At the end of October, I landed in blustery, rain-drenched Nuremberg in the full throes of season change. The air was a little bit wild with the sense of storm, and the sky was a patchwork of grays, and the sidewalk mottled with ruddy leaves in their annual transition to winter. This is my favorite kind of weather, and I was giddy, from lack of sleep, from the better-than-expected (but still awkward) conversation in the simplest of German with the taxi driver, from just being there, and most definitely by the weather.
I was invited there to go on a river cruise with Viking, a slow, delightful meander along the Danube. I arrived in Nuremberg a day early to wander on my own.
Nuremberg is famed for its Christmas market. And its Christmas market is famed for gluhwein, the German iteration of mulled wine sold at stalls throughout the old quarter, and lebkuchen, which are not exactly gingerbread cookies, but are similar in spirit, with their abundance of rich, warming spices. And while I was there before the Christmas market kicked into high gear, there was gluhwein, lebkuchen, and gingerbread houses, chocolate-covered marzipan, Christmas tchochkes and hallmarks all exuberantly on display. The market also held a cozy mix of chestnuts in their prickly shells, bright holiday wreaths heavy with nuts and berries and sprays of things, wild mushrooms pocked with pine needles and forest duff, obelisk-shaped cabbages, and intriguing varieties of winter squash. I wished, a little, for a lebkuchen to dip into some gluhwein. I wandered the maze of the old town happily lost. I took in the pointed skyline with its rust-colored roofs all sharply pitched toward the sky.
I’m excited to share more details about my voyage along the Danube soon, but for now, let’s get down to cookies. There is something about those intensely-spiced, fragrant old-world cookies that is so deeply evocative of everything I love about this season. It calls on the nostalgia of the past, on ritual, on warmth, and bringing sweetness and spice into the darkest part of the year. I wanted the spice qualities to be front and center, so I gave the ginger a generous boost. Scale it back if you prefer a mellower cookie. And there is nothing like the earthy flavor of molasses to both anchor and bring depth to these dudes. They taste better if you let them sit overnight. I have no idea why. But do it. It’s like all the spices settle into each other after a long night’s rest.
Gluten-Free Gingerbread Cookies
adapted from Minimalist Baker
Yield: about 36 to 48 small cookies
I was so intrigued by the addition of almond butter here. While you can’t really taste it, I completely love this as a way of reducing butter. (Though I do love butter, but I also love semi-wholesome treats.) The version that this is adapted from is vegan, if you want to go there, and I also think it’d be the easiest thing in the world to use regular flour if you have no reason to make them gluten-free. But really: let them sit overnight so that their flavors really develop. They softened overnight and tasted waaaaaaaay better.
1/2 stick butter, melted
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup almond butter
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1.5 cups gluten-free baking mix (I used Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1 and it was perfect)
1/2 cup organic powdered sugar
1 tablespoon almond milk
Whisk together the butter and the egg. Add the brown sugar, molasses, almond butter, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, baking soda, and sea salt and combine. Sift in the flour and stir to thoroughly incorporate. The dough will be a touch sticky.
Form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for at least two hours, until completely cold. Overnight is ideal.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Using two pieces of parchment, roll the dough out to about 1/4-inch thick. Working quickly, cut into preferred shapes with cookie cutters and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. (Alternately, you can roll it into a log, chill, and cut into slices that way. Simpler.)
Martha Stewart suggests that you chill the cut cookies again before baking, which I thought was fussy until I saw how much they lost their shape. So I recommend chilling the cookies in the freezer for another 15 minutes if you want to preserve the shapes.
Bake for about 6-8 minutes; they will still be soft. Chill in the fridge if you want to get to icing them more quickly.
Make the icing: combine 1/2 cup powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon almond milk or milk of choice. Use a ziploc with the tiniest hole cut into one of the corners to apply the icing if you don’t have any fancy tools. (I don’t!)
Once the cookies have cooled to room temp, apply the icing. I’m terrible at this, but I think they make the cookie taste better, and the imperfect ones are endearing.
AND THEN THE HARD PART: Hide them from everybody for one day. I found that these were hard after an hour, but softened overnight into the perfect cookie. I also think that their taste and texture are better if stored at room temp. If you put them in the fridge, let them warm to room temperature before serving.