The holidays, which frequently prompt people to bake picturesque things, are particularly plagued by lovely looking and terrible tasting desserts. • As a rule, the more decorative a baked good is, the worse it tastes. • Think about fondant-draped wedding cakes (inevitably crumbly inside), meticulously latticed double-crusted pies (with cardboardlike crust) and cupcakes crowned with spirals of frosting (which tastes of Crisco). • Some of these items exist to be looked at, of course: Gingerbread houses, as I was devastated to learn as a child, are meant to be seen and then tossed, not eaten. But others feign a dual purpose, pretending they can have it both ways. I speak primarily of gingerbread houses' deceitful inhabitants: gingerbread men.
There can be gingerbread Christmas trees and stars, too, or gingerbread women, doing their small part to smash the patriarchy.
The relevant issues are 1) they are molasses-spice cookies that are rolled out, cut into shapes, baked and frosted; and 2) they typically have a texture like slightly damp animal crackers. Such is the inevitable result of making rolled cookies: Creating a dough sturdy enough to be rolled out and cut into shapes without tearing requires extra flour, which makes cookies stiff and bland. What's more, rolling dough to a uniform thickness precludes the delightful melange of soft and chewy that you get in, say, the archetypal chocolate-chip cookie.
The key to making gingerbread cookies that taste good, then, is to make them more like chocolate-chip cookies. I don't mean you should add chocolate (though you can); I mean you should make them as drop cookies. Drop cookies, for the uninitiated, are made from dough soft enough to be dropped by the spoonful onto the baking sheet. They spread out as they bake, transforming into irregular rounds with chewy edges and gloriously tender centers.
You see the drawback: You cannot make drop cookies look like stylized little humans. (Unless you attempt to mold the dough into bodies with your fingers, that is, but the resulting misshapen monsters might frighten your kids.) This is a tradeoff I'm willing to make. These gingerbread cookies actually taste like moist, fragrant gingerbread, with additional festivity provided by ingredients typical of Old World spice cookies: ground almonds, cardamom and a little ground pepper. You can even frost them with the quick lemon glaze in this recipe.
All cookie dough benefits from refrigeration, which allows the flour to thoroughly soak up the wet ingredients and results in a better consistency. So, if at all possible, make your dough the day before you intend to bake it.
If you don't make drop cookies often, you might be tempted to squeeze as many as possible onto your baking sheet. Don't. They will spread out and join edges with one another, and you will end up with square pull-apart cookies. If circular cookies are what you want, give each lump of dough about 2 inches of breathing room.
On a related note, unless you have more cookie sheets than Kanye has Benzes, you'll have to reuse your sheets to cook all the dough. Unfortunately, if you apply raw dough directly to a hot baking sheet, it will burn on the bottom by the time the top has cooked through. To avoid this misfortune, rinse your baking sheets with cold water between batches to bring them back to room temperature (and scrub off any residue from the previous batch, which is liable to burn). It's an extra step, yes, but it's better than ruining all but the first batch of your cookies.