One of the first Watkins family Christmas traditions ever (actually, probably one of the first traditions period) is baking gingerbread. I started the first year that Bill and I lived together, and have kept it going for the past 4 Christmases. I think I made about 70 loaves that first year. I don't know what got into me, but we brought in loaves for everyone in both of our offices, mailed them to friends and family members, and ate about 20 loaves on our own. This was before I had my stand mixer, so I stirred every batch by hand. My right arm was approximately 3 times bigger than my left by Christmas. They have been mailed to several states and both Iraq and Afghanistan with fairly positive feedback across the board. I've recently tried experimenting with lower-fat and gluten-free versions, but I still have a long way to go in those departments.
As the years go by, the numbers of loaves being mailed out have dwindled due to astronomical postage prices from Oklahoma to everywhere else in the world, so I have decided to reproduce my recipe here in case readers want to make their own. A word of warning: if you are a bah-humbug type of Christmas avoider, do NOT make this bread. It will make your house smell like ginger and spice and everything nice and you'll have visions of sugarplums dancing in your head as you sing carols uncontrollably at the top of your lungs. Consider yourself warned.
Watkins Family Gingerbread
The original recipe that I print out and tape to my kitchen cabinets every year can be found here, and I only slightly modify it as I go. I've made so many batches of this stuff that I don't really need the recipe, but it doesn't feel like Christmas until it's taped up. One of these days I'll actually take the time to print it out on nice Christmas-y paper and frame it so it actually looks decorative instead of like I'm cramming for finals.
I start by creaming a cup of butter with a cup of brown sugar until light and fluffy:
Add 2 eggs and beat well. Then combine a cup of molasses (unsulfured) with a teaspoon of baking soda and a cup of boiling water. It will smell, sound, and look like science class:
The original recipe says to dump this in with the creamed butter mixture, but I like to add it alternatively in thirds with the flour for a better consistency. Thank you, Alton Brown, for teaching me that one. Add a total of 2 and 3/4 cups of flour alternatively with the molasses mixture to the creamed butter, with the mixer on low to avoid hot splashes of molasses. Voice of experience here.
Add 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and get excited. It's spice time. The original recipe calls for 4 tsp ginger, 2 tsp cinnamon, and 1 tsp each of allspice and cloves, but I dump at least a tbsp and a half of ginger in there, a full tbsp of cinnamon and heaping tsp of allspice and cloves, plus a pinch extra if I feel like it. I go through a LOT of spice. That's why when I stumbled upon a spice sale at my grocery store, I freaked out. A tiny jar of ground cloves is normally $8, but I got mine on sale for $.99! A Christmas miracle? I think so. I also have started zesting some orange into the mix to add brightness to the flavor.
Anyway, when you're all mixed up, you'll look like this:
Here's where I'll break and let you know that I used to make the lemon glaze as directed in the original recipe. It was good, but very very messy and sticky. This year I experimented with sugaring the pan and making a cinnamon-sugar topping, like I did in the Amish Friendship Bread earlier this fall, and had AMAZING results. I can't explain the tasty, I can only testify that it is mighty.
Once your pans are sugared and your oven is 350 degrees, fill 'em up. Sprinkle a generous helping of the cinnamon sugar mix on top of the loaves and toss them in the oven. It takes around an hour, give or take, but I never set the timer. At this point I can tell by smell, and I check with a cake tester. The finished product will look like this:
Well hello, you. Pull them out and let them cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes, then remove from the pans and allow to cool completely. If you can. These wrap up and freeze VERY nicely, obviously mail really well, and generally taste better the second day. Now, before you start thinking that I'm some Christmas fairy or something, I have to be brutally honest and admit that my kitchen looks thusly when I'm finished:
It's worth it. Trust me. Remember, you're going to be so busy singing carols loud enough for the neighbors to hear that you won't care about cleaning up.