When it comes to Christmas tree decorating, I'm kind of a dying breed: A lone, kooky cookie ornament-making rebel that perhaps only Martha could truly relate to. The world is spinning ever faster and faster, buzzing with techie gadgets that I, too, have not only embraced but obsessed over, that have transformed us into unstoppably hungry little monsters who want things now, now, NOW! Who has time or, perhaps the bigger factor, patience to make and decorate cookies any longer? Throw a kid or two into the mix of life and forget it - it's all shiny plastic drugstore balls & pre-baked gingerbread kits from now on. Each year I hold down and stubbornly defend my one-man cookie ornament-making sweatshop, facing judgmental glares from visitors and friends alike who think I'm some kind of Christmas freak, a cat lady of Xmas ornaments, a disco glitter-dusted target to hurried urban grinches who wish to transform my painstakingly piped, painted and acrylic-coated treats into crumbs with a few jealous stomps. I sometimes giddily insist that they, "Try one - they're delicious!"
I have loved decorating things for as long as I can remember, and unfortunately have trouble knowing when enough is enough. When stringing lights on the tree, I almost always have to divide the power to the strands between two circuit breakers to help prevent blown fuses and / or house fires. So far, so good. I also have issues deciding when a cookie ornament is done. Is it finished when it's piped in plain and clean royal icing lines? Or maybe after it's been gilded to the point where even Liberace would have second thoughts about showcasing it on the most visible branches? My mother deployed lots and lots of tinsel and once gave a neighbor kid an epileptic seizure from a fake tree so laden with a dizzying array of flashing lights that it was wedged between a wall and one end of the couch to keep it upright; enough said, really. And whatever happened to tinsel (not that I'm considering bringing it back)?
If I can convert just one of you to my annual cookie decorating blitz, I'll be happy (and I demand comments below and photo proof). The Amish would probably be my biggest fans if they had power and internet access, but I'll settle for someone with a slightly more reasonable amount of time to kill, such as those under ankle bracelet-monitored house arrest. Or a few super organized and ambitious desperate house / ranchwives. Or queens like me who love sparkly shit.
Let's get started by making the dough. These cookies can technically be eaten, but they're meant for building gingerbread houses because it becomes very stiff and dry and has extra spice to help them smell Christmassy on the tree even through poisonous coats of acrylic spray.
Gingerbread Ornament (or House) Recipe
Yield: About a hundred medium cookies or one medium-sized gingerbread house
silicon baking mats or parchment paper
chopsticks or another similarly shaped object with a thin, blunt end
piping bags and tips sizes zero - four
fine paint brushes
clear enamel spray
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1-1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1-1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 teaspoons salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
1-1/2 cups un-sulfured molasses
1.Whisk together the dry flour, baking soda & powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt in a large bowl and set aside.
2. Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the eggs one at a time, beating a minute or so to incorporate before adding the second egg. Add the molasses, scrape down sides with a rubber spatula and mix until well combined, about another minute.
3. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients gradually, tipping and tapping the bowl at an angle so that everything makes it into the bowl. Mix until the dry ingredients disappear into the wet and a soft dough forms. Divide dough into thirds, cover in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least one hour or overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 350F. Flour a countertop lightly, or even better just flour the tops of silicon mats if that's what you'll be using to bake on - you won't even have to move the cookies after you roll out the dough and cut it.
5. Roll the dough to a little more than 1/8 inch thick and, using cookie cutters, cut out the desired shapes and place them on parchment paper (or keep them on the silicon mats). Don't worry about the flour on the tops of the unbaked cookies for now - we'll deal with that later on.
7. Have a chopstick handy (or similarly shaped utensil with a blunt end) before taking the cookies out of the oven. Remove the cookies from the oven and immediately take the chopstick and hold it with your index finger and thumb. Using a twirling motion in alternating directions, gently put a hole near the hanging end (top) of each cookie. Basically, you're gently "drilling" into each cookie. This must be done while the cookies are hot or you'll risk cracking them. If they cool before you have finished making holes in all of them, put them back into the oven for a minute before continuing. You'll get very fast at it, though, trust me! Making the holes this way as opposed to before they are baked creates a cleaner hole and preserves the shape of the cookie.
8. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack and allow them to cool to room temperature. That's Oliver, my white-bellied parrot, running excitedly toward the cooling cookies. You'll undoubtedly be seeing more of him. (He did end up stealing one and hopping away with it.)
9. Once all of the cookies have been baked, had holes drilled into them and cooled, lower the oven to 300F and gather them all up on baking sheets. The cookies can be very close to each other, but not stacked or touching. Place them into the oven and turn off the heat entirely. Keep them in the oven at least 2 hours or overnight to dry them completely.
2 egg whites
1 pound (16 ounces) 10X powdered sugar
To make royal icing, simply place the two egg whites into a mixing bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low until frothy and then add the powdered sugar with the mixer still running, stopping the mixer briefly to scrape down the sides to incorporate all the sugar into the whites. Continue mixing on low for about 15 minutes. You should have a smooth, stiff icing. Immediately place the icing into an airtight container and place a slightly damp (not dripping wet) paper towel over the icing before sealing the container. Store in the fridge for up to a week.
12. Fit several pastry bags with varying sized round tips - I use numbers zero through four. Depending on how loose or stiff you prefer the royal icing to be, you might have to add a few drops of water to the royal icing. You want it to hold its shape once it is piped out, but also be somewhat easy to pipe through the tiny size zero round tip, which can cause mighty sore hands regardless of how soft the icing is. My advice is to make the icing going into the piping bags fitted with smaller holes (zero, one and two) slightly looser (wetter), and icing in the bigger (three and four) tips slightly stiffer (drier). Regardless, only a few drops of water should be added at a time and the icing should always be able to hold its shape completely. Return any unused icing to the fridge, covered with a damp paper towel and sealed tightly.
13. Pipe designs onto the cookies - be creative and, if you can rope anyone into helping out, make it a group effort! For some really handy tips on piping icing, you might want to check out Toba Garrett's book, Creative Cookies. She demonstrates piping technique better than anyone.
14. After you're done piping onto each cookie, which can be time consuming depending on how detailed you're making each one, they must dry completely before moving forward. I usually place them back in the oven after turning it on briefly to make it barely warm and then immediately turn it off again (you should be able to grab the oven rack comfortably with bare hands before putting the cookies in). Don't put them in a hot oven or you'll risk melting the sugar you just carefully piped - if the oven is too hot, keep the doors open until it's luke warm). Keep them there or in another warm, dry spot for a full 24 hours.
15. Once the icing is completely dry, you can stop right there and proceed to spraying them with enamel (continue below), or you can channel your inner Liberace by gilding the crap out of them with silver and gold luster dust mixed with a few drops of lemon extract and applied with a fine paint brush. Here's an accompanying simple how-to on gilding your cookie ornaments.
16. It's now time to spray the cookies with enamel to help preserve them. Set parchment paper down in a well-ventilated area (a garage with the door open or outside if it's dry is best) and place the dried and decorated cookies on the parchment face up. I use Krylon brand - make sure it is clear. You can use either a shiny or satin finish; I prefer satin because it gives the cookies a more old fashioned appearance, but go with whatever works best with your design.
17. Spray a very light misting of acrylic across the cookies from about a foot above them. If you have gilded them or painted them with food colors, those colors will run if you spray a full coating of acrylic on them right away. After misting them, let them sit for ten minutes and then mist them again. Wait another ten minutes and then, holding the spray a few inches above each cookie, coat each one moderately (don't drench them or, again, paints and gilding could run) and allow to dry at least fifteen minutes before repeating with another coat. Again allow to dry for another fifteen minutes before gently flipping them over (make sure the parchment beneath them is dry) and continuing with another coat on the back of each cookie, allowing to dry a further 15 minutes. Make sure the cookies do not stick to the parchment while spraying the backs or you could pull off some of your piping - move them around slightly after spraying them and while they are drying. Spray another coat on the back and allow to dry.
These cookies, even with the best of care, will eventually meet their death, usually from the effects of humidity and just plain passing time, but they are also super fragile, so take care of them. Store them in single layers separated by parchment or wax paper in containers that seal tightly and place them in the coolest, driest place possible after packing them up at the end of the season. Even with the best of care, they'll look best for two or three seasons, but that's the great part of it for me - I get to change the look of them continually and have a smattering of surviving cookies from recent years dotting the tree each season alongside the new ones.
And don't worry about rodents, roaches and ants infesting your home and tree - these cookies are coated with spray not many insects or rats find desirable. I've never attracted any, although if you manage to it might not be such a bad thing, as they're a great way to keep visiting relatives from overstaying their welcome.