6 inches of snow in Blightly.
Families are stranded, it is minus 13 in Notting Hill, and if you live anywhere else you are probably snowed in and wondering how on earth you are going to get the Christmas shopping done…in 6 inches of snow! I am so jealous I don’t know what to do with myself. The magic of freshly fallen snow in London is a rare and beautiful treat. Everything goes quiet. People talk to each other from across the street, and no one goes to work or school. We take to the streets with tea trays and bobble hats and whinge about the fact that it hasn’t actually snowed on Christmas Day… and probably now won’t.
Here, in Singapore, I am hot. And not in a good way. In a slightly desperate effort to fill my home with at least the tastes and scents of Christmas; I have resorted to making gingerbread by the batch load. I adore gingerbread… in all its’ forms. The glittering cookies that adorn the tree but are far too tough to eat; the old fashioned little men with their currant eyes and buttons cheerfully awaiting decapitation; the snap of delicate thin biscuits that adorn coffee cups and the comforting, fat, soft variety laden with icing that no child can resist.
Gingerbread Houses are the ultimate homage to this humble biscuit; and in our house, regardless of the fact that humidity and ‘E’ numbers mean that it is destined to collapse within hours, we have made one anyway. It is beautiful. Its’ fragility makes it all the more endearing, and we are still arguing over whether Mother or Son wins the ‘best house competition’!
The truth is that my son’s house wins hands down. It is laden with every kind of candy he could lay his hands on. Red and green painted canes are lined up like little soldiers; the roof is a veritable smorgasbord of multi-coloured tooth-rotting rock tiles; a sugar Father Christmas is groaning under the weight of a net bag of melting chocolate coins (it is 32C in our living room); and the garden path is bedecked with hundreds and thousands, multi-coloured sprinkles and dinosaur eggs… oh… and of course there is a pile of strawberry laces and Bassett’s Licorice Allsorts (smuggled through customs by a very good friend) for good English measure.
As I said; his wins hands down. Mine is of course an anally retentively be-sparkled rendition, with what an interior designer might refer to as a ‘nod to Scandinavia’. The restrained red and white icing that adorns the 17 windows is delicate and charming, the front door has a diminutive snowman for a knocker and the house…nay Schloss… is two storey to boot.
But Hansel, Gretel and I all agree – If lost in a snowstorm in a deep, dark forest; it is my four year olds’ cheerful little collapsing cottage that we would run to – the candy alone would keep us going ’til next year, and besides… we probably couldn’t afford the heating at the Schloss.
Originally from Cooks Illustrated ( a wonderful mine of information) I have tweaked and bastardised this recipe to my own tastes. It is my version of proper old fashioned style gingerbread, the like of which I imagine Hansel and Gretel digging into on a frosty night. The batch will make 30 small thin cookies or about 15 large fat, soft cookies. The dough (if rolled thin and baked until hard) is good for using as decorations or if rolled fat and cooked for a shorter time (removed from oven whilst still soft) produces lovely chewy biscuits; great for immediate eating, or they will last pretty well for a few days in an airtight box.
160g of salted butter – cold and hard and cut into small cubes
1 ½ TBSPs powdered cinnamon
1 TBSP dried powdered ground ginger
400g plain flour
½ tsp table/running salt
¾ tsp baking soda
3/4 cup liquid unsulphured molasses
2 TBSPs water (not always necessary)
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a food processor or stand mixer. If you don’t have one of these you can stir it all together in a big bowl, making sure it is mixed well. Then scatter the pieces of butter over the top of the dry ingredients and either tickle them together or process in a machine until the mixture becomes sandy, slightly damp sand. If using a kitchenaid; do this using the whisk attachment, then swap to ‘K’ whip for next part.
Slowly add the molasses to the dry mixture to make a dough, stirring all the time (or with the machine slowly running). Stop adding the molasses when the dough is evenly moistened and thoroughly comes together to form a soft ball; you may not need all of the liquid (especially if making in a hot, humid climate). However, if you need more liquid simply add a TBSP at a time of extra water until the dough comes together and before it becomes a paste that sticks to the side.
Roll the dough out to the desired thickness between two sheets of greaseproof paper (no need to use any flour). Then, refrigerate for a few hours until really firm. Peel away the top layer of paper and cookie cutter out desired shapes, lay on a parchment paper lined oven tray and refrigerate again until the oven is ready. You can bring the dough together and roll out as many times as you need to, between the two sheets of greasproof paper, to keep cutting out cookies. The dough doesn’t toughen because you are not adding any more flour each time you roll it out. Once you have cut out your shapes they can even be kept in the freezer for a few weeks before baking, as long as they are stored with greaseproof/parchment paper between each one and in a sealed box.
Bake at 170C on parchment lined flat trays straight from the fridge in order to keep their shape and stop them from spreading. If making thin crisp ones they may only take about 8 minutes to bake hard (remove before the edges start to burn), however if making soft fat ones, they may take a little longer and you will want to remove them when set and slightly risen, but still soft to the touch in the middle.
If making traditional men you will want to press in soaked currants for eyes and buttons before baking, or wait until cool to decorate with cut out fondant icing, royal icing and sprinkles.