Ginger and Spice: That’s what memories are made of

I realize with the holiday season coming to a screeching halt and the healthier eating pledges being instated for the beginning of 2011, writing about cookies may be a bit taboo on day four of the new year. But I am going to talk about them anyway, specifically the gingerbread cookies I baked for Christmas (served up alongside my holiday cookie mainstay, cranberry noels*). The ones whose appearance in my kitchen was urged by a twinge of nostalgia.

When you think of gingerbread, you probably have visions of confectionary cut outs with chocolate buttons and plump marachino pouts dancing in your head. Or perhaps you see dark, spicy planks of it glued together with frosting and gumdrops. In any case, I’m sure your think of Christmas–the time of year when sugar and spice is glorified in cookie tins and on holiday tables. One whif of that ginger and molasses, however, and I see something a little different: I see a white-haired man with sparkling green eyes, and no, I’m not speaking of the jolly old man in a big red suit. I’m talking about my Dada and his ever-present box of gingernsnaps.

He was something of a gingersnap hoarder, my grandfather, along with Little Debbie brownies and those crimson pistachios that brought new meaning to the term “red-handed.” He never seemed to be without them. It could have been the middle of an August heat wave, popsicles melting, feet scorching on hot sand, and he would still be extending a full box of those spicy wafers in my direction. And although I love the way that little cookie sounds–gingersnap–so sassy–I never did like them very much. They were too hard, seemingly unbreakable, too biting and aggressive for my childish taste. I wanted chocolate and sugar, thank you, not some inedible wafer that smelled of musty old spice cabinets. But I always managed to choke one down, for him, at least.

We did that a lot. Humored each other, I mean. He was a good sport when I wanted to sit behind him on the couch and twist and spike and pony-tail his typically flawless 60s-style waves and I accepted copious amounts of Juicy Fruit on long road trips, even if it meant hiding the unwanted foils in the back of the his seat. He didn’t get too grumpy when I filled in his lotto tickets to create arbitrary numbers and letters or asked him to eat my sorry attempts at “food” I cooked up as a child; the least I could do was accept a musty cookie once in awhile and pretend I liked it.

Fueled mostly by the fact that I miss my grandfather terribly, I’ve found myself softening to gingersnaps in recent years. I’ve found that dunked in hot tea or a cold glass of milk, they actually become something I kind of enjoy eating. I even bought a box of my very own before Thanksgiving and they worked out nicely as both a crumb bottom for pumpkin cheesecakes and a special crust for my holiday pumpkin pie. The reincarnation of that cookie intrigued me enough to want to make my own, perhaps a bit easier on the teeth and with a little less fire.

I decided on this recipe which I found tucked inside my 2009 Food and Wine holiday issue. Spiced Ginger cookies didn’t sound quite as fun or catchy as gingersnaps, but I thought they still deserved a chance what with their sparkling holiday coat of sugar crystals. My first batch came out thicker and more crumbly than you would expect from a gingersnap. Their color was softer, like raw honey, and the flavor was muted, though still spiked with white peppery heat. Instead of an explosion of spice and tingle, these sparklers create a slow burn that rises from the back of the throat onto your tongue. A heat that sort of lingers for a moment before being doused with sweeter flavors of sugar and cinnamon. The demerra sugar coating offered the crunch or “snap” that would otherwise be missed in this version, as the inside was deliciously buttery and buckled easily beneath my teeth.

I did attempt a second batch, leaving them in the oven longer until the snow-white discs turnedf a deep burnished gold and they fanned out into thinner crunchier versions of the previous batch. They did look and crunch more like gingersnaps which is probably why I didn’t enjoy them as much. You can make them as you like: plump and crumbly or compact and crunchy. I know you might be cookied-out from the holiday, but why don’t you humor me and my grandfather, and make your own batch of these little gems.

*I sub pistachios for walnuts in the cranberry noels–very Christmas-sy! And, I am after all, my grandfather’s granddaughter.

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