Even if you are not a Christian who celebrates the holiday season, you can still enjoy some of the festive traditions. Having grown up in Germany, the smell of any kind of gingerbread, be it the classic American or the German kind, reminds me of the short days of winter, making cookies with friends and family and just feeling cozy. With the pandemic forcing us to stay home even more than usual, why not make some gingerbread – for you and the kids?
If you want to get creative with a little DIY, gingerbread cookies are the way to go. The most classic version is definitely the gingerbread man or the slew of other motifs surrounding the holidays. But perhaps the more extravagant option, and a favorite for most, is gingerbread houses. I recently bought myself some cookie cutters for this purpose, which makes the whole process not only easier but also much more authentic and fun. You can even make one ample-sized house for you and your family, or a few tiny houses for your very own winter village. If you feel very adventurous, and a tad insane, you could even build a giant dragon on a gingerbread tower, like I did last year for a competition and our office.
With these kinds of cookie recipes, you are usually told to first mix all the wet and all the dry ingredients separately and then mix them together. To be perfectly honest, I do not bother with that. Just toss all the ingredients in and knead it well. Continue kneading until the dough is not sticky anymore. You might want to add a bit of extra flour, depending on the brand of flour you use, and the size of your egg.
Let the dough rest in the fridge for a bit so that the butter inside gets a chance to solidify. Take the chilled dough out and start rolling it on a flat surface dusted with flour to prevent it from sticking. To get your dough perfectly smooth with no tears, you will want to roll the dough out with parchment paper. It might be a bit inconvenient but rolling it out between two sheets of parchment paper will make it especially practical for making gingerbread houses, as they are less likely to change their shape while transporting them from the dusted surface to the baking sheet.
If you are making gingerbread houses, you’ll want to cut a thin line of dough around it, or a border so to speak. This will prevent it from bleeding or thinning out on the end and give you a flush corner. Once out of the oven, you’ll need to cut those off or else they’ll stay attached.
Bake the cookies at 170 degrees Celsius (340 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 15 minutes. And once they have cooled off, you can start decorating.
The best way to decorate your cookies is with some thick icing or glaze. I prefer glaze because it doesn’t require the whipping of egg whites (pasteurized egg whites are another way to do this, but they can be hard to find). You'll need some powdered sugar to make a glaze and very carefully add water to it to make it runnier. You can add food coloring if you want it to be more colorful and kid-friendly. Slowly disperse it onto the cookies and add sprinkles, M&Ms or the like for crunch, extra flavor and fun looks.
But why stop there? Chocolate goes perfectly well with these as well and makes for a fast way to put beautiful details on the cookies. Chocolate is the best way to secure panels of gingerbread houses too. White chocolate sets the fastest, but the combination of dark chocolate and gingerbread cookies is divine.
You should first decorate the houses and then stick the pieces together. You can use icing as well, but it will take much longer to set and no one wants to sit there, wasting time waiting for sugar to solidify.
There are many variations of this cake that counting them would be a chore. Lebkuchen and Pfefferkuchen are the same cake despite having different names. As a kid, I always found it funny that there wasn’t any pepper in “Pfefferkuchen,” which literally means “pepper cake” in German. Little me didn’t know that “Pfeffer” here meant spices in general like it is in the English language.
It is hard to deny one's roots, especially after moving somewhere new, and I'd like to share with you what a pain it was not being able to bake this classic in my first few winters here in Turkey. In Germany, they sell the spice mixture in practically every shop during the holiday season, but it is much harder to come by in Turkey. On a mission to find this, I managed to trace back a recipe for a mix of spices for this traditional German gingerbread cake. There are a lot of spices, and it is a bit of a hassle to prepare, but it's worth it. And, in fact, you can forgo the ready-made spices as this mix is much tastier. I’d love to refer to the original creator of this mix, but it's quite a few years old and I haven’t been able to trace it back just yet.
The spice mix
This mix is meant for two cakes, each using 500 grams of flour. As the measurements are already so tiny, this was the best and easiest way to describe it. Or you can make more and keep in mind how much you want to make in the future.
The best way to “measure” 1 gram is the very tip of a knife and, of course, all of these spices need to be in powder form.
The cake itself
Start by whisking together the eggs and sugar until they are light in color and turn fluffy. Mix all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and gradually add the liquids to the eggy mixture, alternating with the dry ingredients. Once all have been mixed thoroughly together, pour the cake batter into an oiled baking pan of your choice and bake at 170 degrees Celsius for about 30-40 minutes depending on the depth of your pan.
Like gingerbread cookies, this cake tastes the best a day or two later after the spices have completely settled. I would personally recommend eating it after two days. But before letting it rest for that long, you should coat the cake with either a sugar glaze or with some dark chocolate. The added layer will not only prevent the cake from drying out but also add another level of yumminess.