As a child, I had a favorite Christmas book: “The Sweet Smell of Christmas” – a scratch-and-sniff story about all the happenings, and smells, in a little bear’s home as Christmas approaches. There’s the fragrant pine of the Christmas tree, the minty zing of candy canes, and the sweet-citrusy scent of an orange found in his stocking, to name a few. It was a reminder of all the wonderful smells that help define this time of year, and some of the treats that appear exclusively in December.
In our house, the one treat we always make is gingerbread people. This is as much a craft as it is a baking endeavor, since there’s virtually no limit to the fashion statements gingerbread folk might make. Over the years, ours have sported top hats, bow ties, vests, skirts, long and short hair, belts, and shoes. On occasion, we even end up with one or two gingerbread men in motion (gently shaped into a running position). They’re the ones we can’t seem to catch after they’ve baked.
I started making these cookies when my children were very small. What I liked most about them at that time, in particular, was the wholesome list of ingredients in this recipe. Whole wheat pastry flour is used in lieu of white flour, brown rice syrup and molasses contribute earthy sweetness, and fresh ginger makes these the real thing (while secretly boosting our immunity). The addition of cinnamon and cloves in these little people fills our home with the sweet smell of Christmas, indeed.
This cherished recipe comes from Cynthia Lair’s Feeding the Whole Family, which is a fantastic resource for parents wanting to get off on the right foot feeding their babies and young children. Though my children have officially moved beyond the “young child” stage, we still turn to this cookbook frequently.
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup dried cane juice (or brown sugar)
¼ cup brown rice syrup
¼ cup blackstrap molasses
1 tablespoon freshly grated gingerroot
3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼-1/2 cup orange juice
Embellishments: Raisins and any other dried fruits, nuts, sunflower/pumpkin seeds, shredded coconut
Preheat oven to 350˚F. In a large bowl, blend butter and dried cane juice until creamy. Add syrup, molasses, and gingerroot; mix well. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cloves, cinnamon, and salt. Add dry mixture to wet ingredients a little at a time, alternating with orange juice as needed. Work in the last of the flour mixture with your hands. Lightly oil a cookie sheet and roll the dough directly onto it. Cut out figures with a cookie cutter or make up your own shapes. Remove scraps of dough between cutouts to make more cookies. Decorate, if desired. Bake 8 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the dough.
Note: Dried fruit can be cut/trimmed to make eyes, mouths, buttons, etc.
Be sure to allow ample time for your gingerbread artists to fully express themselves. This year, the biggest kid in the house (my spouse) did some of his best work in constructing a Hawaiian gingerbread dude and a bug-eyed ginger-person holding an animal cracker pet. The bigger the cookie-cutter, the easier it is to decorate (and the more room for elaboration), though I like to use very little ginger-people cutters, too, and leave them undecorated. They’re just the right size for popping into your mouth and you don’t feel as guilty as when you bite into one of the big ones, because you’re not devouring them bit by bit (the sight of a headless gingerbread person can be difficult to bear, for some).
Of course, you can always bake them and leave them uneaten. You’ll still achieve that sweet smell of Christmas and no ginger-folk will be harmed.