Here we go, my personal countdown for Christmas big celebrations has begun. I’ve been rambling about spices since last spring in my posts on meringues and tarts. Now I can freely and candidly declare out loud my passion for this sweet and innocent world, for these cookies prepared more or less like you would make minestrone soup: boiling all ingredients in a saucepan. A dark and thick paste, deliciously steaming and spicy: the essence of magic. Once its fragrances begin to reach your nostrils, it’s over: you run downstairs and begin to take out the boxes with the lights, the decorations, the wreaths with berries and pine needles, the gnomes with the bells on their neck and the porcelain reindeers. Oh, excuse me? It never happened to you? In this case it’s because you never made them, the British Peggy Porschen gingerbread cookies. Who is she? I can present her with the opening lines of her book Boutique Baking, by far one of my favorites:
“for my darling husband Bryn, for letting me have my “pink” shop and for giving it your all, and more”.
Are you also feeling like the British version, but of Bridget Jones, right now? Come on, Peggy hands out dreams but she is also one of us while she looks at us from her pink Olympus, the Peggy Porschen Parlour, in the Belgravia district of London. At the end of the day Peggy had a dream too, like many of us: she understood she wanted to be a pastry chef when she realized that her highlight of the year was making gingerbread cookies with her mum and her brother during Christmas…how can I tell her that I’d like to make them even on August 15th? Between the pages of her lovely book, with its pink cover, full of pink marzipan cakes, perfuming of pink roses (ok Lucia, now you’re exaggerating…), I’ve found the recipe of these cookies. I made them following a few tips I’ve learned recently during a course with pastry chef Andrea Valentinetti (Le Calandre Restaurant, Peck Milano, Pasticceria D&G).
They are simple and it’s nice to bake them with someone. Every year I tell myself I am going to put them on the Christmas tree, but then they regularly end up in steaming hot coffee.
TIPS for perfect Gingerbread
If you are looking for perfect cookies (not just tastewise, but also in terms of shape), follow these small but essential steps:
1. To have smooth and even cookies on both sides, without bumps, while they are cooking I recommend to use silicon mats instead of baking paper. The mat must be placed on a tray that’s also perforated (microperforated, not the ones with large gaps). This allows the hot air to cover the entire surface of the cookies and they will be perfectly cooked.
2. Roll out the cold dough within two sheets of baking paper, dusting with flour on both sides every now and then. Cut the cookies directly onto the baking paper: press the cookie cutter into the dough and then lift it, so that the cookie remains inside. Move it onto the silicon mat and slowly remove it from the cutter, gently pressing with your fingers. Refrigerate the cookies for at least half an hour in the fridge, or even better in the freezer. Put them into the oven when they are really cold.
3. To get the same thickness in all cookies, you can use rolling pin rings, they work really well.
4. Royal icing should be made with pasteurized egg whites, for safety purposes. You can find them easily in most supermarkets. The icing can be kept in a piping bag in the fridge for a few days. Never leave it exposed to air: it will get dry.
Cookie cutters of your choice
Piping bag with royal icing nozzle
Ribbons to decorate
INGREDIENTS AND METHOD
For approximately 30 cookies (depending on the size)
5 tbsp water
210 g light brown sugar
3 tbsp treacle
3 tbsp golden syrup
3 tbsp ground ginger
3 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
250g salted butter cold and diced
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
560g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
To bake the fantastic Peggy Porschen gingerbread cookies, begin by placing in a deep saucepan the water, brown sugar, treacle, golden syrup, ground ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Bring the mixture to the boil over a medium heat, stirring continuously.
Remove from the heat and gradually add the diced butter. Stir until combined. Add the bicarbonate of soda – take care as the mixture will swell up. Leave to cool to room temperature. Once cool, transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Sift in the flour and slowly mix together until combined into a uniform and slightly wet dough. Wrap in cling film, flatten it with the palm of your hand and refrigerate until firm. It will take 2/3 hours. Place the dough within two sheets of baking paper and roll it out with the rolling pin until about 5–6mm thick. Cut the cookies as described in the “tips” section, place the cookies onto the silicon mat and chill again in the fridge (or in the freezer) until firm, for approximately half an hour.
Before putting the cookies into the oven, make a hole by pressing a straw onto their surface: don’t lift them, just press the straw onto the cookie to create the hole. Pre-heat the oven to 200° C and bake the cookies for 8–10 minutes, taking care to make them crunchy by cooking them another two minutes with the door of the oven slightly open. While they are still hot, give better definition to the hole by pressing again the straw in it.
For the royal icing
170 g powdered sugar
30 g pasteurized egg whites
2 drops lemon juice
A few drops of food coloring of your choice (if you want)
-> If you’re short on time and want to speed things up, you can purchase the ready-made royal icing, you just need to add a few tablespoons of water. You can adjust the thickness by adding more water or more sugar as required.
To prepare the royal icing, place the egg whites into a bowl with a few drops of lemon and whisk. When the egg whites begin to shape, gradually add the sifted powdered sugar. The icing is ready once smooth and without lumps.
To make gingerbread men, pour the icing into a piping bag with a very small nozzle (about 1 mm diameter) and start decorating following the edges of the biscuit. Keep the nozzle always lifted, don’t touch the surface of the cookie.
To decorate the cookies with stencils, I recommend thickening up the icing by adding a few more teaspoons of powdered sugar. It should be creamy but thick enough, a bit like stucco. Place the stencil onto the cookie and keep it in place by holding lightly with one hand. With the other hand, get some icing using a small spatula and spread it onto the stencil, accurately filling all exposed surfaces. Don’t exaggerate with the icing: it just needs to fill the openings up to level. You can add sanding sugar or decorations while the icing is still wet.
Leave to dry and decorate with ribbons.