Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Cookies: New England Molasses Gingerbread Cookies

I absolutely despise molasses (no shoofly pie for me, thanks), but for some reason, when the strong molasses flavour is tempered by aromatic spices and the gentle heat of ginger, as it is in gingerbread, I'm in heaven.

I think this has quite a lot to do with my paternal grandmother. When I was a child, my Bohemian babička, or Czech grandmother, and her Czech friends would get together in their Chicago kitchens during the holiday season, and together they would bake and decorate amazingly delectable, incredibly gorgeous perniky, or Czech gingerbread cookies. The icing was always pure, snowy white, and if I was lucky, I'd find tiny silver nonpareils sprinkled strategically over the lines and swirls of icing.

At the end of November, the perniky would arrive at our house, carefully packed between layers of pristine white tissue paper, in a wide, flat, white pâtisserie pastry box beautifully tied up with twine. For some reason, my grandmother used only twine- never, ever scotch tape- when she wrapped gifts. I've never got the hang of that particular skill.

Once I knew the cookies had arrived, I'd beg and plead with my mother, but to no avail- I was allowed only one cookie each day leading up to Christmas Eve- the day Czechs celebrate Christmas. At the time, I thought it supremely unreasonable, but now that I've learned how much work really goes into decorated cookies, I understand her thinking. Treats this time-consuming to make should be savoured slowly and appreciatively, even by greedy five-year-olds!

For some stupid reason, I never thought to ask for the perniky recipe while my grandmother was alive- perhaps they do taste better when made with mysterious ingredients by a grandma- and I've been looking for a comparable recipe ever since she passed away. Even more frustrating is the fact that I have a book of her recipes that was discovered by my father and given to me last Christmas, but so far I haven't been able to find her gingerbread cookies amid the pages and pages of recipes written in her tiny, perfectly elegant script.

Luckily, while browsing online collections of Christmas cookie recipes in November, I came across
Bon Appétit's recipe for New England Molasses Gingerbread Cookies and saw that a few reviewers likened them to traditional German Pfeffernüsse and Lebkuchen. I knew at once that this recipe would be a good place to start.

The dough was soft and a bit tricky to work with, but it was also fairly forgiving and much easier to handle when I worked in small amounts, leaving the rest to chill in the 'fridge. I used regular (not robust or blackstrap) molasses, doubled the spices, and added a few good shakes (probably about a teaspoon each) of allspice and nutmeg to the mix. I also used Dorie Greenspan's Royal Icing recipe, which immediately became my new favourite- the icing was incredibly easy to pipe smoothly, stayed pliable in the pastry bag for at least a few hours, and hardened to a gorgeously snowy white, durable, faintly citrus finish with just the right amount of sweetness.

I used a few favourite cookie cutter shapes, including the traditional lucky Czech zlaté prasátko (golden Christmas pig) in two different sizes: medium-sized 2-3 inch and tiny 1-inch diameter. Decorating them took a long time, but once you get into a rhythm, everything goes quickly and smoothly (though I did have to take breaks to stretch out my arms and hands). Having a glass of wine on hand definitely helps, too.

The day I baked them, the gingerbread cookies were crisp and tasty, with a lovely blend of spices that intensified after the first bite. I was happy with them, but admitted to myself that something was missing- they weren't quite what I remembered. As most gingerbread needs a bit of time to improve, however, I hoped that these might as well, and I was not disappointed. A few days later, they had softened considerably to a more cake-like crumb, the spices noticeably more intense and complex- a flavour, when mingled with the sweet crunch of the icing, very, very much like my grandmother's perniky. I have rediscovered my childhood addiction, and in case you can't tell, these are the Christmas cookies of which I am most proud!

I've since found Czech gingerbread recipes online that include rum, coffee, honey, and ground spices like mace, star anise, aniseed, black pepper and coriander. I'm tempted to give other combinations a try, but am thrilled that I have a solid recipe to rely on each year! I suspect they'll never be quite as perfect as they are in my memories, but isn't that always the case?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great ideas for the Czech gingerbread. I loved the story about your grandmother's perniky. Your photos look delicious! Merry Christmas.

la petite gourmande said...

Thanks so much!

If you try the recipe, I'd love to know if you make any ingredient/technique changes. I'm always looking for ways to improve my own baking skills!

A very Merry Christmas to you, too!

goodfellow said...

I found your site while trying to find a recipe for Czech gingerbread cookies, which I am just about to make with my daughter. (alas, I have no such memories with my grandmother, as the last time we spent Christmas together, I was but 3)

Just wanted to mention though, in case you were not aware, that the secret ingredient in most Czech baking is rum. And not just any rum, but Czech rum, Tuzemské Rum. Actually, according to the rules of the European Union, they are not allowed to call it rum, so it is now just called Tuzemak. It is undrinkable, but has the sweetest most enchanting aroma... it is what makes Czech pastry cream heavenly, and so many other things. So if a Czech recipe calls for rum, you'll know that it won't taste right unless you can find Tuzemak.

la petite gourmande said...

I'm so glad you mentioned the rum!

I did have a bottle, but I used it all up over the past 2 Christmases in pastry cream and for soaking raisins and currants for vánočka.

That's my plan for next year- to add mace and rum! Are you able to find tuzemak in the states at all? If so, I'd love to know where. I've been looking for a source so we're not always asking people to bring it back when they go to visit...

Did you try the recipe? If so, I'd love to know if you made any changes!

la petite gourmande said...

Здравствуйте Мария!

Пожалуйста- I would be thrilled and honoured! Could you include a link back to this page? What a compliment! Cпасибо большое!

(your comment got deleted by accident... простите!)


original comment:

Can we use your photo of the cookies on our Russian website dedicated to Czech Republic?


Maria said...

Вы пишете по-русски? :)

Ссылка будет обязательно на нашем сайте в разделе ссылок!

Огромное спасибо! У вас замечательные фотографии!

la petite gourmande said...


Прекрасный! Спасибо за ссылку и за щедрую похвалу!

Да, я говорю по-Русский, но не очень хорошо теперь. Я учился в Школе-студии МХАТ (Москва) в 2001-2002. :)