Gingerbread People (and Bears)

We enjoy making gingerbread cookies every Christmas.  We like the spice combination in this gingerbread cookie recipe from Rose’s Christmas Cookies from Rose Levy Beranbaum.  The ginger flavor is not too strong, and the cookies are nicely crisp.  Rose is a perfectionist; each recipe in her books include charts for measuring by volume or weight (ounces or grams), how to mix with either an electric mixer or food processor, and detailed instructions and tips.  We’ve enjoyed several cookies from this book, but the gingerbread cookies are the ones that have become a tradition for us.  Rose’s recipe is for “Gingerbread People”, but most of the time we bake gingerbread Teddy Bear shapes.  I like the smaller size of the bears, and their limbs don’t break off as easily.  You can cut out whatever design you like—we’ve made these in pumpkin shapes for Halloween too.  The cookies keep for weeks, so you can bake them one day and decorate them on another.

These cookies are fun to decorate by piping royal icing through a tiny hole cut in the corner of a ziplock bag.  Cinnamon red hots make nice eyes or buttons for the cookies and stick on well with the royal icing.  The cookies become very individual, and make great gifts.  If you are feeling ambitious, you can scale the recipe up (omitting eggs and using less butter in the dough for a stiffer cookie) and make a gingerbread house.  There are directions for producing a gingerbread Notre Dame Cathedral in Rose’s book!

Gingerbread People (and Bears), adapted from Rose’s Christmas Cookies

3 cups bleached all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
12 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup unsulfured molasses (such as Grandma’s)
1 egg

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices in a medium bowl, using a fork or whisk to mix evenly.  Use an electric mixer to cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl.  To measure the molasses, grease a liquid measuring cup with the butter wrapper or a little butter first, then pour in the molasses.  Add the ½ cup of molasses and the egg to the butter-sugar mixture and mix together, then gradually mix in the flour mixture.  Form the dough into a thick disc and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap.  Place the wrapped dough in the refrigerator for at least two hours (overnight is fine).  It is important to chill the gingerbread cookie dough before attempting to roll it out.  If it is not cold, it will stick to the rolling pin and the rolling surface.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, heat the oven to 350°.  Butter a couple of cookie sheets.  I only butter them for the first batch—there will be enough grease on the sheet to keep the later cookies from sticking.

Roll the chilled dough out to about 1/8” thick, and use cookie cutters to cut out the dough and transfer to the cookie sheet.  I roll the dough out on a floured cloth, but you can use floured parchment or plastic wrap if you prefer.  Roll only a portion of the dough at a time, and keep the remainder in the fridge.  I re-chill the scraps to roll out for the last cookies.

Bake the cookies for about 8 minutes (or longer for larger cookies).  They should just be starting to turn darker around the edges when you take them out of the oven.  Let them cool for a minute on the baking sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool.

After the cookies have cooled, you can decorate them with Royal Icing.  Royal icing pipes easily, dries quickly, and is a good “glue” for sticking candies onto the gingerbread.  Zach likes the sugary taste of it too.

Royal  Icing, from Rose’s Christmas Cookies

2 egg whites
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar

Beat the egg whites and powdered sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on low speed until blended together.  Then beat at the highest speed for 5-7 minutes, until the mixture is very glossy and able to form stiff peaks.  I use a stand mixer with a whisk attachment for this and shut the doors to the kitchen because it is a very noisy 6 minutes!

Put the icing into ziplock freezer bags, one bag for each person who will be decorating the cookies.  The icing will keep for up to three days at room temperature.

When ready to use the icing to decorate the cookies, cut a tiny hole in one corner of the ziplock bag and squeeze the bag to pipe designs onto the cookies.  You can get very creative with your accessories for the people (or bears).  When the icing has hardened, the cookies may be placed in cookie tins to store.  They will keep for weeks, but are so tasty that they won’t  last that long!

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Swedish Cinnamon Cookies

It’s time to be baking Holiday cookies!  For some reason, I usually start the holiday baking jag with these Swedish Cinnamon Cookies.  They are simple to make, and while not fancy, are the best-tasting cinnamon cookie I have ever had.  They look a lot like snickerdoodles, but have much more intense cinnamon and butter flavors.

There are two ingredients that I think are crucial for the best result:  non-aluminum baking powder (such as Rumford) and Vietnamese Cinnamon.  Some of us are “tasters” of the bitter metallic note that ordinary baking powders with sodium aluminum sulfate give to baked goods.  Years ago, I learned from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible about the difference among baking powders.  I made the switch to non-aluminum baking powder and was shocked to find how much better cakes, cookies and quick breads taste—more purity of flavor from the butter, sugar and spices.  Many other cookbooks also make this recommendation, and one very good discussion of the merits of non-aluminum baking powder is on David Lebovitz’s wonderful food blog.  Non-aluminum baking powder costs only slightly more than the other stuff, and is well worth it.  Also make sure that your baking powder is reasonably fresh (there is usually an expiration date on the can).

Vietnamese cinnamon (or Saigon cinnamon) has a rich aroma and more intense flavor than other cinnamons.  For these cookies, where cinnamon is the star, Vietnamese cinnamon really adds to the “wow” factor.  I like the Vietnamese cinnamon from Penzeys.

With these ingredients in hand, you are ready to make these cookies.  My recipe is on a handwritten card and I do not remember the recipe source–perhaps the December issue of a cooking magazine in the 1980’s?

Swedish Cinnamon Cookies

2/3 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups bleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder (such as Rumford)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (preferably Vietnamese cinnamon)

Cinnamon sugar:
1 Tablespoon cinnamon (preferably Vietnamese cinnamon)
1 Tablespoon sugar

Cream together the butter and 1 cup sugar.  I use a hand-held electric mixer for this.  Mix in the egg and vanilla.  In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add to the butter mixture and mix together.  Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Butter and flour a couple of baking sheets.  Stir together the cinnamon and sugar in a small shallow bowl to make the cinnamon sugar.

Roll the chilled dough into walnut-sized balls.  Roll them in the cinnamon sugar, then place them on the prepared baking sheets, about 3 inches apart (cookies will spread during baking).  Bake for about 12 minutes, until golden.  Remove cookies to a wire rack to cool.  Store the cooled cookies in an airtight container.


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Pecan-Cheese Wafers

These addictive crackers are great to have on hand during the holidays.  They are a nice treat with a glass of wine or a cocktail, and or just as a savory snack.  They have a full cheese flavor and a cayenne pepper kick that makes them very popular.  I first saw this recipe in Gourmet magazine in 1998, and have made these wafers every year since then.  The recipe is similar to one for cheese wafers in Marion Cunningham’s Fannie Farmer cookbook, but doubles the cayenne pepper and rolls smaller crackers.  If you don’t like so much cayenne, you can cut back to make it more like the Fannie Farmer recipe.   The size of the rolled log of dough determines the diameter of the wafer, and you can adjust that to your own preference.  I like them small, about 1 inch in diameter.   The dough is made ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen– then when you want the crackers you just slice the rounds and bake for 10 minutes.

Pecan-cheese wafers, adapted from Jo’s Cheese Wafers,  Gourmet, December 1998

½ cup pecans
1 stick (1/2 cup) + 1 ½ teaspoons unsalted butter
½ pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Parchment paper for lining baking sheets

Preheat oven to 350°.

Coarsely grate cheese into a large bowl.  Cut the stick of butter into at least 8 pieces and add to the cheese. Let the cheese and butter soften to room temperature.

Put the pecans in on a cookie sheet or baking pan and toast them in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until they are fragrant and beginning to change color.  Transfer the hot nuts to a small bowl, and toss with 1 ½ teaspoons butter and salt to taste.  Cool the nuts completely and chop them finely.

Add the finely chopped nuts to the bowl of cheese and butter along with the flour and cayenne.  Beat with an electric mixer until it forms a dough.  The cheese and butter should not be cold—if they are, warm briefly in a microwave (without melting), then mix with the other ingredients.

Divide the dough into four pieces.  Roll each piece of dough into a log about 1 inch in diameter (or whatever size cracker you prefer), and wrap the logs in waxed paper and foil.  Chill the logs of dough in the refrigerator at least 8 hours (up to one week).  You can freeze the dough for up to two months.

When you are ready to bake the wafers, preheat the oven to 350°.  With a sharp knife, cut a log of cracker dough into 1/8-inch thick slices and put the slices on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.

About one log will fill a baking sheet.  Make sure that the wafers are not too close together—they should be about ½ inch apart.  Bake the wafers in the middle of the oven until pale golden and just firm to the touch, about 10 minutes.  Cool the wafers on the baking sheet for 2 minutes before removing them to a wire rack to cool.

Wafers will keep in an airtight container at room temperature at least 4 days.  Each log of dough makes about 5 dozen wafers.

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Turkey Sautéed with Onions and Almonds

This recipe is an easy way to reinvent leftover turkey into a different and refreshing dish.  Cooked turkey meat is chopped up and added to sautéed onions, slivered almonds and some Middle Eastern spices to produce a light and healthy main course.  It is a nice change after the traditional heavier meals of roast turkey and mashed potatoes, and can be prepared very quickly.  I’ve been making this with our leftover Thanksgiving turkey for many years, and have lost the original source for this recipe.

Turkey sautéed with onions and almonds

3 tablespoons slivered almonds
2 cups thinly sliced onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup dry sherry
¼ cup raisins (golden or dark raisins, whichever you prefer)
3 cups diced cooked Turkey, preferably breast meat
¼ cup chopped parsley

Toast slivered almonds on a baking sheet in a 250° oven until light brown; set aside.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat.  Add the sliced onions and sauté them until tender, about 8-10 minutes.  Stir in the cardamom, coriander, salt, sherry and raisins.  Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the turkey, parsley and almonds.  Heat through.  Plain couscous is a good accompaniment for this dish.

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Damn Fine Apple Pie

This apple pie recipe comes from Regan Daley’s In the Sweet Kitchen, a cookbook of  cakes, cookies, pies and other desserts.  It is an unusual cookbook in that the recipes don’t start until page 371, following  her dissertation on ingredients and techniques for baking.  I’ve made other apple pies, but this one is better–really.    Three pounds of apples, sliced thinly, are mounded up in the pie with just enough sugar and spices.  Daly suggests Northern Spy apples, and sure enough, I find these to be the very best apples for apple pie. I bought Northern Spies ahead of Thanksgiving, just to be sure that I would have them for baking this pie for our Thanksgiving dinner.  If you can’t find Northern Spy apples (their season of availability is short), use another tart cooking apple.

Daly writes very detailed instructions her recipes, anticipating any question the reader might have.  I have simplified the instructions for making this pie, but if you want to learn more about baking, her book is an excellent resource. The only change to the ingredients that I have made is to use slightly less ground ginger than she does.

Damn Fine Apple Pie, from In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley

Pie pastry for 2-crust pie

3 pounds Northern Spy apples, or other tart cooking apples
freshly squeezed juice of ½ lemon
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
scant ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
5 teaspoons cornstarch

1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk
additional sugar for sprinkling on crust

Preheat the oven to 400°. Roll out the bottom crust for the pie, and line a 9 ½”pie plate with it.  Put the pie plate with the dough into the refrigerator.  Roll out the top crust between two sheets of parchment paper, and put this into the refrigerator as well.

Peel the apples, core them, and thinly slice.  Sprinkle the apple slices with lemon juice.  In a small bowl, combine the sugar, spices, and cornstarch and mix together with a fork or a whisk until well blended.  Add this mixture to the apples and combine.  Spoon the apples into the prepared pie plate, pressing on the apples to pack them down, and mounding the filling in the center of the pie dish.

Brush the edges of the pie crust with the beaten egg.  Remove the top crust from the refrigerator, peel off one sheet of parchment, and invert the crust over the pie.  Peel off the other parchment paper and press the top pastry onto the filling and press around the edges to seal.  Crimp the edges and cut a few slashes in the top crust with a sharp knife to create vents for the steam to escape.  Mix the milk with the remaining beaten egg and brush over the top crust of the pie.  Sprinkle with ½ tablespoon sugar.

Put the pie on a baking sheet (for catching dripping juices– I use a pizza pan) and put the pie in the oven.  Reduce the heat to 375° and bake for 50 minutes to an hour, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling.  If the edges of the pie crust brown too quickly, cover with strips of aluminum foil or a pie shield.

When the pie is finished baking, remove it to a wire rack and let cool at least 20 minutes before cutting.  The pie can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.  It may be reheated in a 300° oven for 15 minutes if made ahead.  Serve this apple pie by itself or with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.

There is also a good recipe for pie pastry in this cookbook.  If you don’t have a favorite pie crust, this one works well:

Flaky Pie Pastry, from In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley

2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening, cold, cut into small pieces
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
¼ cup ice water
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Combine the flour and salt.  Use a pastry blender to cut the shortening and butter into the flour, until they are pea-sized or smaller.  Combine the ice water and egg, and add about half of it to the flour mixture, mixing with a fork or your fingers.  Gradually mix in a little more of the water-egg mixture until the dough just holds together when pressed.  When the dough comes together easily, divide it into two portions and press into disk shapes.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before rolling out.    The dough may be made up to three days ahead.

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Turkey Giblet Broth and Turkey Gravy

When I roast a turkey, I always make gravy to go with it.  I roast chickens often, yet never make a  pan gravy to go alongside– it isn’t part of my roast chicken tradition.  But for roast turkey—pass the gravy, please!

Making gravy takes about 15 minutes, so I usually make it after the turkey is out of the oven, resting before carving.  But if you feel rushed, and don’t mind missing out on the pan juices, you can make the gravy ahead of time using butter or some fat from the roasting turkey that  you collect with your turkey baster.  When I was growing up, my mother always put finely chopped giblets from the giblet broth in the gravy.  Sometimes I do that but most often I leave them out, just enjoying a smooth gravy.

I make the turkey giblet broth the evening before Thanksgiving, or first thing in the morning.  The broth is used in the stuffing as well as for making the gravy.

Turkey Giblet Broth

Neck and heart and gizzard (giblets) from turkey (not including liver)
3 ½ cups water
1 onion, cut into eighths
1 celery stalk with leaves, chopped
3 fresh parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil, skimming the surface with a slotted spoon to remove any foam.  Reduce the heat to low, cover partially, and simmer for two hours.  Strain the broth, reserving giblets.  (Can be prepared the day before roasting the turkey).

Measure out 2 cups of broth to reserve for making gravy.  Some of the rest of the broth will go into the stuffing, and the remainder can be added to turkey soup after Thanksgiving.

If making giblet gravy, chop the giblets finely and add to the reserved broth (optional).

Turkey Gravy

5 tablespoons unsalted butter or fat from turkey roasting pan
2  ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups turkey giblet broth (recipe above)

finely chopped giblets (optional)
pan juices from turkey roasting pan
salt & pepper to taste
cream (optional)

Heat 5 tablespoons butter or turkey drippings in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Turkey drippings have good flavor, but may be too salty if the turkey was brined, so taste first.  To the warm fat, add 2 ½ tablespoons flour and cook, whisking, over low heat, about 4 minutes, or until bubbling and starting to turn a darker color.  Gradually whisk in 2 cups turkey giblet broth.  You can also add up to ¼ cup additional pan juices from roasting the turkey.  Raise heat and bring to a boil, while whisking.  Lower the heat and simmer the gravy, whisking occasionally, about 5-10 minutes, or until thick enough to coat a spoon.  Taste and adjust seasonings.   A little cream may be added for a richer gravy if desired. Put the gravy in a gravy boat or a small pitcher to serve with roast turkey and mashed potatoes.

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Thanksgiving Roast Turkey

In 1968, when I was 14 years old and a 9th grader at Issaquah Junior High School, I had to come up with a Home Ec project.  As I remember it, we did cooking in the Fall semester and sewing in the Spring, and had to do one special project each semester.  For my cooking project, I decided to make the Thanksgiving meal, start to finish, for my family.  Of course, I followed my mother’s recipes and methods, which involved getting up early in the morning to prepare the bread stuffing,  stuff the turkey, and get it in the oven so that we could have our meal at 2:00 in the afternoon, our traditional Thanksgiving supper time.  I had never so much as cooked a chicken before (cookies and cakes were my realm).  I succeeded in the project, as you can see from the picture that my mother took that day, but I was pretty tired by the end of it all.

I have cooked many Thanksgiving turkey dinners since then, and I have changed a few things.  First of all, I don’t put the stuffing in the turkey any more.  The turkey cooks much more quickly when it is not stuffed, and it is easier to get even cooking of the meat and a nice crisp skin that hasn’t steamed from the stuffing.  So that is a step in the easier direction.  However, I have also added an extra do-ahead step of brining the bird overnight  before roasting, which I find makes the meat taste better and stay moister.

Brining involves getting out a cooler or large pot big enough to hold the turkey, the brine , and some grocery bags of ice to keep it cool during the night.  For a smaller turkey, I find that my large canning pot is just big enough. I set the container of turkey in brine outdoors for the night, just outside the kitchen door, with something heavy on the lid, or bungie cords to secure it, just in case some raccoons happen to investigate.  I used to put the turkey and brine in the garage, but that involved carrying everything up and down steps, so now I take the risk of putting it on the side porch outdoors. Of course, if you have a big refrigerator, and it isn’t full of other Thanksgiving groceries, you can brine the turkey there.

The next day, I rinse the salt off the Turkey, and it is ready for roasting.  But since we eat a little later in the day now, there is no big rush.  I make a pie in the morning, bake rolls and prepare a “stuffing” to be baked in a separate dish, but I don’t start roasting the Turkey until after noon.

To keep the turkey breast moist, I cover it with a butter-soaked piece of cheesecloth during most of the roasting time.  I also baste frequently, just because I kind of enjoy it.  I remove the cheesecloth before the turkey is finished roasting, so that the skin can brown nicely.

The evening before Thanksgiving, I also make a turkey broth out of the neck and giblets (excluding the liver, which I like to sauté in butter for a little lunch treat on Thanksgiving day).  I use the turkey broth for moistening the stuffing and for making gravy.

It doesn’t make sense to me to wait to post a recipe for Thanksgiving Turkey after the big day, so I will post now, and update with new photos after the holiday.  Cooking the meal can be a very enjoyable way to spend the Thanksgiving holiday, but best of all is sharing the meal with your family and friends.

Thanksgiving Roast Turkey

1 natural turkey
2 cups Kosher salt
5 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
clean piece of cheesecloth
fresh thyme sprigs

Dissolve 2 cups Kosher salt in 2 gallons cold water in a large container.  Add the turkey and refrigerate or set in a very cool spot overnight.


Preheat the oven to 425° F.  Remove the top oven rack.

Lift the turkey from the brine into the kitchen sink.  Rinse the turkey under cool water for several minutes until all traces of salt are gone from the cavity and skin.  Pat dry inside and out with paper towels.

Loosely tie the legs together with cotton string.  Tuck wings behind back and close neck cavity with a small skewer.  Toss a few thyme sprigs into the main cavity.  You can add additional herbs if you like.  Brush the back of the turkey with 1 tablespoon of melted butter.  Turn the turkey over and brush the entire breast side with 2 tablespoons melted butter.  Place the turkey on a greased rack in a roasting pan.

Roast for 30 minutes, basting twice with any fat that has dripped into the pan.  An old fashioned bulb-type turkey baster is convenient for this.  Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a small saucepan and put a large double-thickness piece of clean cheesecloth in the saucepan.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325°.  Cover the turkey breast with the butter-soaked cheesecloth.  Roast the turkey for 1 ½ to 2 hours (for a 10-12 pound turkey), basting every 20 minutes, until the juices run clear with the thigh is pricked, or when a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 180°.  (Add an additional 15 minutes roasting time per pound if cooking a larger bird). Remove the cheesecloth for the last 20 minutes or so of cooking.

When the turkey is done, discard strings and skewer.  Baste once with the pan juices and tent the turkey with foil.  Let rest 20-30 minutes before carving in order to retain the juices.

I usually make the gravy while the turkey is resting, using some of the pan juices. However, the juices from a salt-brined turkey are pretty salty, so you will need to taste the gravy as you make it.  Use butter in place of some of the pan juices if they are too salty.


Update 11/25/2010:
We had a delicious turkey dinner today.  I’ve added photos to this post, and I also have a few notes I would like to add:
1) I tied the wings close to the body of the bird with cotton string.
2) The piece of cheesecloth that I used was about 14″ long and 10 ” wide, and I folded it over once.  I also rinsed the cheesecloth before using it and let it air-dry for a little while before I put it into the melted butter.
3) The turkey did not give a lot of drippings, so I didn’t do much basting.  What did drip into the pan was salty, so I used just a little of the drippings in the gravy.

I hope you had a very enjoyable Thanksgiving!


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