A walk through the wintery forest yields an armful of simple and natural decorations. We like the real ones piled in pretty bowls – and these piled on our cookie plates. These cookies have a mild gingerbread flavor, and they make the kitchen smell wonderful while they're baking.
We use two pieces of waxed paper and two wooden strips we call cookie slats to roll out our dough before it is chilled. This method has many advantages: The rolled dough is a perfectly even thickness (ensuring smooth, uniform cookies); it chills quickly for cutting; and you don't need to use extra flour to prevent the dough from sticking (it won't stick to the waxed paper), so your dough doesn't get dry. Any smooth kitchen surface will do for rolling cookies when you follow these simple steps. Lining your cookie sheets with parchment paper will prevent sticking and facilitate cleanup – we highly recommend it.
Whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, salt, and orange zest (if you're using it) in a medium bowl.
Cream together the butter and sugar with your mixer until light and fluffy. Add the egg and molasses and mix until well blended.
With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture until the two are thoroughly blended.
Turn dough onto a work surface and divide into three equal portions. Form each one into a rough disk.
Place a piece of waxed paper about the size of your cookie sheet on your rolling surface.
Place cookie slats on the edges of the paper. The slats should be a rolling-pin width apart, to ensure that there's stable contact between the slats and both ends of the rolling pin.
Place a disk of cookie dough on top of the waxed paper, between the slats. Place another sheet of waxed paper over the cookie dough and slats and use your hand or rolling pin to slightly flatten and evenly distribute the dough across the paper. Roll the pin over the waxed paper-covered dough, making sure the ends of the pin stay on the slats as the dough flattens (the pin will hover above the slats at first). If the top paper wrinkles, lift and smooth it. You're finished rolling when the dough surface is uniform and completely level with the cookie slats. You'll recognize this point: rolling the pin over the dough will feel effortless.
Slide the rolled-out piece of dough (paper and all) onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate until it's firm, 20 to 30 minutes. Repeat the rolling process with the remaining dough portions.
When the dough is firm and stiff, transfer it from the refrigerator to your flat work surface. Work with one piece of dough at a time, leaving the others to chill in the refrigerator until you're ready to cut them. Peel back the top waxed paper from the dough and cut out pinecones. Try to get as many cookies as possible out of each rolled-out piece of dough.
Imprint textured design with the tip of a paring knife.
Remove excess dough from around the shapes. Transfer the cookies to a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
When you've cut as many cookies as possible from all your rolled dough, gather the dough scraps into a ball and roll it again, using the same waxed-paper method. Continue to cut cookies and reroll the dough until you've used all the dough, chilling the rolled-out dough whenever it becomes too sticky to work with.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).
Bake the cookies on the middle rack of your oven for 12 to 16 minutes or until the cookies start to turn a deeper brown around the edges.
Cool the cookies completely before decorating.
Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar, shaking cookie to make sugar pool in crevices.
*Cookie slats aren't mandatory, but we highly recommend using them to help you create cookies of a uniform thickness. You'll need two wood strips that are 1/4 inch thick, 2 feet long, and 2 inches wide. They re sometimes called lattice slats or lumber scants, and are sold in hardware or craft stores for about $2 each – a small price to pay to speed your cookie rolling!
pinecone cutter paring knife cookie slats*