The ideal dining table centerpiece is handmade, edible, and inexpensive, like this gingerbread tree. For this tree, I purchased a set of 10 star cookie cutters from Sur La Table, but I could have gotten by with half as many because sometimes the different cookie-cutter-sizes were barely noticeable. The tree in my picture uses 36 cookies, and of the 10 cookie-cutter-sizes, from largest to smallest, I used: 5 cookies from size one, 5 from size two, 5 from size three, 5 from size four, 4 from size five, 4 from size six, 3 from size seven, 2 from size eight, 2 from size nine, and 1 from size ten.
Instead of gluing the cookies together with icing, I used a drinking straw to cut a whole in the center of each cookie before baking and piled them onto a dowel-topped base. This enabled me to arrange and rearrange the cookies whenever I changed my mind about how many of each cookie-size to use (I finally decided to mostly use large cookies because the resultant tree looks more like a fir). This also makes the cookies removable and edible (warning: they harden if left out too long). For the cookie stand, I purchased the base at a craft store and drilled a hole in its center. I glued a ¼" dowel into the hole and cut it to the desired length (12" in my case).
I wish I was able to decorate cookies with creative little details. But I'm no artist, so I've decided that simplicity will suffice. (My parents didn't pass along their artistic genes to me; when we lost an enormous oak tree from the front yard of my childhood home, they made these amazing turtle stools for each of us.)
Gingerbread Star Tree
Adapted from Epicurious.com
- In order to remain soft, these gingerbread cookies will either need to be kept in an airtight container, or packaged in cellophane (see my picture above).
- You can substitute butter for the shortening if you prefer, but the cookies won't be quite as tender.
- I use less ginger and fewer cloves because that's how I like my cookies, but if you like a spicy cookie, then double the spice quantities.
- If you measure the flour by volume (rather than weight), you may inadvertently add too much flour making the cookies dry. I'd start with a conservative amount of flour, and add as needed.
- 11 tablespoons softened butter (5.5 ounces)
- ⅔ cup shortening (5.34 ounces)
- 1 cup light brown sugar (7.5 ounces)
- 1 cup molasses (not black strap) (12.3 ounces)
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup buttermilk (2 ounces)
- 6 cups all purpose flour (1 pound 11 ounces) - see tip on measuring flour here
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1½ teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon cloves
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
Beat butter, shortening, and sugar, until light and fluffy. Add molasses and beat. Add egg and beat until combined. Combine dry ingredients (starting with 5½ cups of flour). In three parts, add the dry ingredients to the butter/molasses mixture, beating until combined. Add additional flour as needed. Divide in two parts, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Flour your counter well (because the dough is very soft), and roll one piece of dough to ¼" thickness. While rolling, periodically move and re-flour the dough to prevent sticking. Alternatively, roll it out on floured parchment paper or plastic wrap. Note that the dough warms up quickly, so either work quickly or refrigerate/freeze the dough for 10 minutes during the process to allow it to become firm again. Use cookie cutters (or templates) and a sharp knife to cut out shapes. Using a drinking straw, cut holes in the centers of every star (I also suggest wiggling the straw to slightly enlarge the holes). Place cookies on a parchment lined baking sheet (see tip on parchment paper here), and refrigerate or freeze for 10 minutes to allow dough to become firm again (this ensures sharper edges).
Bake in a 350°F preheated oven for 8-10 minutes. Use a straw to re-cut holes in the cookies, because the dough puffs during baking (and remember to wiggle!). Wait for gingerbread to cool completely before moving it to a rack. Repeat with remaining dough. Scraps can be re-rolled after refrigeration. Decorate stars using royal icing (recipe found in Gingerbread House post). Assemble stars on dowel stand.