Prep: 15 min // Bake: 10 min
Happy December and festive season! It's that time of the year we bake, take, share, repeat. The time we can’t help but munch spiced cookies, cakes, cheeses, foods and drinks with warming, complex flavours. There’s no such feeling as that of a warm cup of coffee, with a homemade cookie to submerge and melt in your mouth. Or when we were kids, no best thing than dipping cookies in a mug of warm milk before a good night’s sleep. Especially those Scandinavian Christmassy gingerbread cookies. After many years of baking the same classic gingerbread cookie recipe, again and again, I’ve experimented with the recipe to create my version, with tasty flours, lower in sugar and butter and full on flavour based on my custom, secret (not) spice mix!
Secret Spice Mix
For this recipe, I’ve created a custom spice mix including a weird spice that many might have not heard, but is actually quite extensively used in Greek baking. The ‘Mahleb’ is basically a Middle Eastern spice, cultivated by the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia and spread to the surrounding areas. Nowadays it’s not commonly used in the rest of the world but only in the Greek and Turkish/Middle Eastern cuisine. Which is a shame, as this spice is so nicely fragrant and sweet, being in the same family with cinnamon, clove, allspice and vanilla. Which effectively means you can easily swap and play around with all these spices to give your festive bakes a sweet and fruity flavour you haven’t tasted before. Buy it from your local middle eastern grocery or Amazon (I recommend this one). Might look expensive and a lot but worry not, I have more recipes coming up with this amazing spice.
Of course, except for the introduction of mahleb, I've reduced the calories (without skimping on flavour of course) by omitting the egg (still the cookies have perfect structure without it) and reducing butter and sugar quantities.
Turned out the caloric intake was reduced around 30% compared to the classic recipe* which means I can dip 2 in my coffee guilt-free!
*I used BBC’s recipe as a reference and an online calculator to calculate the calories.
(makes around 12-14 big cookies with my large gingerbread cookie cutters)
150g plain white flour
100g buckwheat (or spelt) flour
80g good quality unsalted butter
120g pitted dates
50g muscovado or molasses unrefined sugar* (see my notes below)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp (heaped) honey or maple syrup
some milk (optional)
Secret Spice mix:
Substitute Mahleb with mixed spice or ground cloves. As I said, mahleb will give a unique aromatic and fruity flavour however as it might be hard to find (or expensive) you can swap to a more classic recipe ingredient like mixed spice or ground clove you can get in mainstream supermarkets.
Regarding Dates and Sugar. I've used dates not because they are lower in sugars (they are not) but because it's a natural unprocessed fruit, rich in vitamins and fibre, and has a lower glycemic index compared to sugar. If you feel too lazy preparing the dates, go for sugar. I'd suggest replacing the 120g of dates with 100g sugar, the unrefined dark brown thin muscovado or dark molasses which will give your bake a dimension and extra flavour.
* Note the total sugar quantities in this recipe are significantly reduced to make a diet and baby-friendly version. So these cookies will come out on the more "balanced" sweetness scale. However, if you are not in the baby or diet category, I'd suggest stepping up the sugar to 120g (instead of 50 the recipe yields for) or go straight for 150g sugar if you completely skip dates.
If you are using sugar instead of dates, skip this step. To prepare the dates, in a small saucepan (like this) add the dates, top up with water (just enough to cover the dates) and bring to boil. When water bubbles, add 1 tsp of baking soda (it will help separate the skins) and simmer for 5-7 min. Drain the water and let them cool down.
Preheat the oven to 180c.
When the dates are cool enough to be handled by hand, briefly remove the skins (they should come off easily due to the baking soda effect), mash them with a hand stick blender and a splash of water until pureed. Then top up with butter, sugar, vanilla and maple syrup and microwave everything (in steps of 20-30sec) until butter is soft. Whisk the mix together with a fork and set aside. These are your wet ingredients.
In a large bowl mix the flour with 1/2 tsp baking soda and the secret spice mix. These are your dry ingredients.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients bowl and combine until they form a firm dough (use your hands or better get an electric hand mixer). Add dashes of milk if it feels too dry. Add the milk splash by splash until the dough feels just moist, fluffy and not sticky. Don't worry if it's crumbly, it will come together when you knead it.
Knead until the dough is combined and stiff and then press and roll between 2 pieces of baking paper (that will help get this smooth picture-perfect looks) to around 2 mm thick (they will grow almost double during baking). Then cut your gingerbread men figures (I used these gingerbread cutters to get the shapes you see in the photos). Knead and re-roll the leftover dough bits and cut some more.
Transfer the figures carefully into a baking tray lined with paper and bake for around 10-12 min or until slightly golden and deep brown at the edges.
Remove from the oven and let them cool down for 5 minutes on the tray before transferring to a wire rack. Once cool, decorate with icing (these Dr.Oetker icing tubes are really good for small details and writing).
Below are my favourite authentic products I used to cook and shoot this recipe. If you can't see the icons and links, please deactivate your ad-blocker and refresh the page :-)
Baking set: Here are some tools you should own for baking along with the spices I've used for this recipe:
Saucepan: This is a must-have in your kitchen. If you have kids, you'll appreciate how easy the milk is warmed up and poured through this magic spout. If not, you'll definitely appreciate it when you make soups (little portions), sauces or gravies as this little magic spout will direct your liquids to the direction you want (and not where the physics of the pan want). It's all about the spout!
Hand Blender: Absolutely necessary if you're into soups or other pureed produces (e.g. baby purees) for 2 main reasons: a) because it is easy and fast to use and ultra-easy to clean and b) you save kitchen mess up by not transferring the soup to a big blender and then back to the pan for serving. Hand blenders have a detachable mixer foot so all you have to do after use is rinse the foot with tap water. You won't even need detergent! Now the most important bit: opt for the stainless steel and never ever buy hand blender with a white plastic mixer foot. White plastic will get heavily coloured by the time and the more you use it with harsh veggies (like beetroot) or turmeric-based purees/soups. This Bosch is the ultimate tool in the best quality. If you are up for a more integrated tool with more functions (like a food chopper and a balloon whisker) it's worth checking out Tefal Optichef too.
Electric Hand mixer: If you bake a lot, it makes sense to invest in an electric hand mixer. Especially if you have kids; you'll find out how much bake they want to consume be it cookies, cakes, muffins or bread, and how much they enjoy getting involved in the process. A hand mixer is inexpensive and will last for years. When it comes to quality I always aim high, so my nr.1 recommendation is Bosch. However, I've been lately using this VonShef brand which turned surprisingly good for my recipes and for its lower price. I recommend these 2 models which not only are small and lightweight (even toddlers can handle) and store easily but, unlike all others, they also come with dough hooks and whisk balloon that makes them a great weapon for many different uses in your kitchen.