These are soft and fudgy and it must have a piping of crunchy royal icing to complete this lightly spiced cookie.

Jeff Smith, an affable, fatherly looking figure, was one of the first celebrity chefs. He had his own cooking show and a respected reputation until allegations of abuse surfaced. All was settled out of court but his career and reputation never recovered. He died a few years after the scandal. He wrote some interesting cookbooks and the first gingerbread cookie I baked was from ‘The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas’. That recipe has since evolved into my recipe below.

I can’t eat store bought gingerbread cookies. Not only are they often very sweet and overly spiced, too many come in a range of rainbow coloured icing or are sprinkled or studded with Smarties, M&Ms, dragees, hundreds & thousands… I spice my cookie dough just enough so that I can enjoy all the elements of the cookie. After all, besides the ginger and spices, the combinations of sugars are also what makes these festive cookies taste special and different.

What’s gula melaka and why do I use it?
So as to not clutter my introduction with text, please scroll down to my ‘Tips’ section.

Have you spotted Darth Vader?

Gingerbread Cookies Made With Gula Melaka

Prep: 15 minutes 
Cook: ~13 – 15 minutes
Inactive: 1 hour for dough to completely firm up.
-Time for cookie to completely cool before icing.
-Time for icing on cookie to completely dry -leaving it overnight is best.
Level: Moderately easy
Makes: Every cookie you see up there plus 8 more of the smallest ones… I ate them.
Oven Temperature: 320F (160C)
Can recipe be doubled? Yes
Make ahead? Dough can be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Baked and iced cookies keep well in air tight jars for up to a week.

Ingredients

1 cup = 8.45 fl oz (250ml)

Cookie dough
4.58oz (130g) gula melaka*
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4.58 oz (130g) unsalted butter
4.58 oz (130g) dark brown sugar
14.1 oz (400g) plain/all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 – 1.5 teaspoons ginger powder**
1 teaspoon cardamon powder**
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg powder**
1/8 – 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder**
a pinch – 1/8 teaspoon cloves powder**
Royal icing
1/2 egg white (~1 and 1/2 Tablespoons)
3.17 oz (90g) confectioner’s/icing sugar plus extra
small pinch of cream of tartar***
* Substitutes: Treacle, molasses or golden syrup. I have not used any of these sweeteners in Gingerbread Cookies since I switched to using gula melaka and then refined my recipe. I assume it is good for a 1:1 swap with weights remaining unchanged as the liquid texture of gula melaka is similar to treacle, molasses and golden syrup. Read more about ‘Gula Melaka’, where to buy and how to choose and use under my ‘Tips’ section below.
** You could reduce the number of spices to ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. Then, adjust the amount of these spices to suit your taste.
*** Cream of tartar is a stabiliser as such. It makes the egg white icing firmer (less runny) and changes the colour of the icing from a greyish white to a ‘whiter’ white. Alternatively, replace with 3 – 4 drops of lemon juice although it will not have the effect of ‘lightening’ the icing sugar to a ‘whiter’ white. Do not add more cream of tartar/lemon as too much might sway the balance and have the opposite effect to what you want to achieve.  

Method

Melting the gula melaka
1. Melt the gula melaka in a microwave on high power for 40 seconds. It will not have completely dissolved which is what you want.  Let the remaining gula melaka melt in the residual heat.
2. Alternatively, melt over the stove. On medium-low heat, add a touch of liquid (~ 1 Tablespoon) to help kick start the melting. Stir constantly. When almost all the gula melaka has melted, remove from heat source. Any larger lumps will melt in the residual heat.

3. As soon as all the gula melaka has melted, stir in the milk and vanilla extract. This brings down the temperature and prevents the gula melaka from solidifying. Set aside.


Preparing cookie dough
1. Remove the butter from the refrigerator and allow it to soften before use. Soften means when you push on the butter with your finger, there is a firm give. The feel would be somewhat similar to when you use your finger to push into a firm pillow/cushion.
2. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt and spices. Remember to adjust spices to suit your taste. I like the gingerbread lightly spiced so I go with the lowest measurements. Set sifted ingredients aside.
3. If you have a KitchenAid, on medium-high speed, use the flat beater to cream the softened butter with the brown sugar until a lighter shade and creamy. Alternatively, use a whisk to cream.
4. With the machine on low, add the cooled gula melaka/milk mixture and cream until thick and creamy.

5. Stop the machine, stir to fully incorporate batter and turn the machine back on low and gradually add in the dry ingredients. Once it has been incorporated, turn off the machine. Do not over mix. If any further mixing is required, use a spatula instead.
6. If the dough looks too soft, add up to 4 Tablespoons of flour gradually. It should look like the dough in the image below. It will still be a soft dough.

6. Transfer the dough into a large food safe plastic bag.*
*
 The method outlined below, has become my preferred way of rolling and storing dough. It reduces mess, over flouring and overworking the dough.
7. With the dough in the plastic bag, roll out the dough to between 1/4″ to 1/8″ (0.63- 0.31)cm. Fold in the open end of the plastic bag so that you can roll out a neat and even rectangle.

8. Transfer to a flat baking sheet and refrigerate until firm. Do not skip this step otherwise the dough will be too soft to cut into neat gingerbread shapes. It won’t hurt to refrigerate the dough longer (up to 2 days) as it develops flavour.

Cutting out gingerbread cookies
1. Turn on oven to 320F (160C) oven, oven rack adjusted to the middle.
2. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and onto a silicon baking sheet if you have one. This secures the plastic bag and prevents it from shifting.
3. With the dough still in the plastic bag, level out the dough with a rolling pin if necessary. With scissors or a sharp knife, slice off the top of the plastic bag to reveal the dough.
4. Dust your cookie cutters lightly with flour before using.

5. Have your silicon baking sheet/parchment paper lined baking sheet ready. As this dough can be rather soft and pliable, it helps if you use a rectangle cake server or a bench/dough scraper to lift and transfer the larger sized gingerbread (those that are (6″)(15cm)) onto the waiting baking tray.
6. The other advantage of having rolled the dough out into a plastic bag is that you can slip your fingers under the plastic bag to help you pop up the cut cookie dough with less of a chance of mangling the dough.
7. These cookies expand marginally. Spacing them 1/4″ (0.63cm) apart will do.
8. Gather dough bits and use the plastic sheet to wrap it into a loose square/rectangle parcel. Roll to flatten and cut out more gingerbread.
9. Bake as soon as dough has been cut, if not refrigerate on tray. Do not leave it on the table. Cold dough straight into hot oven will bake cookies with the sharpest edges/corners.
10. Bake for 13 to 15 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet half way into baking. They are done when the dough has changed colour and the outsides of the gingerbread cookies are a slightly darker shade. Leave on tray to cool (as they are still too soft) and then transfer to cooling racks.
11. You cannot eat the cookies the day you bake them. They will be rock hard! It’s not an issue as you would need to let the cookies cool, ice them and then leave them overnight for the icing to completely dry. Then, the icing will not only retain its sharp looks, the gingerbread cookies will look adorable and they will taste soft, chewy and fudgy as a gingerbread cookie should.

Royal icing
1. As the amount of royal icing we are making is a very small amount (yet sufficient to ice all these cookies with outlines), it would be ridiculous to bring out your mixer. So use either an immersion blender with the whisk attachment attached or your arm muscles!
2. In your mixing bowl, add the icing sugar and the small pinch of cream of tartar. Stir to combine.
3. Add the egg white and stir in the icing sugar so that it will not fly all over once you start whisking. Then, if using an immersion blender, whisk on low and work up to high speed until the icing is thick and white. Add more icing sugar to get the right consistency.


4. Scrape into a piping bag or a heavy duty plastic bag (freezer bags are hardier). Seal it completely shut so that icing does not dry out. I refrigerate mine, if I am not using straight away.


5. Only start to ice the cookies when they are completely cooled and allow to air dry overnight before storing in air-tight containers.

Tips

What’s ‘gula melaka’?

This is also labelled as ‘palm sugar’ and is produced in Malaysia. ‘Gula’ means sugar. “Melaka’ is a city in the south west of Malaysia.  I use this in place of molasses, treacle or golden syrup. Better quality ones contain more palm and less refined sugar and are obviously sold in Malacca (anglicized spelling) itself. Often sold in cylindrical blocks, ~ 4.58oz (130g), at most local supermarkets and at Asian grocery stores. It has a purer, deeper, richer yet softer taste compared to treacle, molasses, golden syrup, dark or white sugar. To put it in context, I will be very happy to munch on nuggets of gula melaka but I definitely will not put a spoonful of treacle, molasses or golden syrup down my throat.

Why I use ‘gula melaka’ in my Gingerbread Cookies’ 
Simply because I can find more uses for gula melaka and I am more likely to find a block of gula melaka sitting in the inner depths of my pantry than treacle, molasses or golden syrup. More significantly, gula melaka, gives the Gingerbread Cookies a more intense ‘sugar flavour’. After making gingerbread cookies, I have no more use for treacle, molasses or golden syrup.

How to use it and where to buy?
Gula melaka can be used melted, shaved/grated or cut into small nuggets and eaten as is. It could be sprinkled over ice cream, pancakes or it could be stuffed inside a ball of dough made from steamed mashed sweet potatoes and tapioca starch, which is then boiled in hot water, drained and rolled in fresh grated coconuts.  They are called ‘ondeh ondeh’ and I can eat a lot of it.

Gula melaka can also be melted with a little water and turned into a syrup which is then poured over all sorts of puddings and to sweetened drinks (usually coconut based). The easiest way to melt them is in a microwave. If not, over the stove over medium-low heat with the addition of a touch of liquid (usually water), to kick-start the melting and stir constantly. To prevent burning, remove from heat source, when it has almost melted. Any larger lumps will melt in the residual heat. Gula Melaka will re-solidify quickly as it cools. To prevent that from happening, either use quickly in its liquid form (although it will be hot) or add a little liquid before/during/after melting.

I had been taught to select gula melaka that looks darker and more densely packed. Buy it from Asian grocery stores. Some local supermarkets stock it either under the ‘dry goods’ or ‘sugar’ aisle.

WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT?

My 3 refreshing coolers for the upcoming festive season!

I am always impressed when I step into someone’s home and find that the host/hostess has gone through the effort to prepare a special cocktail or a drink for teetotallers.With the holidays approaching, it is time to plan not only the food but the often neglected drinks menu. Here are my concoctions for the season:

1. Osmanthus & Apricot Drink With Konjac Jelly (konnyaku)
2. Zingy Mint, Lime & Lemongrass Infused Cooler
3. Frozen Red Raspberry Fizzy (my favourite)

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