Gingerbread Crew

If there is one thing the internet has done, it’s to bring home the fact that, with 6+ billion of us on this planet (most of us with smart phones), there is very little new under the sun.  That said, I just had the opportunity to wonder if I was the first person in the history of mankind to put royal icing foul weather gear on East German-Ampelmann and Ampelfrau cross-walk icon gingerbread cookies and stage them on a 5′ high racing sloop for a Christmas galley cooking blog.  On a bayou in southern Louisiana.  With Christmas light preventer lines.  I’m going to say yes…I am the first.  WOOHOO!

Gingerbread Mann/Frau

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup, gently packed, light brown sugar
1/3 cup unsulfured baking molasses (not blackstrap)
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
3/4 teaspoon kosher (or sea) salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1-1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2-3 grinds medium-grind black pepper
2 cups plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour plus more for dusting
For Royal Icing:
2 large egg whites
½ teaspoon almond extract or 1 tablespoon white rum
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Here’s a reveal: every food blogger has her own favorite other food blogs.  My one and only is Serious Eats, ever since Captain Peter’s mom got me Kenji Lopez-Alt’s gigantic how-to of a scientific cookbook last year.  Cooks Illustrated as a magazine, and Serious Eats as a “look it up on the internet” … those are my go-to’s.  So when SE had this recipe for gingerbread men that (1) had lots of spices (see above … just pretty much take everything out of your spice rack other than cumin and fennel), and (2) didn’t require chilling overnight before you could roll it out and get moving, I was sold.  LOTS of other helpful, science-y tips in their version, so go there if you are into science … but here’s how to do it in a tiny little galley with no electricity and highly variable temperatures, sort of 17th century-style.
Easy instructions … first, combine everything north of the flour on the ingredients list. This is another place I felt an affinity for these bakers … I have always put my “small measurables” like spices or leaveners in at the start, before the flour, because you’re more likely to get them evenly distributed at this more manageable point, before a bucket of flour bogs everything down.  Here I’m draining the last of my molasses by propping it in the soft butter while I measure out the 30 or so spices.  In the end I worried it still wasn’t enough and threw in a bit of Steen’s cane syrup, which is just really light molasses.  You’ve heard it said baking is a precise science?  Welp … not with us pirates … we’re still dumping a bit of this and that.
Get your 1930’s hand beaters out and go to work (or your stand mixer with a paddle attachment, or electric beaters, if you’re one of those 20th+ century types and aren’t looking to check your privilege) until this whole mixture is as “fluffy, soft, and light” as you can get it.  You’ve seen the “knee lock” methodology in prior posts … only way, really, to use both hands and some vigor on the beaters.  And scrape them and the bowl down at least once to get all that wayward butter involved.
Oh you haven’t seen the “knee lock” method?  Here it is … now dump all the flour into the mix at once and get it well combined … with both hands bearing down pretty hard on the beater … yeah, you’re going to need to lock that bowl in place somehow and we recommend sitting at the chart table and getting it between your knees.
Once everything is well incorporated, resort to something like a flexible spatula to smoosh the dough into a cohesive ball (that you then divide into two … or into two cohesive piles).  Form the two portions of dough into discs and wrap one in plastic wrap to refrigerate.
Flour the second disc well on both sides and roll out to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thickness (here I went thin … I wish I hadn’t because my oven was running hot and I ended up a bit more crispy than I would have liked; thicker will be easier to handle and slower to burn).  This is one of those stages where we Galley Pirates prove our chops over all the other blogs, in which flour is strewn with abandon across brilliant expanses of marble countertop … cover your chart table with parchment while your Captain is out doing something else, and work fast is all I can say.
My brother and family are living in Berlin right now, and sent me these great cookie cutters, knowing how much I LOVE to mess up my galley making cutout cookies.  They are part of a merchandising fad driven by the former East German crossing-sign icons — known as “Ampelmann” and “Ampelfrau.”  I’m also testing out a silicon baking mat; Pirate Caroline has an insulated cookie sheet that keeps things from burning in the relatively small and intense space of a galley oven.  My even smaller Finlandian-Swan oven doesn’t seem to have a fitting insulated sheet, so I thought I would try this on my upside-down single-layer metal sheet and see if that helps.
Once you have one of the discs rolled out, move expediently, but also strategically…making the most of the dough-territory you have.  According to Serious Eats, you get two-roll outs on the dough (i.e. roll, cut, mash the remnants together and roll/cut again, but then not a third time) … I forget why (science never stuck with me, no matter how interesting … explains why I’m not too busy making millions in Silicon Valley to show you how to make gingerbread crew). 
This is the moment when I had a batch ready to go into the oven and found that even the jelly roll-sized silicon mat didn’t quite fit my little galley oven … nothing a pair of scissors can’t solve!  The recipe says to keep the cookies 1/4″ or so apart, but — as with so much on a boat — space was not a luxury I could spare.  It turned out fine; they don’t expand much, and easily break apart to the extent that they end up touching.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 10-12 minutes, until puffy and starting to brown around the edges.  Allow them to cool thoroughly before frosting — for me, this meant sliding the silicon sheet off onto a rack, putting a newly loaded parchment sheet back into the oven, eventually sliding the first batch of baked cookies off the silicon sheet directly onto the rack (once the sheet had cooled enough to handle), then reloading the silicon sheet, and repeating the whole cycle.  By the time five or so batches were done, the first ones were totally cool and ready to frost.
In the free moments (ha!) make your royal icing.  Surely, you can use store-bought piped icing, as I have so many times before, to decorate these little darlings.  But my experiment with the lofty, fluffy, floating royal icing on our Dia De Los Muertos cookies made me love this stuff — it’s better tasting, and very forgiving as a decorating medium.  Plus how often will you carry (or be able to easily obtain) store-bought icing tubes on a boat?  Fit your hand-crank food processor with the whipping paddle (or use an electric mixer) and beat the egg whites, extract/rum, and cream of tartar until frothy.  Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar until you can crank no more.
This will, however, not be the full amount of confectioners’ sugar, or enough to make it hold a peak, which is when you’re done.  My hand-crank processor can’t handle past a certain thickness, and I’ve found that after that point I can whisk the remaining amount in with a fork and not lose the benefit of the loft and elasticity that royal icing provides.  Here, I’ve divided the “not quite thick enough” icing into two bowls, added more sugar, and then whisked it in.
Add food coloring gel and whisk in until you reach a shade you like.  Here, I thought “huh … not quite Christmas-ey red and green” and started to add more … but then thought “huh … that’s the hideous but functional day-glo of your average foul weather gear … we’re done!”  Cover one bowl by putting plastic wrap directly on the surface of the icing — it tends to start to dry and thicken quickly, and lose its beneficial properties.  So cover one close, and work expediently with the other!
Get your helmswomen into their gear, and a fan blowing on them (air flow, low-humidity and time will make royal icing a durable surface … until then, sticky).
Get your bow dudes into their coats and hats, and get your vessel rigged while they dry.
Merry Christmas from your goofy Galley Pirates, their patient captains, anguished dogs, and the maritime gingerbread Ampelmann and Ampelfrau crew!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.