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This is the season to bake cookies

Making a gingerbread house
The most important part of gingerbread house making is to have fun! (Source: Adobe Stock)

Nothing embodies Christmas more than the smell of cookies baking in the oven and the laughter of those gathered in the kitchen to share in the fellowship of shaping, decorating and eating them. No gift is sweeter than a tin filled with cookies and shared with family members, neighbors and friends.

But this year, as you gather flour, sugar and decorations, you might be having second thoughts.

With COVID-19 lurking around like the Grinch, you might be wondering if baking cookies is such a good idea. The answer is a resounding YES, though you should keep the baking and decorating limited to those in your immediate family. Nothing to date has led experts to believe that COVID-19 is transmitted by eating food, so the risk of contracting the virus by eating a Christmas cookie is very low. That means you can still share a tin of Christmas love this holiday season, but you should take special care in the prepping, baking, packing and delivering. Here’s how:

  1. Start with a clean and sanitized work environment, clean aprons and well washed hands.  Hands should also be washed whenever they’ve come in close contact with eyes, noses or mouths – you know, like when you’re conducting quality control sampling.
  2. It’s true that baking can be messy work with flour dust flying and icing dripping, especially if you have little helpers in the kitchen. So, keep one bowl of soapy water at the ready to wipe up spills and another one nearby to wash your baking tools during the cookie creation process.
  3. When packing cookies to give away, make sure you do so with freshly washed or gloved hands. Using cupcake wrappers to contain three or four cookies per serving inside a box or tin not only makes a pretty presentation, it also makes it easy for the recipient to safely share.
  4. When delivering baked goods, leave them on the recipient’s porch with a note and call them to let them know the treats are there. Remember, while baked goods have a low transmission risk, you may not, so be sure to practice good social distancing.

5 Tips for making gingerbread houses

Design your house on paper first. Whether you sketch out your own design or print out a free template from the web, you will need pattern pieces to guide you in cutting out walls, roof pieces, chimneys and more. Creating your own design and doing the requisite math is a great teach- able moment with older kids.

Mix up a really good gingerbread recipe – one that’s loaded with aromatic spices but sturdy enough to hold its shape under the weight of icing and candy decorations. You don’t want a chewy ginger- bread, save that recipe for cookies.

Prep your royal icing ahead of time. Royal icing made with meringue powder can be stored at room temperature for several days. The key is to keep the air off the icing so that a crust does not form. Do this by placing plastic wrap directly on the icing’s surface. While you can store the icing this way for several weeks, it’s best if used within a few days. If the icing sepa- rates and begins to weep water, just give it a good stir before using.

Select a base. Your house will need something to sit on. Heavy corrugated cardboard covered in foil works, so does a small, wooden cutting board. Whatever you choose, make certain that it is strong enough to hold the weight of the house and impervious to the icing.

Portion out your construction materials. Especially when multiple people are constructing homes, it’s wise to give each builder a cupcake tin filled with a variety of candies, one per cup.

GINGERBREAD DOUGH

(This is a construction-grade dough and not meant to be eaten.)

5 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1/2 cup dark molasses or dark Karo syrup 1/4 cup water

Forming the dough:

  • In a large bowl, combine all dry ingre- dients and set aside.
  • Using an electric mixer and a suitable bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add the egg, molasses and water and beat on high speed until all ingredients are well combined.
  • Slowly, 1 cup at a time, add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and beat to combine. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. The dough will be very thick. If the dough is too much for your mixer, you can knead in the last of the dry ingredients until all are combined and the dough is pliable.
  • Divide dough in half and shape each half into a 6-inch (diameter) disc. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours or up to several days.

Baking the house pieces:

  • Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
  • Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
  • On a floured board, or parchment paper, and using a floured rolling pin, roll out each dough disc into a 1/4-inch thick rectangle.
  • Using your paper templates and a pizza cutter, or paring knife, cut out each piece of the house. Carefully transfer the cut pieces to the parchment lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between pieces and keeping larger pieces on one tray and smaller pieces on another.
  • Bake for larger pieces 18-20 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Bake for smaller pieces 12-13 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.
  • While pieces are still warm, compare them to the template by placing the pattern pieces on top of each cookie. Using a sharp knife, trim away any spreading that may have happened during baking.
  • Cool pieces thoroughly on the baking sheets before beginning construction and decorating.

Constructing the house:

  • While the house pieces are cooling, make the royal icing.
  • Fill pastry bags (or a freezer bag) with icing and snip off a small portion of the tip to create a piping bag.
  • Pipe a thick line of icing onto one edge of the house’s walls and press that piece to its adjoining piece. Hold in place for a few minutes, giving the icing a chance to partially set. Repeat this process for all walls. Glue the roof pieces and chimney pieces together. Join the chimney to the roof. But don’t join the roof to the house quite yet. It’s a good idea to let the house finish setting up before adding the roof and chimney pieces. Take a break and play a game of cards, take a walk or read a Christmas story. Then, come back and put on the roof. Just be sure that your icing is sealed up, airtight, while you wait.
  • Again, it’s wise to let the roof set up before decorating. About 30 minutes should do it.
  • Unleash your creativity and decorate!

ROYAL ICING

  • Using an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat 4 cups confectioners sugar (sifted) with 3 Tablespoons meringue powder and 5 to 6 Tablespoons room temperature water until mixture forms stiff peaks. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes at low speed with a heavy-duty mixer or 10 to 12 minutes at high speed with a hand mixer.
  • Leave some of the icing white to use when “gluing” the various house pieces together. Some of the icing can be tinted using food color. (Hint: gel food color is best.)
  • Depending on the number and sizes of your houses, you may need multiple batches of icing.

Cookies to make while you wait

Making a gingerbread house is not a fast process, so if you’re looking for some cookies to make, especially during the “cooling and setting times,” here are two easy and delicious recipes.

PEANUT BUTTER BLOSSOMS

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

¾ cup peanut butter

2 cups baking mix

1 teaspoon vanilla

Granulated sugar for dusting

36 Hershey’s Kisses, unwrapped

Directions

  • Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 375ºF.
  • Combine milk, peanut butter and vanilla until smooth. Stir in baking mix.
  • Shape dough into 1 1/4 inch balls and roll in sugar to coat. Place balls on baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.
  • Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. While cookies are warm, press one Hershey Kiss in center of each.

HOLIDAY SNICKERDOODLES

1 cup salted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups plus 2-3 tablespoons sugar

2 medium eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon almond

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon nutmeg*

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

*The addition of nutmeg adds a touch of holiday spice to a traditional Snickerdoodle. Not a fan of nutmeg and cinnamon, eliminate the nutmeg from the dough and substitute the dusting sugar and cinnamon for candy cane dust (made by pulverizing mini candy canes) and red and green decorating sugar.

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400ºF. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • Using an electric mixer with a large bowl, combine the butter, shortening, 1 1/2 cups sugar and eggs until creamy. Mix in the vanilla and almond.
  • Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, nutmeg, baking soda and salt; stir into the shortening mixture.
  • In a small bowl, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon.
  • Shape the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls and roll each ball in the cinnamon-sugar to coat. Arrange the dough balls 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until edges are golden brown.
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