Because of the mixed heritage in our family (me being Czech and my husband being Dutch) our kids not only speak 2 languages, but they get to celebrate 2 major holidays every December. Since the good saint Sinterklaas has sailed off to Spain right after his birthday 5th December (lucky him- it’s been raining ever since), we are allowed to start preparing for Christmas now. In many Dutch families it means putting up the Christmas tree, but in ours it is means baking Christmas cookies.
I started helping my mother bake Christmas cookies as soon as I could reach the countertop and when I was about 12 I completely took it over. Almost every December I would get a minor cold and stay at home from school spending the days baking cookies. Nowadays we split the task: my mom makes the family classics and I make anything requiring elaborate decorating and any untested recipes I fancy. And it is my kids’turn to help.
The first to be baked are always these gingerbread cookies. They can – and even should – be made well in advance in order to acquire the right texture and taste before Christmas. Now, I had an inner conflict about what to call these in English; you see, most spice mixes in the Czech recipes do not even include ginger. And it is definitely not the defining taste in those that do include did. But if I were to call them by their Czech name `pernicky` nobody would have a clue. And to call them `star anise/cinnamon/cloves/aniseed/allspice cookies` though descriptive, would not really be practical. So I called them `gingerbread cookies` and appeaced my conscience by including a dash of ginger.
In my youth I have tried many different recipes for gingerbread cookies and a lot of them made cookies so hard that they could literally break your teeth. While such cookies are extremely durable and great for decorating the Christmas tree, I prefer cookies that are more enjoyable to eat. The recipe I use these days comes from my aunt but I adapted it a little. I swapped half the flour for the more traditional rye flour and made up my own spice mix (my aunt uses a ready-made mix that you can buy in the Czech republic). Plus I add a bit of cocoa powder to make them a little darker which makes for a better contrast with the snow-white icing.
You can adapt the spice mix to your preferences, it should be about 1 heaped tablespoon in total.
These are my daughter’s cookies. Horse riding her biggest hobby? How did you guess?
adapted from my aunt´s recipe
250 g unbleached flour
250 g rye flour (or use all unbleached)
2 tbsp cocoa powder (Dutch processed)
2 tsp baking soda
120 g butter (at room temperature)
170 g honey
120 g sugar
3 tbsp milk or buttermilk
3 star anise
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp aniseed
1 egg yolk
1 tsp water
1 egg white
170 g icing sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
Start by grinding the spices in a grinder or with a pestle and mortar. Mix the spices with both flours, soda and cocoa in a large bowl. Add the butter, sugar and honey and mix well. Add the egg and milk and mix just enough to combine everything. Wrap the dough in plastic or put it in an air-tight container and let it rest in the fridge for up to 2 days, but at least overnight. This is important for the flavours to mingle.
On the baking day:
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
Take the dough out of the fridge about 15 min in advance. Roll it out on a lightly floured surface to 4-5 mm thick. Cut into shapes of your choice and put them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The cookies do not spread much, but allow a little space between them. Mix the egg yolk with water and use the mixture to glaze the cookies.
Bake the cookies until crisp, about 10 to 12 min. Let them cool on a wire rack.
Mix the egg white with sugar and lemon juice until smooth and shiny. If the glaze is too thin, add a little sugar. If it is too thick, add a little lemon juice. Put the icing in a small, but firm plastic bag. Cut off one corner, making a tiny opening for the glaze. Pipe your design on the cookies by applying a steady pressure on the bag.
Let the icing dry completely before putting the cookies in an air-tight container and storing them in a cool room. The cookies can be made up to 4 weeks before Christmas.