This recipe is based on a back issue of Cooks Illustrated (November 1999), and these cut-outs are way yummier than the usual hard, dry gingerbread men. There is plenty of butter in them, so if you don’t overbake them, they remain soft and chewy—the way I like my cookies! Just bake them a bit longer if you prefer crunchy cookies.
The dough is quite soft when you make it, so it’s very easy to smoosh and then roll out between sheets of parchment paper. Don’t try cutting the dough into shapes right away, though—it’s way too soft until it’s been frozen. The key is to have the dough FROZEN solid. (Wait until a cold day like we did—it was zero degrees and the dough chilled nicely on the back porch!) Because you roll out the dough between pieces of parchment paper, and don’t add extra flour, you can keep re-rolling the dough scraps as necessary, and the cookies don’t get tough.
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1½ sticks butter (12 tablespoons), cut into 12 pieces
¾ cup molasses
2 tablespoons milk
1. In a food processor bowl fitted with steel blade, process flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, and baking soda until combined, about 10 seconds. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture and process until butter is incorporated, about 15 seconds. Dump in the molasses and milk and process until the dough is evenly moistened and forms a soft mass, about 10 seconds.
2. Scrape dough onto a piece of parchment paper, and divide in half. Working with one portion of dough at a time, roll out somewhere between 1/8-inch and ¼-inch thick between two large sheets of parchment paper. This is a little bit tricky, since the piece of parchment on the bottom side will tend to wrinkle up as you roll the top. Just keep flipping it over, and straightening out the wrinkles. It’s also challenging to know how thin you’re getting the dough, since you can’t see it very well—but it doesn’t much matter. Just do the best you can to get a fairly even layer, and don’t get too obsessive about it. Leave the dough sandwiched between parchment layers, and place on cookie sheet. Freeze it on the cookie sheet until firm, at least 30 minutes, or overnight.
3. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. If your cookie sheets aren’t non-stick, coat them with cooking spray, or line them with parchment paper.
4. Remove one dough sheet from freezer; place on work surface. Peel off top parchment sheet and gently lay it back in place. Flip dough over; peel off and discard second parchment layer. This first step is genius (pre-peeling the parchment off the dough, then putting it gently back on). It lets the dough come off the bottom sheet easily after you cut the shapes out.
5. Cut dough into desired shapes, transferring shapes to cookie sheets as you go. If it’s really frozen, the dough will stay in the cookie cutters when you pick up the shapes, which makes it easy to poke them out onto the cookie sheet—but only if you use the metal cutters that are open at the top. I wouldn’t recommend using closed-top plastic cutters with this recipe, since I think it would stick badly, and as soon as the dough warms up, it’s very soft and gooey. If the dough stays on the parchment when you cut it out, transfer them to the cookie sheet with a wide metal spatula, spacing them ¾-inch apart; set scraps aside. Repeat with remaining dough until cookie sheets are full.
6. Decorate the cookies with raisins or nuts or whatever else suits your fancy.
7. Bake cookies for 7 to 8 minutes. They will be soft in the center, and just firm at the edges. Do NOT overbake. Cool cookies on sheets 2 minutes, then remove with wide metal spatula to wire rack; cool to room temperature.
8. Gather scraps; repeat rolling, chilling, cutting, and baking. Repeat with remaining dough until all dough is used.
9. Store the cookies in an airtight container with sheets of waxed paper or parchment paper between the layers.