So many flavors and aromas are associated with Christmas and holiday treats: peppermint, chocolate, anise and orange, to name just a few. In my family, the first and foremost flavor has always been gingerbread.
The soft, spicy molasses-laden cookies, thickly rolled and decorated with a simple icing, are a tradition that essentially is linked to my great-grandmother’s Swedish background.
However, the recipe I learned as a child, and still make today (with a few adaptations) is from my mother’s newlywed “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” circa 1956. The cookies were originally called Gingies, and were not identified as a Christmas cookie. I’ve never run across another recipe quite like it: It uses neither eggs nor butter, and can be rolled thin or thick, depending on how you like your cookies.
The icing, just powdered sugar, water and a bit of vanilla, makes a thin crackly glaze after sitting a bit. Food coloring is optional, but Red Hots (cinnamon imperials) are a must among the decorations.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
I now bake these cookies by the dozens and ship them to friends and family up and down the West Coast. So they’ve been tested and tested and tested some more.
But this tradition also has kept me from exploring other types of gingerbread cookies. This year, I decided to change that.
So many thumbprint cookies are out there for the holidays that I wondered if anyone had made a gingerbread version. A couple did show up online, but they included eggs and butter. Could I adapt a recipe so that vegan friends could enjoy them too?
The answer was a definite yes, but only after an unsuccessful sidetrack: I tried to make cookies that also were gluten-free, but the less said about those (they were reminiscent of dog biscuits!) the better.
Below is the successful thumbprint recipe, as well as the family one, with testing and tasting notes attached.
Here are a few of Kathy Morrison’s favorites:
▪ Before starting, check your baking soda and baking powder for potency. Be sure your spices are fresh.
▪ Read the whole recipe through to make sure you have the right ingredients and the right equipment. Do you need parchment paper? Do eggs have to be separated? Does anything have to be pre-chilled? Make time for that, too.
▪ If you’re planning a whole day of baking, eat breakfast first and plan your lunch. That way you won’t be noshing off the raisins and chocolate chips all day.
▪ Don’t soften butter in the microwave – it won’t hold air if it gets melted. Instead, let it sit out until you can press a fingertip into it and leave a mark.
▪ Avoid putting cold dough on a hot cookie sheet. Alternate sheets or cool off a warm one with cold water. Or put the dough on a parchment sheet ready to slide onto the metal pan when it’s cool enough.
Rolled gingerbread cookies
Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size of cutters
This recipe was adapted from the 1956 edition of “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book.” Non-trans-fat shortening contains more water, so if you are using old-style trans-fat shortening, cut back the flour by 1/4 cup. It can be doubled, but in that case a heavy-duty stand mixer is essential.
Note: Don’t use insulated cookie sheets for this recipe – they don’t get hot enough.
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup packed brown cane sugar
1 1/2 cups (one 12-ounce bottle) dark molasses
2/3 cup cold water
6 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons water, or enough to make icing easy to spread without being drippy
Food coloring, optional
Decors such as Red Hots, colored sugar, jimmies and holiday sprinkles
Mix the shortening, sugar and molasses thoroughly in a large bowl. Blend in the water – the mixture will look curdled, but that’s OK.
Whisk the flour, soda, salt and spices together in a separate bowl. Add the flour mixture to the molasses mixture by thirds until flour is thoroughly incorporated.
Chill dough for a least an hour, but longer (even overnight) is better. The dough will be fairly sticky still.
Roll out thick to very thick on a generously floured cloth – about 1/3-inch thick seems to work best. Dip cookie cutters in flour before cutting.
Place cookies on a lightly greased baking sheet, leaving plenty of space between them. Bake at 350 degrees until, when touched lightly with finger, no imprint remains, about 12-14 minutes. (Tops will be very lightly cracked.)
For icing, stir ingredients together and, if desired, add food coloring. If icing gets too thick to spread, add a few drops of water and stir well.
Testing and tasting
▪ I prefer Brer Rabbit dark molasses (green bottle) for this recipe. The brown sugar can be light or dark; I’ve used both with success.
▪ Be sure to use tall-sided cookie cutters. Those little ones meant for sugar cookies will only get clogged with this dough.
▪ The cookies when removed from the oven will seem a little soft; they do not get browner.
▪ Icing can be doubled; I often split it between several bowls to color it.
▪ Allow cookies to cool before icing and decorating.
▪ This recipe is great for kids to help bake and help with the decorating.
▪ These cookies keep very well packed in tightly closed tins and can be successfully shipped.
Makes about 4 1/2 dozen
The flaxseed meal/water combination substitutes for 1 egg. The filling can be whatever you like. I tested three: a lemon glaze, cherry jam and Meyer lemon marmalade. They all worked well with the gingery cookie.
1 tablespoon flaxseed meal
3 tablespoons water
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) Earth Balance buttery sticks, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup granulated sugar (for rolling)
Filling options: About 3/4 cup total of fruit jam, marmalade, peanut butter and/or a glaze (see below)
Combine the flaxseed meal and water in a small bowl, letting the mixture sit for at least 2 minutes. Set aside.
Place flour, spices, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl and whisk together.
In a larger bowl, cream the buttery sticks and sugar for a minute or two, until somewhat fluffy. Add the molasses and the flaxseed mixture, mixing until combined. Slowly blend in the flour mixture until all the flour is incorporated.
Cover and chill the dough at least 1 hour, preferably several hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a sheet of baking parchment on a cooking sheet. Scoop out dough to make balls that are about 1 inch, and roll them in the granulated sugar. Place balls about 2 inches apart on baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, turning the pan about half way through. The cookies should be set along the edges and have some cracks in the top but still be soft.
Remove cookie sheet to a cooling rack and immediately use a spoon or other utensil to make thumbprints in the cookies while they’re hot. (Thumbs not recommended for hot cookies.) Cool about 5 minutes, then transfer the cookies from the pan to the rack to finish cooling.
Once the cookies are cool, spoon about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon filling into each center. Since the filling is not cooked, these cookies should be stored in a single layer.
Testing and tasting
▪ This recipe was tested using regular (not insulated) cookie sheets.
▪ I used a melon baller (the back of the smaller scoop) to make the indentations for the filling. The handle gave me more control than a measuring spoon.
▪ The lemon glaze filling ingredients were about 1 cup powdered sugar, the zest from 1/2 of a lemon and about 3 tablespoons lemon juice and a bit of water, but it was refrigerated overnight and thickened, so less juice and/or water might be what you want if you use it immediately. It was fairly thick when I spooned it into the indentations.
▪ Testers in the newsroom liked the texture of the cookies, with the tartness of the various fillings providing a good contrast to the sugar. “All the fillings I tried (lemon/cherry) are good,” one wrote. “Amazed that it’s no egg/dairy.”