It's Gingerbread Season!

You know that smell. There's nothing quite like that unique blend of baking spices wafting from the kitchen, blanketed in the cozy aroma of dark molasses - it's gingerbread season.

Kids always relish this time of year, when they can cut little gingerbread men and women out of sticky, brown dough and wait near the oven for them to crisp and bake. Then they can bring the little people to life, adorning them from head to toe with a rainbow of hair, eyes, clothes and shoes: the works. Then they can affix them with raisin smiles and M&M buttons.

The favorites are strung as ornaments on silky ribbons and then hung from the Christmas tree high enough that the pets don't get too tempted by the scent.

Gingerbread has delighted families for centuries and it is constantly being reinvented to fit changing times and palates. Early Greek and Roman bakers made a flatbread which was spiced with ginger that was consumed after a meal. In the middle ages, Englishmen with sour stomachs would suck on sweet lozenges called gingerbrati, made of honey, ginger, nutmeg and other spices. Bread crumbs were later added to this fragrant mixture and a forerunner of modern gingerbread was born.

Gingerbread went on to become the favorite item eaten at European festivals; Queen Elizabeth I reportedly loved it so much she employed a full-time gingerbread baker at court.

In France, the popular cousin to gingerbread is pain d'epices, or spice bread. Often the chief distinction is a lack of molasses, which dominates the American gingerbread flavor palate. Meanwhile, Native Americans influenced gingerbread baking by introducing colonists to maple syrup: to this day many American gingerbread recipes are flavored with maple.

Gingerbread texture can run the gamut of a soft, crumbly cake to the thin, hard cookie dough that makes for building stellar gingerbread houses. Many European bakers still bake gingerbread in intricately carved wooden molds. Various international gingerbread lovers have stretched the definition even more, creating everything from gingerbread pancakes to chocolate-dipped gingerbread biscotti - even "slipper" ginger flatbreads flavored with Chinese five-spice powder. 

Today, gingerbread is finding its way into all kinds of recipes, from autumn puddings to breakfast cakes to salad croutons, and it can be enjoyed any time of day, any season of year.

If you're making gingerbread cookies or building your own candy condo, follow these tips for best results:

  • Do not overmix your dough. Mix dry ingredients with creamed ingredients only until they are just blended or the dough will become tough.
  • Bake cookies on heavy-gauge baking sheets with low sides or no sides at all. Heavy-gauge sheets ensure uniform heat distribution and browning. The low sides make the sheets easier to grasp and allow the air to circulate more.
  • Shiny baking sheets divert heat and produce a softer bottom crust on cookies; dark sheets absorb heat and create a crisper bottom. Line dark sheets with foil if you want a softer bottom.
  • Use parchment paper as an alternative to greasing baking sheets. Clean up is much easier.
  • Bake cookies on a cool baking sheet, preferably one sheet at a time. If you find that the cookies are spreading too much as they bake, try chilling the dough or adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour. If they are too dry, add 1 to 2 tablespoons milk.
  • Testing for doneness: For drop cookies, press your finger on the surface of the cookie to test for doneness; it should leave a slight indentation. Rolled and refrigerator cookies are done when they are just turning golden brown.
  • Cool all baked good thoroughly before storing. Otherwise, when they are covered or sealed they can "sweat" and become soggy.
  • For decorating cookies and houses, use convenience products to cut the time whenever possible. For example, Dec-A-Cake makes a full line of squeezable icings and sprinkles that are affordable and easy to clean up. Use M&M candies for a rainbow of possible decorations. Almonds too are great for everything from gingerbread-man noses to the shingles on a sweet chalet's roof.
  • Zipper-style plastic bags make instant, disposable pastry bags. To use, fill with icing, seal and snip 1/8 inch off one corner. Make several bags ahead of time.
  • Many baking books have patterns for gingerbread houses you can trace. Cut the templates from cardboard; you can cover the templates with contact paper so they can be wiped off and reused.

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