Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Do you need a good (gingerbread) man?

For Audrey

I've said it before: I am a person who loves to bake cookies.

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.

However! Although there are many bakerinas who share this obsession, I realize that there at least an equal number of people who regard baking to be somewhere on the spectrum between torture and a complete waste of time. My good friend Audrey is such a person.

In a recent (and most humorous) post, Audrey vowed -- with only slightly gritted teeth -- that she was going to bake cookies with her children this Christmas. As I read it, I vowed that I would share my family's most excellent gingerbread man cookie recipe with her. It is easy, no-fail, delicious and spectacularly Christmassy. I have made these cookies every year for 30+ years, and frankly, could not contemplate Christmas without them. Yes, I was going to wax and whitter endlessly about gingerbread cookies -- throwing in a variety of related anecdotes -- but the post Not a Bree stopped me in my tracks.

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 ├╝ber-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.

Gingerbread Men (or Women)

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
1 egg
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!


Elizabeth said...

I read Audrey's post this morning and was most amused by it.........
I really think we should play it by ear - to bake or not to bake - in the long run it scarecly matters - only do it if it seems fun.
Your ginger people are splendid.

Brave Sir Robin said...

The Domestic Sensualist

Now that is a wonderful name for a blog, or a book, or a TV show.

Here's what you do:

Start a separate blog, (for God's sake, don't abandon this one) dedicated to the domestic arts.
Get a book deal when the Blog takes off.
Turn the book into a TV show.

We can all say we knew you when . . . . .

Wonderful looking gingerbread men, btw

sylvia said...

Wait, what are you using for shortening in England?

I've filed all my recipes that need shortening as I wasn't sure what to use. I've missed something obvious, haven't I...

Anonymous said...

I like your attitude about what feminism is now. I've run the gamut on attempted domestic perfection. I've landed somewhere in the happy middle!

Baking, for me, is cyclical. I might just give your Gingerbread cookies a try. It's time for something new in repertoire!

willow said...

I have been known to bake a plethora of cookies for the holidays. All kinds, shapes and trends. My adult children told me they just want chocolate chip this year. Chocolate chip?! Okay, my CC cookie are great, but what about all the other festive goodies? I might have to bake a few other varieties just because.

Your gingerbread men look perfect.

Bee said...

Elizabeth - Oh, I agree. There is no point in baking without joy.

BSR - Surely someone has already thought of it? If nothing is new under the sun, certainly that is true of the blogosphere, too. You are kind, though.

Sylvia - Do you know that song, "Mama's lil baby loves shortnin, shortnin, Mama's lil baby loves shortnin bread?"

In my 1940s Betty Crocker, all of the recipes call for shortening -- not so commonly used now. I tend to "import" it from TX, but if I'm out of the good stuff I use Trex in the UK.

Dcup - Baking is cyclical for me, too . . . but my cycles have very short lay-offs!
I always bake for Xmas, though. The only trick about these is making the dough ahead of time. Otherwise, easy peasy.

Willow - Chocolate chip cookies, no matter how delicious, just aren't Christmas cookies. My kids (younger, admittedly) are the opposite of yours -- and insist on every traditional favorite!

Sarah Laurence said...

Whitter on Bee! I find this dialogue between you and Audrey most entertaining, especially since you are good friends. Like opposite hues on the color wheel, you two are compliments.

My solution to the working woman baking dilemma: my children has taught themselves to bake. We’ve had one batch of muffins without flour, but that’s a mistake only done once. I certainly hope we don’t have banana on the ceiling again! Shall pass the recipe to the kids. Thanks! I get to have my cake and eat it too.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

I found this post fascinating. Personally, I never thought twice about being a stay-at-home mom (I just hate that term! Conjures up images of women sitting around, watching tv.). I knew once I had children, I wanted to be home with them. I don't judge anyone who does go back to work. Feminism is all about choices and not judging the choices of other women.

These homemaking skills are in no way retro. Women are nurturers, in general. You are showing love for your family by doing it and at the same time you are fulfilling some creative side of you that craves it. Two birds with one stone. Love it! Wish I had a desire to bake more.

No, gingerbread men are not essential, as you say, but there is another aspect to it all. You are creating memories and that's really important. It's the same reason I love photography.

Love your new picture-taking skills and love your gingerbread men!

Bee said...

Sarah - There's a solution! Have the children do the baking! Actually, some of the best cooks I know became interested in food out of necessity -- either because their mothers wouldn't, or couldn't, cook.

Alyson - We do need a new term for "stay at home mom" -- but I find "housewife" even more repugnant. I almost want to "work" just so I can avoid that label.

I'm so glad that you got my point. I think that 70s feminists were trailblazers who did so much for later generations, but they could be a bit extreme. As you say, not all women are homemaking nurturers, but many, many of us are.

And A, I can't get enough of my new camera! My new hobby!! (I actually sent an attached picture to my husband today . . . have never done that before.)

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Too funny, Bee!

I have never made cookie-cutter gingerbread cookies before, always drop. Sadly, rolling pins and I don't get along very well.

Do you decorate your gingermen? And lastly, have you ever had a gingerbread cookie from Andres? I wonder how they make them so light and chewy?!

sylvia said...

I can just see your trying to explain a tub of Crisco to customs at Heathrow. ;)

I'll keep an eye out for Trex, thanks!

JaneyV said...

Bee the term Domestic Sensualist needs to be trademarked by you right now. Seriously - it's genius!

WRT the feminist question I think that it was a huge mistake on the part of women to devalue the role of housewife. We should have just done a bit of re-branding; Domestic Sensualist sounds so much better. The problem was, of course, that 50 years ago women didn't have a choice. I believe feminism fought to give us the choice to live the life we want. The assumption that that means we couldn't possibly want to raise our own children and enjoy domesticity is as ludicrous as the notion that education and careers are wasted on women because we are merely brood mares. I fear that instead of choice, women may have swapped one prison for another.

I personally chose to work part-time and take care of my own house and children. I know that's not for everyone but it's what works for me. The rat race made me soul sick. I love my life and am grateful that feminism gave me the choice.

I'm not the Domestic Sensualist I wish I was so I will live vicariously through your blog. I hope you don't mind!

I may even bake some cookies this year.

Audrey said...

Well, well, well....

Now I guess I'm going to HAVE to bake some bloody gingerbread man afterall.

Great post, made me laugh!

Nimble said...

"the domestic sensualist" definitely reminds me of Nigella. But she's food only, so there's plenty of room for you in the media panoply, Bee!

It sounds like Audrey feels a creeping dread of the crafty/baking homemaker activities.

I wish to say a word in favor of butter for baking -- butter! It's harder to work with but it tastes so good. I choose the fattening fat of butter over the suspect chemistry of transfats. And the word 'shortening' just meant any fat (oil, lard, suet, butter) used in baking before crisco came along.

Bee said...

JAPRA - You should give the rolling pin one more try. Really, this recipe is easy to work with - and if it's not, add more flour. '

And yes, we do decorate our gingerbread -- usually with just a few simple details (from a water/icing sugar/dried egg white icing). When I make them for the girls' friends, I write their names over the middle (which can be tough with a long name). Or, I like putting red hots (for eyes, nose and buttons) on the cookie before it goes in the oven.

Andre's! I love that place, especially in winter. It's got that Bavarian Xmas vibe. Laurita and I used to go there for quiche lorraine, but I don't think that I ever had their gingerbread. We used to like the gingerbread men from Moeller's Bakery, though. For a brief happy moment in time they sold them at JMS.

Sylvia - I'm all about the Crisco sticks, actually! (You would not believe some of the strange stuff I bring in -- but never in hand luggage, of course.)

JaneyV - You are so right; we really should have rebranded. We ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater and now we are finding it hard to regroup. Oh, and by the way: full-time work? A rod for my own back, as my husband has neither the time nor inclination to do house or kid stuff. (We only need one hyper-stressed person in the house.)

(laughing) So how do I copyright my new concept?

Audrey - Let me know how it goes! And it would be nice to have a bit of photographic evidence of the results.

Nimble - Just a few words on butter vs Crisco -- a subject to which I've devoted time, thought and research. As you probably realize, they give different results - not only in taste, but also in texture. Generally I like to combine the two and thus get the best of both: butter for taste, and Crisco for lightness and "loft." This is what I would do with chocolate chip or sugar cookies. I've never tried butter with this recipe, but since I've run out of my imported supply of Crisco I am tempted to try it. The English brands have a slight flavor to them which I do not like. (And you can get Crisco without transfats now!