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Holiday cookie decorating gets a sprinkle of charm and culture

Even the gingerbread people are wearing masks.

Gingerbread people with curly hair and masks add a social and cultural sensibility.
Gingerbread people with curly hair and masks add a social and cultural sensibility.Read

Before I begin piping royal icing onto a gingerbread person, I like to give the cookie a backstory and a place to go.

If it’s going to brunch or a tea, I’ll try to pipe on a pretty polka-dot dress in bright colors. If the cookies are going on an ice skating date, I’ll use a star tip to dot on a sweater. If they’re going to a fancy party, I’ll give the cookies a low-cut number with sequins made from glittery sanding sugar, and a dusting of confectioners’ to mimic fur. Silver dragées for a little bling.

I also give my gingerbread people curly hair so that they seem more like Black people. Using cookie cutters, sharp knives, and toothpicks, I add braids, twists, and updos to the cookies using small scraps of dough, to make them seem more familiar.

Adding a cultural sensibility to holiday decorations is my mother’s influence.

Although she never baked cookies, she decorated — coordinating tree lights with furnishings and making paper and crafts as gifts — and spent an extraordinary amount of time repainting the faces in holiday ephemera with watercolors in shades of brown.

Rather than settling on poinsettias, fir trees, and other generic winter holiday images, my mother would add Black faces and hair to everything from greeting cards and children’s books, to reflect those in our family.

My mother wanted my brothers and me to feel included in everything we did, down to something as small as a gift tag. So she’d repaint Santa’s rose-like cheeks, to something more recognizable, like Uncle Ruben’s auburn undertones. The angels’ faces became aunts, cousins, and family friends. The children emerged with clothes and hairdos that looked like ours.

That influence shows up in my gingerbread cookies. While I’m no expert at baking or even Instagram-worthy cookie decorating, I do enjoy attempting to dress up gingerbread people like my aunts, ancestors, and friends. I try to make them look like some of the people who (in the before-times, anyway) would join me for dinner or brunch. They wear pearl lavalieres and fussy white dresses. I arrange them like background singers about to hit the stage, or the shimmery purple dress that was supposed to go to the Kimmel Center.

This year, my gingerbread people are wearing masks.

» READ MORE: 5 cookies recipes to end 2020 on a sweeter note

Gingerbread People

3 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for rolling

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar

1 large egg

3/4 cup unsulfured molasses

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Using an electric mixer, cream butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add in egg and molasses until well combined. With mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture until just combined.

Flatten dough, then wrap in plastic. Chill for at least 30 minutes, or until firm.

To bake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out dough in between two pieces of parchment paper to 1/8-inch thickness. Remove the top sheet, then use cutter to make shapes. (Use the parchment paper to move cookies onto baking sheets.) Use a spatula to lift scraps from the paper and brush off excess flour. Gather and re-roll scraps.

Bake 8 to 11 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Decorate when cooled.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Cookies.


One of my favorite cookies to make during the holiday is a French Sablé. It’s simple, sturdy, and can withstand a host of glazes, sanding sugars, and decorations. That makes it a great Instagram cookie, as well as one for sharing because it keeps covered for up to a week.

A sablé is also versatile because it takes on flavors. Vanilla is easily swapped for almond extract or liqueur. You can also add a citrus zest, honey, earl grey tea, or chai.

The cookies can be sliced, cut out in shapes, glazed, drizzled, and filled with jams, such as raspberry, fig, or apricot for sandwiches. They are also good dipped in dark chocolate or dulce de leche.

It’s also forgiving to those of us who aren’t great at decorating cookies. I make a tinted glaze with confectioners’ sugar, a bit of milk, and food coloring. While the glaze takes longer to dry than traditional royal icing, they don’t require the finesse needed for a piping bag.

Makes 12-18 cookies

10 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Egg wash

Using a bowl, combine butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix in the dry ingredients until a smooth dough forms. Form the dough into a disk or roll into a 2-inch log.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes.

To bake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare an egg wash by beating together an egg white and 2 teaspoons of water. Roll out the disk of dough to 1/4-inch thickness, then use cookie cutters to make the shapes. If using a log of cookie dough, slice it crosswise into 1/4-inch thick coins.

Bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper for 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Decorate after cookies have cooled completely.


2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon milk

1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Food coloring

Using a bowl, whisk together confectioners’ sugar, milk, and extract. Transfer glaze to separate bowls to add food coloring. To decorate cookies, use a spoon to drizzle glaze. If desired, use a pastry bag with a small tip, or place in a resealable plastic bag, with a small hole snipped in a corner.