GINGERBREAD COOKIES — a.k.a The Most Popular Cookie I Bake
I bake an absurd amount of cookies every December. This is a tradition I picked up from my mother. Like many other families, we would bake a bunch of Christmas cookies and give little gift boxes of them to friends in the neighborhood. As an adult, I don’t have neighbors or many friends whom I exchange holiday treats with (probably a byproduct of everyone in the neighborhood being renters and many of my friends not being into baking). So I mostly make an insane amount of cookies to have platers of them on hand for holiday parties, house guest, and last minute gifts. I also just appreciate having a selection of festive treats on hand throughout the month.
The holidays have long been associated with sweets and loads of other unhealthy foods, so I started to wonder where this particular tradition of Christmas cookies came from. Why cookies? Why not pineapple or grapefruits? So I did some investigating.
A Quick History of Christmas Cookies
It basically harbors back to when eating foods made with spices from far away lands was a luxury. The cookies we most associate with Christmas date back to the 15th century. It wasn’t ’till the later part of the Middle Ages that spices like cinnamon and ginger were even imported to Europe, making many of these recipes possible. Ahhh spices…where would we be without them? Christmas cookies, cut into shapes related to Christmas (also known as Christmas biscuits for any of my English friends), became popular throughout Europe by the 16th century, with many of the traditional cookies we enjoy today originating from Scandinavian countries and Germany.
While Christmas cookies were first introduced to the US by Dutch immigrants in the 17th century, Christmas cookie cutters did not become widely available in American markets until after 1871, when import laws where changed. By the early 20th century, imported cookies from Germany became popular presents, and in the 1930s the tradition of leaving milk and cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve was born. (Fun fact: Celebrating Christmas was outlawed by Puritan groups like the pilgrims—you know, the ones we associate with Thanksgiving. Not for religious reason. They just thought the holiday was a bit rowdy, which it kind of was back in the day when the traditions were a little closer to what it might be like if Robin Hood was put in charge of organizing Madi Gras. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday in America until 1870. Most of the Christmas tradition we associate with the holiday today, come from when Christmas was a bit reinvented during the Victorian Era. Think, Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol”. It wasn’t until Victorian times that taking care of the emotional needs of children became a more popular parenting technique and Christmas became a time for family and thought of as a moment when you could lavish your kids with a present without spoiling them. Christmas pre-Tickle Me Elmo sounds quite quant, doesn’t it?)
My Most Popular Cookie
By far the most popular cookie I make every year is gingerbread. My personal favorites tend to be more almond-based, but despite this, I still make between 2-6 batches of gingerbread cookies every December to keep up with the demand. Gingerbread cookies, for anyone who doesn’t know, are thought to originate from the the Alsace region of France and didn’t become associated with Christmas until Queen Victoria included them with her plater of German Christmas cookies one year. The tradition of gingerbread cookies being shaped as men, verses say a tree or a star or a camel or a llama (I’m totally making gingerbread llamas next year), actually dates back to before they were a Christmas cookie at all. Queen Elizabeth I supposedly had gingerbread men made for a banquet to represent people of the court and foreign dignitaries. It’s been a popular shape for the cookie ever since.
If you’ve read this far into my post without skipping down to the recipe, congratulations! You are now armed with enough random Christmas knowledge to dominate any Christmas-themed trivia night.
As a kid, I would decorate gingerbread camels at my best friend’s house and help my mom make our own gingerbread men every year. (Her most popular Christmas treat are chocolate truffles, not gingerbread men—I learned long ago from my mother that you should never give out anything at Christmas that you are not prepared to make every year for the rest of your life. The one year my mom didn’t want to make truffles is the year we heard the sentence, “Oh but we look forward to your truffles every year,” more than the phrase, “Merry Christmas.”) I’ve always found gingerbread one of the most fun Christmas cookies to make. Though I loved decorating them as a kid, I often leave my gingerbread men plan now days. I personally think they are sweet enough without the icing.
1 cup butter (room temp)
1 cup sugar
1 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup water
5 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon clove
Cream butter and sugar with hand mixer or in a stand mixer (I like to use my KitchenAid stand mixer). Blend in molasses, water, flour, salt, soda, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and clove until completely mixed. Divide dough into two equal parts, wrap each in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours (dough can sit in the refrigerator for multiple days).
Pre heat oven to 375ºF.
Roll dough to 1/4 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface and cut into desired shape. Place on non-greased baking sheet (I line mine with baking parchment) and bake for 10 minutes or until browning along the edges. If your cookies are cut into larger shapes, they could take closer to 14 minutes to bake. Allow to cool completely before icing/frosting if you choose to decorate.
Cookies will keep fresh for up to a week in an air-tight container (a bit longer if that air tight container is kept somewhere cool, like an unheated garage during a cold winter.)