Dancing Gingerbread People

As with the Tollhouse® Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, sometimes the most memorable recipes are not the unique ones. A recipe from the back of a bag or from a seasonal magazine can be turned into something magical because of the person making them or the holiday celebrated with family and friends. Such is this recipe taken from the December 1992 edition of Better Homes and Gardens. The recipe was in an advertisement for Domino® Sugar. I have used this recipe every Christmas since then. But I have made the dancing gingerbread cookies for longer than that. I remember making them with my mom when I was a teenager some 50 years ago. I assume we used some recipe she had handy. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what recipe you use. It’s how you decorate them and bring them to life that matters!

My mother had a way of bringing the holidays to life. All were welcome and any who came experienced her deep sense of hospitality. While Christmas dinner was usually just family, our Christmas Eve dinners spanned the nations. Norwegians, Pakistanis, French, Japanese, an American Jewish husband and his Austrian Catholic wife…these were some of our guests over the years. We all had Christmas Crackers to pull and we wore the tissue paper crowns. It didn’t matter that some did not share the Christian story. It did matter that the table was large enough for all. It was literally large. Often the “table” was a ping pong table in the family room in the basement. It was elegantly covered with a white linen tablecloth and holly and crystal stars and trees.

The cookies often travel…in this photo they are at the retirement community in PA where my mother-in-law lives.

For me these Gingerbread people remind me of the hospitality…and the many trips up and down the stairs preparing, setting up, and cleaning up…of Mary Monroe.

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Four generations and going strong!

My mother and I used to do fun things in the kitchen. We made petit fours and ended up laughing hysterically on the floor as they fell apart when we tried to dip them in the frosting. And, yes, we might have peed our pants a little bit. When we first made gingerbread boys, as we then called them, we used a huge cookie cutter. I remember it being about ten inches high. And she decided that we would put candy hearts on them and the names of the guests for Christmas Eve dinner. They were used a place cards. There was always, of course, an elaborate discussion of who would be seated by whom. We had to take turns being seated by Aunt Ginny. She was my father’s only sibling so we were her only family and let’s just say it was intense when you had to sit next to her. Often we sat her on the side of Etta’s deaf ear. My mother had a devilish side as well.

Later I came to use some artistic license with the cutout cookies. I had a much smaller cookie cutter. Once the cookies are on the baking sheet, I move their legs, hands, and head before I bake them to make them look like they are dancing. It has became my Christmas dinner or Christmas Eve dinner trademark. And there is always a red candy heart on each of them along with the name of the guest written in frosting.

It’s fun to watch how people respond to these dancing gingerbread people. Some don’t ever want to eat them. Others take a bite before dinner even starts. And then there is the question of where they will bite into the cookie. A leg? The head? An arm? Some people eat everything right away. Others eat the whole cookie except where the heart is. It could be a sort of personality test if I really wanted to go that far. Mostly, I just enjoy watching the different responses…all of them acceptable to me…because people are having so much fun with them.

This year was a special year. I introduced our 22 month old granddaughter Pippa to the process. She loves play dough. This was her first time with real dough. Surprisingly, she did not try to eat the dough. Good thing, since her mom and I like to eat the dough. We didn’t want to compete with her. And, yes, we know we aren’t supposed to eat raw dough but we both have done that since we were children and we have lived to tell about it. Just don’t ask us to share our raw dough with you!

It is profound for me to think that this is now a four-generation activity. Three of us are alive to enjoy it together but there is no doubt in my mind that my mother is there with us, laughing, maybe even laughing so hard she pees her pants a bit, and full of wonder at the reality that memories are created and passed down over simple tasks like baking Christmas cookies.

When our daughter Chelsea was young, she enjoyed the friendship of the three children of my friend Karen. Karen and I, and the four children, would cut out and decorate cookies each December in the commercial kitchen of the camp where Karen and her husband Mark worked and raised their family. It took us years to realize that we made far too many cookies for these meticulously artistic and uniquely talented children to decorate. Each cookie seemed to take an hour to decorate as they used toothpicks and paintbrushes with frosting and sprinkles to express what was in their minds. It became tedious for Karen and me. We eventually succumbed to slapping the remaining frosting on each cookie just to get it done. To heck with aesthetics! But now we remember those days fondly. Stories are already being passed on to spouses and girlfriends to keep the lore alive. I can’t wait for each of our children to get frustrated when their children take an hour to decorate one cookie!

But seriously, holiday baking, tedious or not, is one of the most powerful times to pass along memories of those who have gone before us. Do you have memories to share? Feel free to put them in the reply boxes below!

Domino® Gingerbread Men

Rough Date of Recipe: 1992 – Place of Origin: Better Homes and Gardens December 1992 – Related Person: Maggie Monroe-Cassel

Prep time: 90 minutes  – Baking time: 10 minutes- Servings: 24 five inch cookies (adapt for what size you are making)

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup firmly packed Domino light or dark brown sugar (you can use any brand you want but I defer to the creators of the recipe!)
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened (The original recipe suggests butter or margarine but I would never use margarine…however, once again, I defer to the actual recipe for accuracy.)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 3 1/4 cups flour
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp EACH allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt

In a large bowl, beat sugar and butter until well-blended. Add eggs and molasses. Stir in remaingin ingredients. Cover and chill 1 hour. Roll dough on well-floured board until 1/8 inch thick. Cut into shapes. (This is where the cookies can be made for any holiday…use whatever cookie cutters you have.) Place on greased baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Place on cooling rack. When cool, decorate with sugar icing:

3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp Domino confectioner’s sugar 10x or 4x , 1 tbsp milk and food coloring. Any cinnamon candy for the hearts. Using a pastry decorating tube, I give then eyes, a nose, and a mouth and then write the names on them. I place a bit of frosting where the heart will go and then stick the heart to it. The trickiest part of this recipe is getting the right consistency for the frosting. If it is too thick, it is hard to press through a thin decorating tip. If it is too runny, the features and the letters blur together. Trial and error will get you to the right place.

Dancing figures: Once I place them on the cookie sheet, before baking, I move their heads, arms, and legs to make them appear to be dancing. Each is a little different.

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