I can glimpse the setting sun from my western facing window, the exuberant colors wavering with the vicissitudes of the season. In early winter, on the clear, cloudless days, the sun burns incandescently like aggressively glowing coral embers.
My son and I baked today during twilight, as we tend to do on cold, still evenings. We wash our hands, lightly caked in flour, and head over to the window to watch the December coral sun sink into the sapphire night sky. Twin cups of hot cocoa in hand, we recline side by side, reveling in the magnificence of the horizon, watching the dark devour the light.
The new season brings on an inevitable quietude, a bitter coldness that envelops us. Watching the sun set together, while being hugged by the stillness of time, we have a quiet conversation in hushed tones. I utilize these slow moments for teaching life lessons, for baking and reading, for waxing poetic on sunsets.
Tonight we went into a bit of a tizzy with gingerbread, because gingerbread is deeply seasonal, with winter spice overtones, and a warming fragrance.
As a child I wasn’t entirely a fan of the spicy gingerbread flavor, although I savored the provocative aroma. My sister and I would bake a batch of gingerbread men and women with our mom each December, drawing on sugary lacquered features whilst watching the same blush sun drop gracefully between our backyard’s leafless trees. Our kitchen windows were fairly large, glimmering glass overlooking the little hill behind our house, peppered with crab apple trees. Every winter night, we were able to view the sun sink into the earth behind our snow-dusted hill. With the dim night sky came an inevitable draft as the cold outside air wafted into our kitchen through our home’s glass windows. Cold odorless air mixed with the scent of gingerbread.
I still find the smell of gingerbread comforting and cozy, like cold winter drafts. The scent of gingerbread is all-encompassing, a combination of spices that punch every corner of the air: cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg or cloves, sometimes allspice or black pepper. Gingerbread is an exploit of the season with its warm and spicy nuances. And I have grown to love the flavor, in abundance when the air turns chilly.
Gingerbread runs the gamut, sometimes crackly and overtly peppery, sometimes softly creamy and more coyly spiced. Textures range from sticky and malleable to crispy with a pleasant crumby snap. Today we baked an intensely buttery gingerbread-spiced shortbread and since my son desperately wanted s’mores, we topped the cookie rounds with chocolate drizzle and toasted marshmallow frosting.
I’m partial to a subtly balanced cookie that’s more aromatic than potently musty and practically piquant. The blushingly obscene quantity of butter lends a milky texture and an almost caramel flavor.
I drizzle dainty ribbons of semi-sweet chocolate onto each cookie. Too much chocolate obscures the cookie’s polite sensibilities and suggestion of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. My son cautiously does the honors with the blow torch, each cookie topped with pillows of weightless marshmallow meringue.
We ate our gingerbread s’mores before bed, after the sunset, cloaked in warm blankets, our hands exposed to catch the cool draft between our fingertips.
Gingerbread Shortbread S’mores
For the shortbread:
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), room temperature
6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons molasses
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
For the chocolate drizzle:
1/2 cup high quality semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 1/2 tablespoons heavy cream
For the marshmallow meringue, adapted from King Arthur:
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cold water
2 large egg whites
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on low speed until combined. Add spices and molasses and mix until just integrated. With the mixer on low, add sifted flour and salt and mix until dough is soft and uniform.
2. Place the dough between two large pieces of parchment or wax paper and roll out to about 1/4-inch thick. Transfer dough to a cookie sheet and place in the freezer for about 20 minutes.
3. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove dough from freezer and cut using a 2-inch round cookie cutter. Place shortbread on baking sheet with 1-inch between each cookie and bake for 12-15 minutes. Repeat process with remaining cookie dough. Dough scraps can be refrigerated and re-rolled for more cookies.
6. Cool the cookies completely on a cooling rack.
7. To make the glaze, melt the chocolate chips and heavy cream in a double boiler, or in a bowl set over simmering water. As soon as the chocolate is melted, stir and remove from the heat. Drizzle melted chocolate over shortbread.
8. To make the meringue, combine sugar, water, egg whites, corn syrup and pinch of salt in the top of a double boiler or in a bowl over simmering water. Beat with an electric mixer at medium speed for about 7 minutes, or until stiff and glossy. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and beat for another 2 minutes.
9. Using a piping bag with a large pastry tip, pipe out meringue peaks. Use a blow torch to toast the meringues. Eat immediately.
Yield: About 20-24 s’mores.