When I was younger, my mom and I would hunker down at the kitchen table on Christmas Eve and churn out scores of these spicy little devils.  Her recipe, if I remember correctly, called for 7 cups of flour and yielded a dough so stiff and massive the stand mixer would whine and groan and nearly lurch off the counter with exertion.  My mixer is smaller, as is my recipe.  The dough is soft and easy to work with, and makes a tender, lightly spiced cookie.  Our kids love them, and love to help — we save this treasured activity for when Grandma comes to visit.

Gingerbread cookies

Yield:  Depends on the size of your cutters

3 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 c. Earth Balance Buttery Sticks (or other non-hydrogenated, vegan shortening)

1/2 c. dark brown sugar

1/2 c. unsulphured molasses

1/4 c. water

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Make dough:

Sift together flour, salt, soda, and spices.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine buttery sticks and brown sugar.  Beat until light and fluffy, scraping bowl and paddle occasionally, about 5 minutes.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together molasses, water, and vanilla.  Stir into buttery stick mixture (it will separate — this is fine).  Scrape bowl and paddle.  With mixer running on low speed, add dry ingredients one cup at a time until evenly encorporated.  Divide dough into two balls, flatten each into a fat disc, and wrap tightly in plastic.  Refrigerate at least one hour or up to three days, or freeze for up to three months.

Make cookies:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.  On a floured counter, with a floured pin, roll one dough disc to 1/8-inch thickness.  Cut out cookies, placing cutters as close together as possible.  Using an offset spatula, transfer cookies to baking sheet.  Gather scraps, re-roll, cut more cookies.  Repeat with remaining dough disc.

Bake cookies 8-10 minutes.  Let cool briefly on pan, then remove to a wire rack.

Decorate cookies:

To make icing, sift a cup or two (depending on how many helpers you have) of confectioner’s sugar into a mixing bowl.  Add a small amount of milk (any kind — I use rice) or water, a teaspoon at a time, until icing is smooth and glossy but not runny.  If you accidentally make it too thin, just add a bit more sugar until it’s the right consistency.

If you don’t have a piping tube or pastry bag, you can make one:  Spoon about 1/2 c. icing into one corner of a zip-top freezer bag (not a sandwich bag, as I learned from experience, because the seams tend to burst when you squeeze it).  Press the icing all the way into the corner, then twist the bag a few times right above the icing (for kids, I secure the twist with a rubber band, then press out the excess air and zip the bag for good measure).  Using a scissor or sharp paring knife, snip a tiny piece off the corner of the bag.  Voila!  Leak-proof, miniature pastry bag perfect for any size hand.

Clockwise, from top left: Homemade pastry bag & piping tube; 2-year-old decorates her first gingerbread person; Mummy decorates her billionth; kids' masterpieces.

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