Fragrant with spices, the best aspect about gingerbread, like friendship, is the sharing. Baked in Europe for centuries, it was usually flat and crisp; after the 15th century, it was sometimes soft and cakelike. Today, we even transform the dough into fanciful gingerbread houses at holiday time. Ginger has long been valued as a way to help preserve baked goods.
These gingerbread cookies are soft, a little chewy, and completely satisfying. For tender cookies, don’t allow the butter to soften too much before making the dough; it will melt too quickly in the oven, flattening them. Do not overwork the dough. For crisper cookies, roll dough slightly thinner to about ⅛-inch thick. Bake just a few minutes longer, but watch carefully to prevent burnt edges. The sorghum molasses (also called syrup) in the recipe is made from the green juice of sorghum cane; molasses is the byproduct of processing sugar cane into sugar. Sorghum is a little sweeter than molasses with a consistency that is slightly more fluid, and it has a lighter mouth feel. Its nuanced taste has caramel notes. Author Roni Lundi says, “Sorghum’s flavor contains a buttery depth, which I like to call Appalachian umami.”
The baked cookies can be beautifully decorated with piped royal icing designs or thinly coated with buttercream and embellished with decorations. If using royal icing, prepare it to the “flood stage” for piping or coating the cookies. If making lines, use a pastry bag fitted with a small writing tip about ⅛-inch wide. Meringue powder, which is dried egg whites, can be used to avoid health concerns from using raw egg whites and is available with cake decorating supplies or online. But a simple dusting of powdered sugar is fine, and even served plain, the gingerbread cookies are hard to resist.
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
3 cups all-purpose flour (King Arthur or Gold Medal), spooned into measuring cup
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, room temperature
¼ cup all-vegetable shortening (Crisco), preferably butter flavor
½ cup sorghum molasses (or use light molasses)
⅓ packed cup light brown sugar
¼ cup white granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon dark rum, Grand Mariner, prepared coffee, or milk
In a small dish, combine the four spices. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, salt, and spice mixture thoroughly for 30 seconds or until well blended. Set aside. With an electric mixer, cream butter and shortening for 2 minutes until creamy. Beat in the molasses, brown sugar, and white sugar; scrape down sides of the bowl. Add the egg; beat about 2 minutes more, scraping bowl. Add vanilla and rum or other liquid. Stop the mixer; add half the reserved flour. On low speed, mix for a few seconds until almost combined. Add the remaining flour and mix until the dough forms. Divide dough; flatten each portion and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 3 hours or up to 3 days.
To bake, preheat oven to 350 F. Remove one dough portion from refrigerator. Roll it out on a lightly floured surface to about ¼-inch thick. Using holiday cookie cutters, 4 inches or smaller, cut into shapes. With a metal spatula, carefully place them, about 1 inch apart, on a sturdy, parchment-lined, baking sheet. Layer and roll out dough scraps; cut extra cookies. (Chill dough if necessary.)
Place pan on the middle rack of the hot oven. Rotate halfway through, if necessary, for even browning. Bake for 8 minutes or until cookies look dry and their edges are set to the touch. The softer centers will firm up slightly as the cookies cool. After 5 minutes, remove to a wire rack; cool completely. As they bake, roll out the second batch of dough. Decorate cool cookies, as desired.