Gingerbread Men with Chocolate Buttons

A few weeks ago, I posted a question on Facebook: “What are your favorite holiday cookies?” I got plenty of answers. Many said snickerdoodles and thumbprints and spritz. My friend, Anita, once again kept her family’s green tree cookies a secret. If you’ve ever had one, you can understand how badly I want that recipe. The last person I expected to hear from was my little sister, Eliot (aka “E3”). I’ve gone on and on about how we never had holiday cookies at all, but here she was with a suggestion: gingerbread men with chocolate buttons. No, these weren’t from our mother’s or grandmothers’ kitchens, but instead from Harper’s Blue Bonnet Bakery. If you grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, you know this place. It’s an institution, having been on Camp Bowie Boulevard since 1934. It’s open six days a week, sells countless varieties of pastries, breads, cakes, pies, and cookies, on top of a full lunch menu. And where many places with extensive menus are hit or miss, I’ve never had a thing from Blue Bonnet that wasn’t spectacular. If you’re nearby and haven’t been, go check it out and grab a gingerbread man while you’re at it. You see, their gingerbread men are special. They’re the size of your face, and the only adornments are three chocolate icing buttons piped in the middle. They don’t need anything more than that. The gingery cookie and touch of chocolate are a match made in heaven. And they’re available year-round, so seriously, go get one if you have the opportunity. But if, like me, you live too far away, you can make a very good version at home! Let’s get started.

These cookies start with a ton of flour, a hefty dose of spice, baking soda, and salt. Whisk those all together and set them aside to work on the wet ingredients. Cream some room temperature butter, and then add both light brown and granulated sugars. Next comes 3/4 cup of dark molasses, a room temperature egg, and some vanilla. Slowly mix in the dry ingredients, divide the dough into quarters, and wrap each in plastic before putting them in the fridge for an hour. The dough is quartered because even after it’s chilled, it will still be a bit sticky thanks to all that molasses. Smaller pieces of wrapped dough will chill more thoroughly than if it were halved, and therefore make cookies easier to roll and cut. 

 Flour a surface, rolling pin, and 4″ gingerbread man cookie cutter. Once the dough has been chilled, take one quarter at a time and roll it to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut the dough with the cookie cutter, and place cut cookies on prepared sheet pans. These cookies will spread a tiny bit, so make sure to set them at least one inch apart. Bake the gingerbread men at 350F for 10-12 minutes (mine are done at 10:30), until they just feel firm and are no longer raw-looking. Let them cool on the sheet pans for ten minutes before removing to a rack to cool completely. 

After you’ve baked all the cookies, make some chocolate royal icing. The icing begins with sifting confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, meringue powder, and salt. Mix together some warm water and vanilla, and use an electric mixer to beat two tablespoons of it into the dry ingredients. It will be thick and look nothing like royal icing. Continue beating in liquid by the 1/2 teaspoon until your desired consistency has been reached. I like for mine to hold soft peaks. Load the chocolate royal icing into a piping bag fitted with a plain piping tip, and pipe on some buttons. If you want heavily frosted cookies, you can draw an outline around the edge and then flood the middle with icing that you’ve thinned with more water.

Royal icing takes a long time to dry, especially if it’s used for flooding cookies–it can take up to 24 hours. As these just have a bit of icing, I took a little shortcut. Lay the iced cookies in one layer on a sheet pan and then place them in a 150F oven for ten to fifteen minutes, until the buttons are hard to the touch. This shortcut only works well for cookies that haven’t been flooded with royal icing, as the flood icing tends to become wavy and distorted.

Gingerbread Men with Chocolate Buttons are excellent for gifting and entertaining during the holidays. Nobody will be able to resist these sweet, spicy cookies with a touch of chocolate! Their appearance may be less extravagant than the gingerbread men you see covered head-to-foot with royal icing, but these cookie simply don’t need that kind of adornment. To me, they are perfect.

Looking for more Twelve Days of Cookies? I’ve got you covered! Check out these Red Velvet Peppermintdoodles, Eggnog Sandwich Cookies, Whipped Shortbread Snowballs, Apple Cider Snaps, Oreo-Stuffed Andes Peppermint Crunch Cookies, Peppermint Mocha Cookies, Salted Caramel Chocolate-Covered Pecan Cookies, Chocolate Crinkles, and M&Ms Potato Chip Cookies. There are two more cookie recipes to come before Christmas Day!

Gingerbread Men with Chocolate Buttons
Chocolate Royal Icing from The Sweet Adventures of Sugar Belle
makes 3.5 dozen cookies

Cookies:
4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons (4 1/2 teaspoons) ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed*
3/4 cup dark molasses*
1 large egg, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Chocolate Royal Icing:
1/2 pound (2 cups) confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder*
2 tablespoons meringue powder*
pinch of Kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3-4 tablespoons warm water

Make the cookies. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Beat in brown and granulated sugars, followed by the molasses. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Turn the mixer to low, and add the dry ingredients in three installments, frequently scraping down the bowl.

Divide dough into quarters. Wrap each quarter in plastic wrap and flatten into a disc. Chill for at least one hour or up to three days.

Preheat oven to 350F. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper. Flour a surface and a rolling pin.

Remove one disc of dough from the refrigerator. Unwrap it, and roll it out on the floured surface, adding more flour as necessary. Dough will be a bit sticky. Roll dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Dip the edge of a 4-inch cookie cutter in flour, then use it to cut out cookies. Re-roll scraps to get more cookies.

Bake cookies for 10-12 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned and the tops no longer look wet. Let cookies cool on the baking sheet for ten minutes before removing to a rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough.

Make the chocolate royal icing. Sift together confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, meringue powder, and salt. Stir together vanilla and water. Add 2 tablespoons of the liquid to the dry ingredients, and beat with an electric mixer until combined. Continue beating the mixture for at least two minutes, stopping to add additional liquid by the 1/2 teaspoon until the desired consistency has been reached. Spoon mixture into a piping bag fitted with a plain tip. Pipe on cooled cookies as desired.

Let frosted cookies sit at room temperature for several hours until dry, or place them on a sheet pan in one layer and put them in a 150F oven for 10-15 minutes, until the frosting is hard to the touch.

Cooled, frosted cookies keep covered at room temperature for at least a week.

Notes:

1. Dark brown sugar may be substituted.
2. Do not use blackstrap molasses–it is too robust for this recipe.
3. You may use natural or Dutch Process cocoa.
4. I use Wilton, which can be found at craft and kitchen stores.

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