Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My mother's gingerbread cookies

Like many moms and daughters, my mother and I sometimes have a strained relationship. Although it's far better now than when I was a teen and screaming matches were the norm, the distance between us (about 4,144 miles; she lives just outside Stockholm, Sweden) helps to keep the peace.

And yet, I miss her at times. And I miss the Christmas traditions I grew up with, which I try to re-create but don't always attain. (Of course some of those traditions I don't mind failing to re-create: I can't stand pickled herring, and I dislike lutefisk--I must be a bad Scandinavian.)

One of the traditions I do like is making gingerbread cookies. For years, I tried different recipes, but none of them were "right," and then a couple of years ago, my mother sent me a handwritten note with a recipe and some old cookie cutters.

This most valuable of all gifts held the recipe to my mother's gingerbread cookies, which was also my Finnish grandmother's favorite recipe and came from a 1940's cookbook called Hemhushållningens Grunder (which means the foundations of household care) by Rima Melander. And now I am going to share it with you.

Before you get started, you should be prepared for a few things. First, you will start the dough at least one day before you get to baking so that the flavors have time to mellow and blend and so that the dough has plenty of time to relax. Second, this recipe requires a bit of muscle in the stirring and mixing phase. Third, this recipe makes an enormous batch of cookies as a photo from a few years ago shows. It will take several hours to bake them all. If you don't want to make them all at once, you can cut the dough in half and refrigerate the unused portion for up to a week.

OK, now that caveats are out of the way, let's get to work. You will need:

  • 1 Tbsp orange zest (no white part), very finely chopped
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground dried ginger
  • 2 tsp cloves
  • 200 grams syrup (I use Lyle's Golden Syrup, which is made from cane sugar, but you can use corn syrup; for extra flavor, feel free to replace some of the syrup with molasses)
  • 400 grams white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 300 grams butter
  • 3 large eggs
  • 800 grams all purpose flour

And here's how to put it all together. Mix sugar, syrup, and spices in a pot with a thick bottom:

Over medium heat, bring the sugar and spice (and everything nice) mixture to a gentle simmer:

Here's where it gets exciting. Take the pot off the heat, add the baking soda to the mix, and stir intensely until the mix cools off a bit. It will froth up quite a lot.

When the mix has cooled a bit, stir in the butter (this may take a little while) and then stir in the eggs. Finally, add the flour to the mix in the pot, a few tablespoons at a time. When the mix in the pot gets too stiff to continue stirring, make a mount of the remaining flour on a bread board; make a hole in the middle of the mound of flour; pour in the sugar, spice, and butter mixture; and start mixing it all together. It will make a big mess, but eventually you will be able to combine the flour with the sugar and spices. When you have a nice smooth dough, sprinkle flour in a bowl, place the dough in the bowl, and then sprinkle some flour over the top of the dough. Put it in the refrigerator to rest at least 24 hours.

On the day when you plan to bake the cookies, get the dough out of the refrigerator and let it warm up for at least an hour (or rolling out the dough will just be too difficult). Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

On a floured board, cut the dough into manageable pieces. Watch out for small thieving hands!

Roll out the dough to about a quarter inch thickness and cut shapes with cookie cutters. (Or you can go freehand if you like.) The moose, the squirrel, and the hedgehog are new additions to my cookie cutter collection. I found them at IKEA.


Bake them for 5-6 minutes and let them cool on a baking rack (they will be pliable when they first come out of the oven, but will crisp up as they cool). Enjoy!