Ahh… breathe in the sugar and spices, smell the vanilla. My memories of the winter holidays always take me back to the warm sunny kitchen of my childhood with my mom standing in front of the sink reaching for soapy dishes. My parents were both very good home cooks, and I loved watching them prepare meals. In fact, when I got to college and made meals for myself, my roommates would marvel, “How do you do that?” I was a bit surprised that they thought cooking was some type of magic trick; I shrugged my shoulders and responded, “I watched my parents cook.” Cooking was like brushing my teeth. I didn’t think about it as some kind of complicated skill that I couldn’t attain.
December always meant cookie baking time in my house and my father would experiment with making different shapes and flavors of Italian cookies: biscotti, torcetti, pignoli, cuccidati, strufoli, and the sesame studded giuggiulena. Just saying their names make me happy and hungry. Crowned with nuts or filled with figs, these cookies are the hallmark of my childhood Christmases.
When it came to holiday baking, my mom, sister, and I would lean toward more traditional American cookies: sugar, shortbread, and gingerbread. I loved those times spent in the kitchen mixing, pouring, cutting, and creating. My sister and I would stand opposite each other cutting out trays and trays of dough, invariably ending up with throwing some scraps of dough at each other and giggling, signaling to my mother that it was indeed time to clean up.
When I became a teacher and integrated cooking activities into my curriculum, I eagerly awaited the winter when I could make gingerbread everything with my students. It’s amazing to me that my former students often contact me to say that it was the cooking activities that they liked and remembered best. These activities, they tell me, made them feel connected to their classmates and made them feel successful. “I made that!” are three very important words. I think “I made that!” is the essence of being a fully creative and content human.
For the last several years, I created a gingerbread curriculum for our 1st grade students. We have made soft gingerbread cakes in gingerbread-shaped pans, both small and large. The soft cakes are an easier approach to making gingerbread if you are working very young children and you don’t have a lot of time.. They are able to scoop, pour and mix, but they do not have to do all that cutting. They can, however, still decorate their individual cake. We have also made the traditional gingerbread dough, and the children able to choose the type of cookie shapes to make – boys, girls, rabbits, stars, snowmen, etc. We would cut, bake, and decorate with each child able to taste a cookie and take home a little bag for her family. One year, the grade had students with many allergies so we made a batch of gingerbread-scented salt dough to cut and decorate. The children still had the experience of making and baking with the added pleasure that their gingerbread creation would last for years! Gingerbread baking always accompanies playing gingerbread board games, making gingerbread puppets, and decorating giant cardboard gingerbread houses. The children also read many great gingerbread stories. Every year, I find more and more creative versions, which keeps the ideas fresh. After reading lots of gingerbread stories, the children write their own version, which they read aloud to each other as we enjoy our gingerbread cookies.
With the holidays approaching, I encourage you to slow down and be mindful of the traditions you are creating whether at home or in the classroom. Relish the preparation and process. Taste the success. Know that kitchen memories are sweet and last a lifetime.
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ lb. butter or margarine, softened
- 1 Tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 Tablespoon cardamom
- 1 Tablespoon cloves
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 1/2 Tablespoon baking soda
- 1 Tablespoon molasses
- 3/4 cups water
- Measure the flour into a mixing bowl and set aside.
- Combine butter and sugar in another large bowl and set aside.
- In a saucepan, combine the water with the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and pour over the butter and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Add the flour one cup at a time, blending well with each addition. Store, well-covered, for several hours in the refrigerator.
- Dough will be quite soft but will stiffen in the refrigerator.
- Let come to room temperature. Then roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4” thickness.
- Place in gingerbread shaped pan.
- Bake at 375º for 15-17 minutes or until browned.
- Let cool and decorate with icing and candy of your choice.
Favorite Old-Fashioned Gingerbread
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 egg
- 1 cup molasses
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup hot water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.
In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg and mix in the molasses.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Blend into the creamed mixture. Stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in pan before serving.
Gingerbread Man Literature:
1. A Christmas Cookie Exchange by Sheri Wall 2. A Gingerbread Wonderland by Elise Rian Cunha 3. Can’t Catch Me! by John and Ann Hassett 4. Catch That Cookie by Hallie Dumand 5. Georgie the Gingerbread Fairy by Tim Bugbird 6. Gingerbread Christmas by Jan Brett 7. Gingerbread Cowboy by Janet Squires 8. Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett 9. Gingerbread Mouse by Katy Bratun 10. Kolobok by Natasha Bochkov (in 4 languages: Russian, Chinese, Spanish, & English) 11. Maisy Makes Gingerbread by Lucy Cousins 12. Senorita Gordita by Helen Ketteman 13. Snow Dude by Daniel Kirk 14. Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour 15. Ten Tiny Gingerbread Men by Fhiona Galloway 16. The Cajun Cornbread Boy by Dianne De Las Casas 17. The Cajun Gingerbread Boy by Berthe Amoss 18. The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett 19. The Gingerbread Bear by Robert Dennis 20. The Gingerbread Boy by Richard Egielski 21. The Gingerbread Boy Who Didn’t Run Away by Vickie King 22. The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst 23. The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers by Lisa Campbell Ernst 24. The Gingerbread Kid Goes to School by Joan Holub 25. The Gingerbread Man by Paul Galdone 26. The Gingerbread Man 2: What Happened Next by Stephen Dixon 27. The Gingerbread Man on the Loose at Christmas by Laura Murray 28. The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck by Laura Murray 29. The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo by Laura Murray 30. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup 31. The Gingerbread Rabbit by Randall Jarrell 32. The Gurabia Man: The Armenian Version by Talent Dadia White 33. The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy by Elisa Kleven 34. The Jalapeno Man by Debbie Leland 35. The Library Gingerbread Man by Dotti Enderle 36. The Matzo Ball Boy by Lisa Schulman 37. The Musubi Man: Hawai’i’s Gingerbread Man by Sandi Takayam 38. The Ninjabread Man by CJ Leigh 39. The Runaway Latkes by Leslie Kimmelman 40. The Runaway Pancake by Mairi Mackinnon 41. The Runaway Rice Cake by Ying Chang Compestine 42. The Runaway Tortilla by Eric A. Kimmel 43. The Runaway Wok by Ying Chang Compestine 44. The Sourdough Man: An Alaskan Folktale by Cherie Stihler 45. Three Pigs and a Gingerbread Man by Hilary Robinson 46. Tough Cookie: A Christmas Story by Edward Hemingway