Who Needs Scented Candles? Bake Gingerbread Cookies - No. 67
Our family-favorite recipe with orange and spice smells good and makes memories, too
My daughter called this morning with a revelation about our gingerbread cookie recipe. She was baking these cookies alone in her apartment. “It’s a waste of a good smell! You need to bake these cookies right before you have people over. My place smells so good right now…”
IT’S BEGINNING TO SMELL A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS. Back before potpourris and candles gave us an instant Eau de Christmas, the teenage me would bound down the stairs sleepy-eyed on holiday break smelling cinnamon rolls my mother was baking. Who needed an alarm clock?
As I got older and was the one in the kitchen, my children and I baked star-shaped gingerbread cookies. I loved their crispness, kick of ginger, hint of orange, and the way they perfumed the whole house.
The holidays mandate watching Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and the list could go on, listening to Bing but Mariah Carey, too, and when she belts out All I Want for Christmas is You, I lip-synch. It’s seeing the Douglas fir wreath and big red bow on the front door, the tree ornaments my kids made in preschool, and smelling those irresistible smells…
I thought about smell last week when my nose saved me from nearly scorching toffee bubbling on the stove. My nose tends to be the more vigilant one at our house. If milk is about to sour, I’m asked to smell it. If you suspect a gas leak, call me.
It goes way back. When we needed to sell a house two decades ago we had spruced it up with a fresh coat of paint. But I knew the power of scent and put a couple slices of cinnamon toast into the toaster oven just before the first showing. The kitchen smelled warm and cozy, and the house sold before noon.
What is it about smell that calls us to action, helps us survive, and makes cooking and dining so enjoyable? Are some people just born with a keen sense of smell? Or can we exercise our noses this holiday season to keep our nose on its toes, so to speak?
I really do think about these things…
Does the nose really know?
I was drawn to a 2018 Harvard Business Review interview with Dawn Goldworm, co-founder and scent director of an olfactory branding company called 12.29 that uses scents in brand building. She chooses custom scents for hotels and offices to infuse rooms and lobbies. (I’d love that job…)
Smell is the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb, she says, and it’s the most acute sense in childhood until sight takes over around 10 years of age. So childhood is when we create the basis for smells we like or don’t. (Possibly why I was late to the cooked cabbage game…)
And to read about it, the process of smell sounds like something out of a childhood Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory journey.
According to Jude Stewart, author of Revelations in Air: A Guide to Smell, when interviewed by the Wall Street Journal recently, here is how scent works:
The smell of gingerbread travels up our nose to the olfactory epithelium where olfactory neurons detect it and receptor proteins inside them bind to it, and then a signal is fired to the olfactory bulbs and the info is passed along to the brain where it influences all kinds of things - our actions, emotions, and often memory.
Food chemistry guru and author Harold McGee in his landmark book, On Food and Cooking - a book you should read if you truly want to understand the chemistry of food - goes so far as to say “smell gave birth to the mind.”
And to really taste food? It’s a collaboration of taste and smell. And while the tongue with its tastebuds helps us distinguish bitter, sweet, salty, and sour, the nose is more discriminating and has that expressway straight to the brain.
In addition, because our body’s senses were designed for survival, they pick up on new smells. They’ve gotten used to the same old meatloaf and potatoes, microwave popcorn or morning coffee wafting from our kitchens, but they’ll stand up and pay attention if we bake gingerbread.
And so, the annual baking of gingerbread cookies becomes quite the olfactory event. Our nose and palate, McGee explains, are entertained.
Covid and the loss of smell
Unfortunately, losing the sense of smell will reawaken our appreciation of it. I have not yet had Covid or experienced smell or taste loss. But I have heard from friends who have, and if they are in the business of food and wine, it’s terrifying. And I’ve had miserable colds when I can’t taste or smell, so, believe me, I am sympathetic to anyone who loses their smell briefly or entirely.
The Covid virus causes an inflammatory reaction inside our noses that leads to the loss of smell neurons, says Justin Turner, MD, PhD, and medical director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Smell and Taste Center in Nashville.
About 80 percent of people who test positive for Covid-19 complain of smell or taste loss, he says. Ironically, those who experience smell dysfunction have a milder case of Covid compared to patients who have normal smell function but are more likely to be hospitalized and placed on a ventilator.
Gingerbread and triggering memories
Even if you’re not a good smeller, don’t give up on it. Smell can be improved over the years.
“Your nose is like a muscle in the body that can be strengthened,” Goldworm says, “by giving it a daily workout, not with weights, but with sniffs.”
Plus, it goes deeper. We not only improve our sense of smell but create and recall more memories.
In a 2005 National Public Radio interview with Linda Wertheimer, British philosopher and author Alain de Botton talked about his study of recollection. The 20th Century French writer Marcel Proust introduced the world to a madeleine dipped in tea and how it triggered forgotten childhood memories, he said, and this could happen to us all.
Then “suddenly a bit of our past, a bit of memory, can surge in front of us when, for example, we smell a certain kind of smell that might have been around in our childhood,’’ he says, reminding us of something in our lives we thought was lost forever.
All the more reason to go preheat the oven and bake some gingerbread cookies. And then, invite people over so you don’t waste the smells!
What are your favorite holiday smells? Have you ever lost your sense of smell?
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Crisp Gingerbread Stars
This recipe came out of a food writers’ luncheon in the late 1980s. I cannot remember the venue or the rest of the meal, but I fell in love with the cookie, fragrant with orange and deep and dark with cinnamon and ginger. And we have always cut the dough into stars. The trick is to bash the dough - not roll - as thinly as you can first. Then roll from the center out to desired thickness. Keep the counter lightly floured, and flip the dough over to prevent it from sticking. Years ago I picked up a set of cookie cutters in graduated sizes of stars. I like to cut stars of all sizes not only because they look like one big star family on the platter but also because people like cookies of different sizes. You have the "I'll eat only one bite" sort of people, and they choose the small stars. (And then go back for a second!) And, you have those folks who say bigger is better and want the biggest cookie on the plate! To decorate, whisk together powdered sugar and orange juice to make a smooth icing. Let the icing dry before storing.
Makes 5 dozen
Prep: 45 minutes
Bake: 8 to 10 minutes
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 large egg
4 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup (or molasses or sorghum)
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice or water, or as needed
1. Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy and soft. Add the egg, and beat until light and fluffy, 1 minute. Fold in the orange zest and corn syrup until combined. Remove the beaters and set aside.
2. Sift the flour, soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt into a medium bowl. Fold the flour mixture into the batter with a spatula until combined. Chill dough, covered, at least 2 hours, or overnight.
3. When ready to bake, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly flour a work surface and remove the dough from the refrigerator. Scrape about half of the dough onto the work surface. Lightly flour a rolling pin, and firmly tap the dough with the rolling pin until it is about 1-inch thick. Roll out the dough to about 1/4-inch thickness, lightly rolling from the center out to the edges and flipping the dough over every so often so that it does not stick to the work surface. Dust the dough and surface with flour as needed. Cut the dough with star cutters (or the cookie cutter of your choice), pressing firmly down on one stroke. With the help of a metal spatula, transfer the cut-outs to ungreased cookie sheets, placing the cookies about an inch apart. Place the pans in the oven. Keep the remaining dough chilled, press the scraps into a loose ball, and roll the scraps and rest of the dough and cut into shapes.
4. Bake the cookies until they are well browned and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven, and let the cookies cool on the pan 1 minute. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
5. For the icing, whisk together the powdered sugar and orange juice in a small bowl until smooth. Using a knife, spread the cookies with icing, and let it set before eating. Or, pour the icing into a plastic squeeze bottle, and pipe out squiggles, lines, or designs to decorate.
For more about smell:
Splendid Table interviews author Harold McGee.
Wall Street Journal tells what your smell says about you.