surface, and refrigerated.

This icing hardens into shiny white lines, and is used for piping decorations on gingerbread people or other cookies. Traditional royal icing uses raw egg whites, but I prefer dried egg-white powder, available at most supermarkets, to avoid any concern about uncooked egg whites.

When using a pastry bag, practice your decorating skills before you ice the cookies. Just do a few trial runs to get the feel of the icing and the bag, piping the icing onto aluminum foil or wax paper. If you work quickly, you can use a metal spatula to scrape the test icing back into the batch.

Dried egg-white powder is also available by mail order from The Baker’s Catalogue, 1-800-827-6836. Meringue powder, which is dehydrated egg whites with sugar already added, also makes excellent royal icing; just follow the directions on the package. However, the plain unsweetened dried egg whites are more versatile, as they can be used in savory dishes, too. Meringue powder is available from Adventures in Cooking (1-800-305-1114) and The Baker’s Catalogue.

In a medium bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer at low speed, beat the confectioners’ sugar, egg-white powder and water until combined. Increase the speed to high and beat, scraping down the sides of the bowl often, until very stiff, shiny and thick enough to pipe; 3 to 5 minutes. (The icing can be prepared up to 2 days ahead, stored in an airtight container with a moist paper towel pressed directly on the icing surface, and refrigerated.)

To pipe line decorations, use a pastry bag fitted with a tube with a small writing tip about 1/8-inch wide, such as Ateco No. 7; it may be too difficult to squeeze the icing out of smaller tips. If necessary, thin the icing with a little warm water. To fill the pastry bag, fit it with the tube. Fold the top of the bag back to form a cuff and hold it in one hand. (Or, place the bag in a tall glass and fold the top back to form a cuff.) Using a rubber spatula, scoop the icing into the bag. Unfold the cuff and twist the top of the bag closed. Squeeze the icing down to fill the tube.

*Always practice first on a sheet of wax paper or aluminum foil to check the flow and consistency of the icing.

Traditional Royal Icing: Substitute 3 large egg whites for the powder and water.

Recipe courtesy of Rick Rodgers, Christmas 101, Random House, 1999

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