Zen and the Art of Baking with a Preschooler: Gingerbread Men

Zen and the Art of Baking with a Preschooler: Gingerbread Men

So, let’s say that one day you, um, forget that your son’s preschool ends at 1:00 instead of the usual 2:30. Let’s say you get a text from the school’s director at 1:07, reminding you of that fact. And let’s say you run out the door, work half-completed, lunch half-eaten, in a mad dash to pick up your child. On the way there you have a mild panic attack: You’ve got nothing planned for the afternoon, and there’s a vast difference between filling three and a half pre-dinner hours and filling five of those long, wintry suckers.

Luckily, there’s a kitchen supply store around the corner from the preschool, so you duck in with your (relieved to finally see you) child, hoping for inspiration. Aha! Cookie cutters! It’s gingerbread season! So you buy a cutter or two and some green sprinkles for good measure (since green is your adorable child’s favorite color), and you’re on your way. Of course, you’ve never made gingerbread before. Gingersnaps, yes, but never their roll-and-cut-and-decorate brethren.

At home, you convince your adorably petulant child that yes, Quiet Time is a necessity even if he isn’t tired, and scramble to your cookbook shelf. You pull out your most trusted cookie book, The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion,and sigh in relief: Of course there’s a good-looking Gingerbread recipe there. And the dough comes together in a jif, with two bowls, a whisk, and a spoon. Ten minutes after you shove your child into his room and close the door, that dough’s in the fridge.

Later, after Quiet Time (which, have I mentioned, is in reality the opposite of quiet?), the dough is chilled enough to roll out. Naturally, your three-year-old sous chef wants to help.

The recipe’s instructions suggest rolling directly on your parchment or Silpatso you think that’s worth a shot—you’re all for saving steps. This does not go well. Your dough isn’t as chilled as you think, and by the time your preschooler’s done rolling it’s downright soft and sticky. As in, the scraps don’t want to peel off the darn Silpat. You scrape the whole thing off and start over.

Eventually, though, you get the hang of things, and the first tray goes into the oven.

It comes out quite cute, though the cookies puff and spread a bit more than anticipated. No matter. Now all you have to endure is the 40 minutes it takes for the cookies to cool enough for decorating, during which your (adorable) child will ask you 467 times, “Are the cookies cool yet?”

Eventually, they cool. You stir together a simple glaze and pull out every variety of sprinkles, sparkly sugar, and edible glitter you can find. Life is good. Messy, but good. And what do you know? By the time you’re done, it’s almost 5:30.

Gingerbread Cookies
From The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion
Makes 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on cutters

¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
¾ cup light or dark brown sugar
¾ cup molasses [I only had ½ a cup, so I used maple syrup for the rest]
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves or allspice
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
confectioners sugar, for rolling

Melt the butter, either in a saucepan over low heat or in a medium mixing bowl in the microwave [I did the latter: one less pan to clean]. Stir in the sugar, molasses, salt, and spices. If you’ve used a pan, transfer to a medium mixing bowl. Let mixture cool to lukewarm, then beat in the egg.

In another mixing bowl, whisk together the baking powder, baking soda, and flour, then stir into the molasses mixture. Divide dough in half and wrap well [I flattened them into disks, for easier rolling]. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375. No need to grease the baking sheets.

Take one piece of dough out of the fridge; generously sprinkle confectioners sugar on a clean work surface, and put the dough on top. Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap, then roll it as thick or thin as you like—the thicker it is, the chewier your cookies will be [I went a little too thin, and wound up with crisp ones]. Every so often, use a large offset spatula to make sure your dough’s not sticking to the work surface. Sprinkle additional confectioners sugar underneath each time.

Carefully remove the plastic wrap, then cut out shapes with cookie cutters, cutting them as close together as possible. Transfer to ungreased baking sheets and gather the scraps into a all and re-refrigerate. Repeat the procedure with the other half of the dough, and eventually the scraps, too. Add mini-chocolate chips, raisins, etc, to make eyes and shirt buttons and whatnot. Bake until lightly brown and just firm, 8 to 12 minutes [I went 11, and wound up with several too-browned feet].

Let them cool on the baking sheet for a bit until they’re set enough to move, then transfer to a rack to cool completely before decorating further.

Vanilla Glaze
From Great Cookies: Secrets to Sensational Sweetsby Carole Walter
Makes about 2/3 cup, enough for the whole batch

2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons hot milk
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
pinch of salt

Place the sugar in a large bowl and add remaining ingredients. Stir until very smooth. The glaze should pour from a spoon in a steady stream. Use additional liquid sparingly—a little goes a long way. If you like, divide into smaller bowls and add a drop or two of food coloring—I made green icing to make my adorable child happy.

That hammer? Also to make my adorable child happy.