Am I the only one who grew up making Gingerbears™ every Christmas? Read on for more about my family's tradition and my first grown-up riff on the classic: Bear Pizza Party Cookies.
My planner is littered with post-it notes listing all the awesomely exotic things I was going to make for the holidays. Gingerbread wreaths with candied cranberries and mint leaves! Mexican chocolate babka! Braided pizza bread with tomato glaze and three different dipping sauces! And my favorite, a pizza-themed gingerbread house (yeah right, Peg!). Thankfully the stars aligned, and in the midst of a few deadlines I happened to read Amanda Hesser's recent post on Food52, in which she writes: "If I wanted [my kids] to remember my cooking, I had to slow down, I had to repeat, I had to make food that they could count on."
You know when you read something, and it feels like it's addressed specifically to you? In all my excitement leading up to the holidays, I had forgotten the one thing that has always made the holidays extra special to me: tradition. Recipes repeated at the same time every year. Foods that I've always counted on. And to me, the most iconic Christmas food—the first image that flashed across my memory—was Gingerbear™ cookies with raisin eyes and noses and cinnamon imperial hearts.
I believe these smooshy-snouted, sweet-but-not-too-sweet bears entered our lives when my mom bought my then 4-year-old sister this book for Christmas in 1984. The recipe booklet pictured above, which must have come with the book, lived on Mom's cookbook shelf and only came out when it was time for Christmas cookies. Every single year since (until my late teens), I remember standing at the counter with my sister, rolling dough for bear noses and pressing in the raisins right before Mom slipped the baking sheets in the oven.
Sometimes, I'm sure we complained. (I'm looking at you, teenage years!) A few of the bears always cracked or lost limbs or noses in the oven. But we weren't going for perfect. When we sat down to eat our creations, my sister and I claimed our favorite bear faces. It still amazes me how the placement of three raisins can create infinite personalities.
Making them by myself this year, I completely understood why my mom enlisted our help. I also remembered why they're such a great tradition. Though they demand some time and precision, they also encourage creativity. Bend a leg and one's dancing. Nudge up an arm and one's waving. Narrow the eyes and that one's a grouch. You get the picture.
For a personal touch (because I can riff on it, now that I'm a grown-up), I cut a few circles and iced them to look like—you guessed it—pizzas. Then I sat my ginger bear characters around a cutting board for the jolliest pizza party this side of the north pole! Happy holidays!
Ginger Bear Pizza Party Cookies
For the cookies
- 6½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 cup solid vegetable shortening such as Crisco (look for the baking sticks)
- 1 cup molasses
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- bear cookie cutter
- ¼ cup raisins chopped
For the icing
- 3 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1 extra-large egg white
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons water
- red food coloring
For the toppings
- red and green sprinkles or green sugar
To make the cookies
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
- Put the brown sugar and shortening in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat at high speed until light and fluffy, then add the molasses, eggs, and vinegar and beat until combined. Add the flour a little at a time, mixing on low speed between additions and scraping down the bowl as needed, and then beat on low until all the flour has been incorporated and the dough clumps together. Cover and refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment.
- Divide the dough into four pieces and shape each into a disk. Place one disk on a lightly floured counter; keep the remaining three covered in the refrigerator while you cut the cookies. Roll out the dough to an approximate ⅛-inch thickness. Cut out your shapes, using the bear cookie cutter and the rim of a pint glass for the pizzas (or whatever shapes you like!), and transfer them to one of the prepared cookie sheets. (Once you've cut the shapes, roll out the dough one more time and cut some more.) For each bear, scoop ¼ of dough and roll it into a ball with your fingertips. Press the ball into the faces to make snouts. Press a piece of raisin into each snout for a nose, and press two pieces of raisin on top of the snout for eyes. For the pizzas, rip off pieces of dough scraps and press them into the edges to make the crust.
- Repeat with the remaining dough, and bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes, until just set. Remove the cookies from the oven and transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
To make the icing and toppings
- Wash and dry your mixer bowl and paddle attachment. Place the confectioners' sugar and egg white in the bowl. Beat on low speed until combined, then stream in the water. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks when you lift the paddle (about 8 minutes). If the icing is too stiff, add a little more water; if it's too thin, add a bit more sugar.
- Divide the icing between two small bowls.
- Use your food coloring to tint one bowl of icing a nice deep red, stirring well to make sure the color is consistent throughout. Scrape half of the red icing into a small plastic zip-top bag. Keep all the icing covered with plastic until the cookies have cooled completely and you're ready to decorate them.
To decorate the cookies
- For the bears: Snip a tiny bit off one of the bottom corners of the bag of red icing and twist the top to make a little piping bag. Carefully pipe a heart on the top right side of each bear's body.
- For the pizzas: Spoon some red icing onto each pizza and spread it out all the way to the crust, making it a little messy so it looks like marinara sauce. Let it harden (30 minutes or so). Spoon some white icing on top of the red icing to make "cheese," spreading it in all directions and making sure not to cover the red "sauce" completely. Immediately top the white icing with chopped raisins (olives/sausage) and sprinkles or sugar (basil/arugula/peppers).
- Let the icing harden completely before stacking. Enjoy!