Yesterday we started decorating Christmas cookies, even though the weather altered the plans a little. In the middle of a blizzard, only my two youngest grandsons, ages 4 1/2 and 6, along with their parents, were here to enjoy the fun. I had planned to make cookies ahead so that there would only be decorating done with the kids, but the weather changed that too, and we ended up rolling out and cutting cookies as a group. Fortunately, the recipes I had chosen were easily worked and both proved to be "kid-proof" both at the rolling and decorating stages.
The first recipe is one that I received from my sister Alice many years ago, and it is still a handy one to keep around. This dough ends up remarkably like play dough in consistency and the cookies end up crisp and tasty. I made two batches, one with a chocolate cake mix and one with a white cake mix, the variations another advantage to the recipe.
I am not a huge fan of ginger cookies but wanted to try out something that could be the basis for "real" gingerbread men. The second recipe is an adaptation of Maida Heatter's Swedish Gingerbread Cookies that seems to be fairly common on the web. After making it, I can understand why. It met both the qualifications of ease of handling and great flavor equally well, along with being reasonable in price. This is definitely one I will plan to make again.
SPECIAL NOTE:For either kind of cookie, or for ANY rolled cookies for that matter, here is a secret to avoid tough cookies, even with the re-rolled scraps: Spread your rolling surface with a mixture of half and half flour and powdered sugar instead of just flour. (I have also seen a recommendation to use cocoa in place of the powdered sugar for chocolate cookies, but I have never found that necessary.) If you find that you have a very flour-y surface on some of the cookies, you can lightly dampen a paper towel and brush some of the flour off before or after baking.
Frosting and Decorating!For frosting, I make a very basic powdered sugar icing, in large quantity since I will also use this for icing the many coffee cakes that are also part of the Christmas baking here. Then I put varying amounts in resealable plastic containers and add food coloring to each. This year, we started with just red, green, and yellow--no blue for now. There is of course, lots of frosting left white, because that works best as a basis for colored sprinkles and sugars.
Ah the sprinkles.
There are all different colored sugars, chocolate and multi-colored sprinkles, mini chocolate chips, and red hot cinnamon candies for adding to the decorative creations. These are arranged on a tray in the middle of the table and each decorator also has his or her own cookie sheet or cake pan with sides to keep in stray sprinkles. The frostings are each supplied with several "Popsicle" type craft sticks, as these work far better than anything else for spreading the frosting. Toothpicks are also available for the more detailed efforts of many of our cookie designers. You will also need lots of room for the creative efforts to be spread out to dry; stacking too quickly destroys a lot of the best designs!
Never Fail Rolled Cookies
1 package cake mix, any flavor, two layer size
2 to 3 T softened butter
1 T water
Begin mixing with a fork and then use your hands to make a ball of dough almost the consistency of Play-Dough. The dough does not need to be refrigerated. If you do chill it, remove it from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before beginning to roll. (Note that this is different from most rolled cookies.)
Using about a quarter of the dough at a time, roll it out on a mixture of flour and powdered sugar. I prefer them quite thin, but they can be anywhere from an eighth to a quarter inch thick; the key to any rolled cookie is to make sure there are no spots much thicker than others.
Cut the cookies as close to each other as possible to minimize scraps, but you can shake as much flour as possible off the scraps and press them all together into a ball before re-rolling.
Place the cookies on a greased baking sheet about a half inch apart. Bake at 375 degrees until just done. This will be anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cookies.
Remove immediately from the pans and cool on racks. Store in a tightly covered container until ready to decorate.
NOTE: You can also shape this dough into one inch balls and then roll in chopped nuts, sugar and cinnamon, or colored sugars before baking. Press slightly to flatten before baking.
Swedish Gingerbread Cookies
2/3 cup dark molasses
2/3 cup sugar
4 teaspoons ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2/3 c butter OR mixture of half butter and half rendered chicken fat
1 large egg, slightly beaten
4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached flour
Cut the butter and/or fat into chunks in a large mixing bowl and set aside.
Combine the molasses, sugar, ginger, and cinnamon in a very large saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. When it is just beginning to boil, stir in the baking soda and continue to heat until the mixture is very light and foamy. Remove from heat and pour over the butter. Stir until the butter is melted and the mixture is evenly blended.
Beat the egg just enough to mix the yolk and white well and then stir quickly into the molasses mixture. Stir in the flour a cup at a time and mix well. Toward the end you may want to use your hands to mix evenly, gently kneading the dough to develop a smooth, evenly mixed ball.
Roll out the cookies as thick or as thin as you like. I made these about 1/4 inch thick for a very crisp cookie. Place on well-oiled pans and bake at 350 degrees for 11 to 14 minutes. Store tightly covered until ready to decorate.
Rendered Chicken Fat
Using half rendered chicken fat makes these cookies especially light and crispy, with absolutely no taste of the chicken if the fat is properly prepared. To render chicken fat:
Cut all loose, outside, fat from chicken pieces and put in a saucepan with enough water to almost cover. You may also include chicken skin in this pan. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, and cook over low to medium heat for about 45 minutes to an hour. Pour the mixture into a colander or strainer and let drain without pressing the solids. Put into a wide-mouthed container and chill. The rendered fat will harden on top of the liquid which can then be discarded.
Note that the fat and skin must be removed before any seasoning of the chicken and before the chicken is cooked, to avoid mixing any flavor of the meat to enter the fat.
Chicken fat is found in some very old-fashioned recipes and can add a light texture to many baked goods. Even though it carries little or no flavor, you may want to use it only in baked goods with other strong flavors predominating--like ginger cookies and gingerbread!