In the lead-up to Christmas my mood swings wildly between Scrooge-like misanthropy and absurd visions of conjuring up some kind of idealised “Better Homes & Gardens” homescape, complete with holly decked halls and cinnamon scents wafting from the oven. Reality eventually sets in when the Christmas tree once again defies every attempt to keep it perpendicular and I realise the baking challenge is way beyond the window of opportunity left. But the fantasy tends to linger on and last week I was seized by a compulsion to bake gingerbread men.
I’ll spare you the comedy of errors that this exercise comprised but miraculously two or three presentable gingerbread men (albeit androgynous) eventually emerged from the North Pole blizzard recreation that was once the kitchen. The genesis of this idea remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it’s because I had a deprived childhood and never got to “help” make them as a kid, or maybe it’s because I’ve recently discovered a latent passion for ginger. Either way, despite the minor hindrance of not possessing a gingerbread man biscuit cutter, there was no stopping me.
Although when I say “minor hindrance”, this turned out to be a major dilemma. Common as mud though I anticipated gingerbread men cutters to be, not one kitchen equipment place I visited had any. Every conceivable other form of cutter they had in abundance but not men. Has there been a festive season rush on them, or are there lots of women out there who fancy the idea of a man whose head they can bite off with impunity?
Eventually I stumbled upon one that could pass as a cross-dressing man, given that the figure seemed to be wearing a skirt, and decided that would have to do, not realising that its large size would create all sorts of dramas in the dough rolling and cutting process. This is a case where in your man, size counts in a reverse sort of way. If you’re too heavy handed with the rolling (as I was) and your dough splits and crumbles, trying to get a big enough whole piece for these giant tranny man cutters is a right pain. Also, as you may notice from the photos, some men turned out more darkly tanned than others, a variation resulting from me not hearing the oven timer go off.
Gingerbread biscuits in my experience can often be rock hard and overpoweringly gingery. In an attempt to avoid such pitfalls, my recipe is a sort of amalgam of several unearthed in a random Google search. There are endless variations on the traditional recipe and it’s probably worth experimenting to get one you really like. I liked the sound of substituting almond meal and coconut flour for plain flour which resulted in a slightly nutty texture and also using a mixture of honey and maple syrup to sweeten which added flavour but not too much sweetness. If you want to be gluten free, or vegan or just super healthy (and if the latter you shouldn’t even be thinking about gingerbread men), this recipe can be easily adapted to suit your needs.
- 280g (2¾ cups) almond meal
- ¼ cup coconut flour
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 dessertspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup butter softened
- 3 tablespoons honey, maple syrup or molasses
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean extract
- (For icing)
- 1 egg white
- 1¼ cups (240g) pure icing sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- In a large bowl, cream the butter with a mixer
- Add the honey, maple syrup or molasses and continue to beat for about 30 seconds
- Add the baking powder, baking soda, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and vanilla
- Beat the mixture for another 30 seconds
- Add the egg
- Continue to beat for about a miute
- Finally add the almond meal and flour, one cup at a time
- With your hands form the mixture into two balls. Place in Gladwrap and refrigerate for two hours or longer (even overnight)
- Remove the balls from the refrigerator
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees
- Roll out each ball on a floured surface to approx. ¼ inch thickness
- Using biscuit cutters, cut the dough into gingerbread man shapes
- Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper
- Bake for 7-8 minutes or until lightly browned at the edges
- While the biscuits cool, mix together the icing
- ICING: Beat egg white in a small bowl with an electric mixer until just broken up
- Gradually beat in the sifted icing sugar until firm peaks form
- Stir in lemon juice
- Keep icing covered with plastic wrap to prevent it drying out
- Spoon icing into a small piping bag fitted with a small plain tube
- Decorate as desired
Want to know more about gingerbread men?
If you’re curious about the origin and history of these traditional Christmas treats, here are some bits of trivia you can impress people with at Christmas gatherings:
- Gingerbread first arrived on the scene in Europe in the 11th century when crusaders brought the spice back from the Middle East
- An early European recipe consisted of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and ginger
- Queen Elizabeth is said to have created the very first gingerbread men which were images of her favourite suitors and courtiers and were eaten at royal feasts (providing the occasion for far more innocuous beheadings than those perpetrated by her Dad, Henry VIII)
- In the 17th century witches began making them as effigies of their enemies – like voodoo dolls, instilling the belief that gingerbead men were agents of the occult
- In 1607 it was made illegal in the Netherlands to either bake or eat them
- It was traditional in parts of England for maidens to eat gingerbread husbands on Hallowe’en to ensure they’d find a real husband
If you’re like me and not confident with rolling, cutting or icing, (a gingerbread man dummie in other words) the website Joy of Baking has a very instructive video, see below.
by Anne Green