Kitchen Lab: Only a Ginger

Merry Giftmas! Happy Crimbo! Festive Tinselmas! Felicitations on the midwinter gift-giving light festival of your preference!  I hope Santa brought you everything you asked for, Krampus did not steal any children you wanted to keep, and you got socks or something so the Jólakötturinn did not eat you.

For many, including meself, it is a season of COOKIES. Specifically, gingerbread. Quite possibly since before I was born, my mother would make and decorate little gingerbread folk and wrap them in plastic wrap with ribbons to tie onto the tree as ornaments. It became A Thing that the four of us kids would get to spend far more time than warranted decorating our own sheet of cookies each Christmas…and eventually eat them off the tree later.

Because it was such A Thing, a few years ago my mom printed up nice copies of the recipe she used, laminated them, and sent them to all of us for Giftmas. This is literally what part of my childhood tastes like.

If you, too, would like to make and decorate some little gingerbread folk, here’s how:

First, you’re gonna wanna set aside a good chunk of time. You can can break it up into stages, since the dough needs to be chilled for a while, so that’s nice.

  • Make dough
  • Chill
  • Roll, cut, decorate, and bake

For the most fun decorating, you might want to go check out the sprinkles and decor available at your local grocery store’s baking aisle. If you really wanna go nuts, there are specialty stores for buying all sorts of wildly elaborate shinythings, but they’re really not necessary. If you’ve got some colored sprinkles, maybe some cinnamon red-hots and/or currants, and the frosting at the end of this recipe, you’re more than covered.

Also, you’ll need a rolling pin. To roll out the dough. Because these are rolled cookies. Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’. My, Earth really is full of things.

Anyway, here’s where we start. I’ve conveniently halved the recipe, because it makes a METRIC CRAPTON of cookies as-is.

Danish gingerbread recipe (text in post body)

For the copypasters out there:

Full Recipe Half Recipe
butter 1 cup 1/2 cup
brown sugar 2/3 cup 1/3 cup
light corn syrup 1/3 cup 2 tbsp. + 2 tsp.
honey 2/3 cup 1/3 cup
grated lemon rind 1 tsp. 1/2 tsp.
vanilla 1 tsp. 1/2 tsp.
ground ginger 1 tsp. 1/2 tsp.
ground cloves 1/2 tsp. 1/4 tsp.
ground cinnamon 1 tsp. 1/2 tsp.
salt 1 tsp. 1/2 tsp.
baking soda 1 tsp. 1/2 tsp.
sifted flour 4 1/2 cups 2 1/4 cups

1. Cream butter and sugar.

For the uninitiated, this basically means to beat the heck out of the butter and sugar so they’re all melded together. You can do it by hand, but using a hand mixer is way faster. You’ll want to have soft butter for this to work well; either leave your butter out on the counter until it gets all nice and room-temperature-y, put it in the microwave for a few seconds at a time (you don’t want it to melt), or try one of the methods here. Some of them are messier than others.

before and after: butter and brown sugar separated, then creamed together in a bowl
However, hand mixers mean everything ends up on the sides of the bowl. Use a spoon or one of those awesome rubber spatulas to scrape everything back down periodically, and for goodness’ sake don’t use a low-sided bowl.

2. Add syrup, honey, lemon rind and vanilla, spices, salt and soda.

the back of a grater in a bowl with lemon zest on and beneath
It always sticks to the grater. Am I doing it wrong?

Actually, step 0.5 should be “zest a lemon,” which basically means grate the peel off. I generally find it helpful to grate way more zest than I think I’ll need, because I am not good at eyeballing how much crumbly stuff will go in a teaspoon and I really don’t wanna stop halfway through mixing to grate more lemon. When you’re zesting, you really just want the yellow part, not the white pith underneath.

So yeah, this is the step where you just mix everything together but the flour. I went ahead and used the hand mixer on this part too, since it was already out.

before and after: sugar and spice and everything nice, mixed together
Sugar and spice and everything nice.

3. Add enough flour to make a soft dough.

This is the kind of instruction that I get pretty annoyed by; how the hell do I know how much is “enough?” Isn’t that what I’m using a recipe for?

But basically, what it means here is “add flour in sections until you can’t really mix any more in, you might not need it all.” Which is kinda untrue, you’ll need more later when you’re rolling out the dough, but that’s irrelevant at this point.

Since I don’t have a sifter, I just “fluffed” the flour around in the bag with the measuring cup before scooping. You can also fluff it up with a spoon or something. Don’t shake or tap it to get a level cup, that’ll just settle everything back down… use a knife to scrape across the top instead. (That also makes a satisfyingly flat and level surface.)

No picture because adding the flour really just makes the dough look like more of the above, but lighter.

 4. Chill until firm enough to roll.

Another one of those vague instructions, bleh. I left it in the fridge for a few hours while I did other stuff. You just don’t want the dough sticking to EVERYTHING when you roll it out, and chilling helps kinda solidify the butter and honey so that happens less.

I didn’t think you’d want a photo of my fridge, either, so there isn’t one.

5. Set oven at 350F. Grease and flour baking sheets.

Depending on how long you take to cut and decorate your cookies, that oven’s gonna be preheated way before you need it. It’s your call when you want to turn it on, depending on whether you wanna be working in a hot kitchen.

To grease the cookie sheets, I ran a stick of butter over each one and then made sure it was all spread out evenly with a paper towel. Then you sprinkle flour over the butter, and kinda tilt-and-tap to get it all spread out.

two rectangular cookie sheets, greased and floured, next to each other
The tapping scares the cats and sounds like bad old-timey radio sound effects for thunder.

Or you can just use a baking spray with flour in. I don’t really like the smell or the flavor of it, so I didn’t.

6. On a floured cloth, roll dough 1/8 inch thick.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what? Floured cloth? What is this new and unexpected contraption?” You don’t NEED a cloth, but it helps when you’re trying to get the cut cookies moved around.

Sometimes rolling pins come in a set with a cloth and a weird rolling-pin cover that’s never gonna fit the rolling pin you have… the cloth is basically a really flat, densely-woven dishtowel-sized thing. I think you could probably use one of those floursack towels, if you have those. Otherwise, don’t worry about it; rolling dough onto a textured towel is A Bad Idea.

If you don’t have a cloth, just clean the heck out of your countertop and get it super-floury. It should look like the pans above. The flour keeps the dough from completely gluing itself to the counter (or cloth). Also, rub some flour on your rolling pin, and a bit on the dough itself for good measure. Flour all the things! It’s helpful to flatten the dough a bit to make it easier to get started rolling.

And you don’t have to roll the dough 1/8″ thick; if you like softer cookies, you’ll want to roll ’em thicker. Just make sure that everything going in the oven at the same time is a similar thickness.

If you’re planning to decorate your cookies with anything that needs to be pressed into the dough, like cinnamon red-hots, currants, or any sort of large sprinkle-thing, you’ll also want your cookies a bit thicker to allow room to press the goodies into.

7. Cut into desired shapes with cooky cutters.

If this is your first time trying rolled, cut-out cookies, I strongly recommend using cookie cutters with large, simple shapes. Cookies with little fiddly bits (like my dino-tails) can be annoying to extract from the cutters without damage to the cookie. The the cookie cutters that don’t have solid backs are nice, because if your cookie does get stuck inside you can kinda tap or push ’em out.

unbaked gingerbread people on two cookie trays
The dinosaurs are totally traditional.

Before you cut each cookie, you’ll probably want to flour the cookie cutter, too. Just have a little pile of flour off to the side and shuffle the edges of the cutter in it before each cut.


a tray of gingerbread stars and trees, before and after baking.
Once you’ve got your cookies all cut out and on the pans, you can do all your sprinkly decorating. Sprinkles look very similar before and after, but cinnamon red-hots and other candies will melt a bit.

Transporting the cookie from counter to pan can be a challenge for the under-floured. Sometimes the cookie will lift up with the cookie cutter, which is super-convenient. Then you just move the cutter over the pan and drop the cookie, done! You can also try to gently pick up the cookie with your fingers, or use a thin spatula.

If you mess up a cookie in transport, you can always smoosh it back into the leftover dough and roll it out again. Like Play-Doh, only actually edible in a way that tastes good.

Eat the leftover bits. It is a required part of the recipe, obviously.

leftover bits of rolled-out gingerbread dough next to a star-shaped cookie cutter and the end of a rolling pin
Oh no, this isn’t enough for a whole cookie! Will I have to eat the leftovers? YES, YES I WILL.

8. Bake on prepared sheets for 8 minutes or until puffed and dry.

After all that preparation, they bake super-fast. The tops won’t really brown much, but you can see if the edges are getting crispy if you like a nice coffee-dipping cookie. You really don’t want to overbake these, though, so for crispy cookies you’d want to roll them thin rather than baking thick ones longer.

baked gingerbread cookies in the shapes of stars and dinosaurs
OMG LOOK OUT, DINOSAURS! That comet’s coming right at you, it has a distinct blueshift!

9. Cool cookies on rack. Decorate with Decorating Icing.

Cooling racks are not required, but helpful. They let air circulate under the pans, cooling them and halting the baking process. Sometimes I just put them on top of my stove burners, though.

After they’ve cooled, you can add more decorations… mainly frosting and things-glued-into-frosting. If you’re baking for kids, SAY YES TO MORE FROSTING. And watch their eyes when you bring these cookies out, it’s great.

Here’s what you need for the Decorating Icing… I hope you hung onto that lemon.

  • 1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • few drops vanilla
  • food colorings (if you want)

Even though I made only a half-batch of cookies I still made a full recipe of the icing… mainly because I don’t know how to get a half of an egg white.

No pictures of this process, either, because you literally just put everything in a bowl and beat the crap out of it “until the mixture stands in peaks.” Or until everything’s all mixed together. Whatever’s clever.

This stuff hardens FAST, so keep your frosting covered in some way while you’re not using it. You can divide it up and add food coloring to be all festive, or just have a white Christmas, up to you.

Rather than mixing everything up in bowls and then trying to futz around with frosting bags (which are a whole ‘nother complex story), here’s what I did:

three ziploc bags with frosting inside, two with drops of food coloring added
I am a fan of smooshing things.

If you put your frosting into zipper-bags, you can also use them as frosting bags! Just cut a tiny corner off and squeeze to dispense. I also used them for color-mixing; a few drops of food coloring, squeeze out the air, seal up the bag, and smoosh away.

HOWEVER… if you have el cheapo zipper-bags, be prepared for frosting blowout. Keep a close eye on your seal to make sure it doesn’t come undone mid-squish. I speak from experience, learn from my mistakes.

The smaller the hole you cut in the bag, the narrower your line of frosting, so plan accordingly. Frosting cookies like this is not necessarily an intuitive activity, so don’t get frustrated! My skill level with this depends on the time I’ve got and how much I care about beauty at the moment… they’re gonna taste good no matter what you do, so try to have fun with it.

An array of frosted and decorated gingerbread cookies spread out on waxed paper

The frosting will dry hard, but if you’ve laid it on thick it will take a while to fully harden. A nice thing about hard frosting is that you can gently stack the cookies for transport without them sticking together.

And now you have festive cookies! They’re pretty good with coffee. Or alone. Or for breakfast with bacon, like I totally did this morning.

Here’s wishing you all a happy holiday, of whatever flavor, in whatever way makes you happy. Merry, merry, and happy cookie-eating!

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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