Everyone has a favorite holiday cookie: Mine is the gingersnap. They weren’t always my top choice, but as my palate has changed and my tastes have matured (I’d like to think), I’ve come to love gingersnaps for their complex flavor, crisp texture, and even their healthy aspect—ginger is used in Chinese medicine for warming the body and improving circulation, good news for those of us who are chronically chilled in winter, and a good excuse to eat ginger desserts. The kid in me loves them, too.
Cookies are great holiday gifts because they can be made well ahead of time. If thoroughly wrapped between layers of parchment paper, cookies that have been baked and cooled thoroughly can be frozen for up to two months. Or, you can just freeze the dough and have it ready to defrost and bake at holiday time. To make the cookies more festive, choose fun cookie-cutter shapes, and if you like, decorate them with coarse sugar crystals. You can always cut a hole in the top of the cookie before baking so you can pull a string through to make edible tree ornaments.
I like bringing gingersnaps to holiday parties or giving them as gifts in late fall and winter because they suit the season. There’s something about a gingersnap and a cup of hot cider or mulled wine on a cold day that hits the spot, and if you’re like me and you like to add orange zest to the dough for a little zing, there’s no better time, because citrus fruits are at their peak in winter. Plus, they make people think of Christmas tree ornaments.
I like my gingersnaps to have lots of aromatic spice. Any of the pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice are great choices, but for a subtle accent I sometimes add a pinch of cardamom, chili powder, star anise powder, or orange zest, as I mentioned. Fresh vanilla scraped from the bean pod is good, too.
To give cookies as a gift, you can go low-maintenance and put them in a paper bag, or get fancy and add a personal touch. Tin boxes are a classic way to package cookies, and they can be reused indefinitely so they’re a good environmental choice. You might have old coffee tins floating around your home or office, and you can often find cute old tin boxes or canisters at flea markets and thrift stores. Old or slightly antique labels can give them a lot of personality, and they can still look cute even if they’re a little worse for wear; in a time when conservation is on everyone’s mind, in regards to both our bank accounts as well as nature, reused items have inherent charm and beauty. To give an old tin a pre-gift facelift, wash it thoroughly, then line it with parchment paper and place the cookies inside the paper. Tie a bright bow around the whole thing. If you can find some brightly colored leaves, holly, or pine needles to finish off the look, even better.
When baking a lot of cookies, I find it easiest to roll out the dough, punch the cookies, and fill as many trays as I can before baking. Once I start baking, all I need to do is rotate pans from the oven to a cooling rack. Of course, this system works best if you have several baking sheets that you can fill ahead of time. If there’s enough space, cool the filled cookie sheets in the refrigerator for 10-30 minutes: I’ve found that cool dough keeps its shape well as it bakes and expands less than room temperature dough, resulting in more precisely shaped cookies.
Here is a recipe for gingersnaps from the sadly now defunct Gourmet magazine. A friend of mine who worked at the magazine for a while told me that the test kitchen subjected published recipes to the most rigorous testing she’s ever seen, so I trust a recipe from Gourmet.
You can add a teaspoon of freshly scraped vanilla bean or vanilla extract, and a pinch of any spice you like to this recipe.
Yield: makes about 80 cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar plus additional for sprinkling
1 large egg
2 tablespoons finely grated peeled fresh gingerroot
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground ginger
In a bowl with an electric mixer beat butter with 1 1/2 cups sugar until light and fluffy and add egg, beating until combined well. Beat in fresh gingerroot, corn syrup, zest, and orange juice. Into mixture sift remaining ingredients and beat just until combined well.
Halve dough and on a sheet of wax paper form each piece into a 10-inch log. Chill logs, wrapped in wax paper, at least 1 day and up to 1 week.
Preheat oven to 350°F. and lightly grease baking sheets. Cut logs into 1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Lightly sprinkle cookies with additional sugar and bake in batches in middle of oven 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden. Transfer cookies to racks to cool.