With Christmas fast approaching my mind turns to the traditional foods and treats I grew up with in Finland, especially gingerbread cookies. Now I could just head to the grocery store and buy a box of Anna’s cookies and call it a day, but there’s something special about making Christmas cookies yourself and filling the house with the lovely aromas of sugar and spices. Making gingerbread cookies is such an institution in Finland that you can actually buy frozen gingerbread cookie dough, which is what most people seem to do there. In fact you can buy just about all the traditional Finnish Christmas foods premade, so Christmas dinner preparation can be as straightforward as peeling the cover off an aluminum pan and heating it in the oven. Though the convenience of premade holiday food is priceless, it somehow takes the special magic away from Christmas.
Gingerbread cookies are a bit tricky to make because the dough is quite difficult to work with (so even if you buy the premade stuff, you’ve only eliminated half of the work). There are numerous versions of gingerbread cookie dough recipes and I decided to make a version from my hometown in southeastern Finland. What’s unique about this recipe is you boil the syrup, sugar, and spices and then melt the butter into the hot mixture, as opposed to creaming the butter and sugar, as you normally do with cookies. Having seen enough episodes of Alton Brown where he warns about the perils of melting sugar, I was more than a little nervous about attempting this recipe. But as it turned out I did not have a disaster on my hands and the cooking of the spices, syrup, and sugar together made the house smell like a Yankee Candle store. After the nerve-wracking step of boiling the sugar and spices, the rest of the process was straightforward as it just involved mixing in the egg and flour. At this point, the dough is too soft to work with and it needs to harden in the fridge for a day (so you definitely need to plan ahead if you want to make these).
When you are ready to roll out the dough, you should only take a small portion of it out of the fridge at a time as it warms up very fast and becomes very sticky and unworkable. You need to work on a well floured surface and keep your rolling pin and hands floured too. When you first take the dough out of the fridge it’s quite stiff but it loosens up fast and by the time it’s rolled out and your shapes are cut out, it’s softened to the point where it’s difficult to transfer the cookies to a baking sheet. If you have cookie sheets without edges, you can try to roll out your dough on the cookie sheet and remove the extra dough from around the cut shapes. The only issue I’d have with this is you would have to cut the shapes leaving enough room in between each cookie to allow for some expansion during baking and so you get fewer cookies each time you roll out the dough and you end up working the dough more often and getting it even softer. Another suggestion which I read at http://www.di-liciouscupcakes.com/2011/10/week-1-xmas-baking-gingerbread-cookies.html is to chill your cookie sheets, which will keep your cookies firmer before they go in the oven. My mom confirmed that this is what her mom always used to do as well. Still, you need to work fast and keep refrigerating the extra dough to keep from ending up with a sticky mess. I rolled my dough on a piece of parchment paper and then very carefully used a spatula to transfer the cookies to my baking sheet. Some of the cookies got a bit stretched or bunched but you can smooth them out a little once they are on the cookie sheet, and in my opinion part of the beauty of homemade cookies is they are all a little different.
My gingerbread cookie recipe is from a Finnish magazine that I clipped years ago. The flavor is mild and not very gingery. I’ve had ginger cookies that have pretty much cleared my sinuses. These are much milder in taste! The original measurements are in metric and I’ve converted them into US measurements, which is why they are a bit odd. As always, my notes are in italics.
Gingerbread Cookies from Parainen
250g/8.8 oz. butter or margarine
2 ¼ dl/0.95 cups sugar
¾ dl/0.3 cups syrup
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 ½ tsp cloves (ground)
2 tsp bitter orange peel (ground)
6 dl/2.5 cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
Boil the syrup, sugar and spices. Add the butter/margarine and allow to melt. (You’ll need to mix this quite a lot to get the butter to incorporate. Don’t despair it’ll come together.) Set aside to cool.
When cooled, add the egg, vigorously mixing. Mix in the flour and baking soda. (I used a stand mixer for this part.)
Allow the dough to stiffen in a cool place until the next day. (Wrap it in plastic to prevent it from drying.)
After the dough has stiffened, roll out a piece at a time to ¾ mm thickness. Flour your surface and roll several times so the dough does not stick. (Work quickly with small pieces of dough, leaving the rest in the fridge to stay cold.)
Cut out shapes and bake in a 200C/392F oven for 5-8 minutes. Be careful not to place the cookies too close to each other so they do not stick together as they expand a little during baking. You’ll know they are ready when they turn slightly brown around the edges. Keep an eye on them though as they burn very quickly. The cookies will be soft when they come out of the oven but will crisp up once they cool on a rack.