There is something really satisfying to me about making home-baked treats, and my annual round of Christmas baking is pretty much double the pleasure.
For those of you who aren't au fait with American pop culture references, Bree is the uptight desperate housewife who is devoted to good housekeeping. Bree/Bee . . . it's all too close for comfort. (Come to think of it, my hair does look a bit like Betty Draper's . . .)
Although Audrey has kept mostly silent through a variety of posts devoted to fruitcakes and the like, my recent experiments in wreath-making finally broke her. She felt compelled, by her inner smirk, to pose the question as to whether these rites of domesticity were, post-Betty Friedan, just a little too retro. Are we somehow diminished, as modern women, if we do actually like to arrange flowers and bake cakes?
Ever since a defensive Hillary Clinton uttered those waspish, immortal words: "Well, I guess that I could have stayed home and baked cookies," cookie-baking has had a 50s housewife taint to it. A political career or cookie-baking? Like there's no middle ground.
But why do we feel that we have to choose? Admittedly, it's probably not possible to do it all . . . but can't we be lawyers who bake cookies and engineers who knit and business women who like a bit of decoupage? Well, I'm being a bit disingenuous here. When Julia Roberts knits, it is a cool form of down-to-earth self-expression; but when a stay-at-home mom knits there is tendency to think, "Hey, get a real job!" I've been a stay-at-home mom for more than two years now, and there isn't a week that goes by that I don't revisit that decision. Indeed, attending a flower-arranging class last spring prompted me to have a mini existential crisis.
Remember that über-feminist slogan: A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle?
As feminism has evolved, I think that most women (and men) have become more comfortable with the idea that inclusiveness -- rather than exclusiveness -- is the feminist objective. Buy it, bake it, pay someone else and fake it -- it's all good. Just as most women can be relaxed about the idea of men as life-enhancing, if not absolutely essential -- although, admittedly, I do have some good friends who have "switched teams" in middle age -- so can we, surely, embrace the domestic arts without losing all of our feminist cred.
Goodness knows I am no domestic goddess, but I do like to think of myself as a domestic sensualist. Since we all have to make meals and provide a warm living space anyway, doesn't it make sense to do the best we can with those rites? I am going to twist William Morris's famous words on homemaking: Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. Certainly we can all feed our children (or ourselves) by buying ready-meals and handing out the forks, but isn't there something much, much nicer and soul-satisfying about a homemade chicken pie with a puff pastry crust served at a beautifully set table?
No one NEEDS a gingerbread man at Christmas . . . I will concede that point. And yet, they taste good and smell good and look cute . . . and children love them, even if their efforts go a bit wonky. Perfection isn't the goal, you know . . . just participation.
½ cup (4 oz) vegetable shortening (Crisco, Trex or similar)
2/3 cup (5 ¾ oz) sugar
2/3 cup (5 ¾ oz) molasses or treacle
3 ½ cups (28 oz) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
Using a freestanding mixer (if you have one), cream together the shortening and sugar until fluffy. Then thoroughly blend in the molasses and egg. (Tip: measure your molasses in a glass measuring cup for liquids, and swirl the egg in it first so that the molasses doesn’t stick.)
Combine the flour, soda, salt and spices in a separate bowl. Sift into the molasses mixture. (You can actually skip the sifting part if you aren’t a domestic goddess.) Mix dough until smooth. (Dough should be stiff. If it is really, really sticky then add a bit more flour.)
Put the dough in Ziploc plastic bags and chill overnight.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. (It should be about ¼ inch thick.) Cut out with floured cookie cutters of your choice, and then place on greased cookie sheets. (I always use a Silpat silicone baking mat, which eliminates the need for greasing.)
If you have access to red hot candies, it is fun to decorate the cookies with them before baking.
Bake at 350 F/175 C for approximately 10 minutes. Don’t overcook! If the cookies start browning too much or crisping at the edges, they are going to be on the “overdone” side.
I always double the recipe. These freeze beautifully, and will last quite a while unfrozen, too – if you keep them in a tin or sealed bag.
The beauty of this recipe is that the dough can be rolled out numerous times, (and can absorb quite a lot of flour), while still remaining edible. In my humble opinion, this makes gingerbread preferable to a sugar cookie recipe if you are baking with children.
Good luck, Audrey!