a 3-inch gingerbread man cookie cutter; eight 12-inch long 1/4-inch diameter wooden dowels
For the gingerbread people: Whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, allspice and salt in a medium bowl until well blended. Beat together the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer starting on low and increasing speed, scraping the sides of the bowl down as needed, until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the molasses and vanilla until combined, then beat in the egg. (The mixture will look curdled.) Turn to low speed and beat in the flour mixture, a little at a time, until the mixture comes together, then increase speed and beat until all the ingredients are well incorporated and you have a sticky dough. Divide the dough in half, flatten into 2 discs and wrap each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Position 2 racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Keeping the other disc refrigerated, roll 1 disc on a well-floured surface to a thickness of just over 1/8-inch, sprinkling flour on and under the dough as needed and sliding a spatula underneath every so often to prevent sticking. (If the dough looks crackly or breaks apart, press it back together from the outside-edge in.) Dust off the excess flour. Cut out gingerbread people using a 3-inch gingerbread cookie cutter, cutting as close together on the dough as possible. Pull away the extra dough around each cookie and use a small spatula to transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets about 1/2 inch apart, placed in 3 rows of 4. Gather together the scraps, leaving behind the excess flour, then knead them a few times to form a smooth dough again. Reroll them in the same way. If the dough gets too sticky, put it back in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic, for a few minutes. (If there are any pieces of dough stuck to the work surface, scrape them away with a spatula, flour the surface again and then continue to roll the dough.) Freeze the cookies on the baking sheets to firm them, about 5 minutes.
While the cookies chill, roll the dough scraps together into a long 1/4-inch rope and cut into 1-inch pieces. Remove the chilled cookies from the freezer and extend the left arm of each man with the 1-inch dough pieces by pressing the dough piece onto the tip of each person's arm. (This will reinforce them and double their length.) Make sure the gingerbread people are lined up evenly.
Wrap eight 12-inch-long and 1/4-inch-diameter wooden dowels tightly with foil (keep them smooth), then spray them liberally with cooking spray. Line up 4 gingerbread people head-to-toe and wrap their left arms around the dowel, so that 4 people can hold one dowel at a time with 1/4 inch of space in between them. Repeat with the remaining groups of 4 and chill the cookies on the baking sheet in the freezer for 15 minutes. Repeat with the second disc of dough on the second baking sheet.
Bake the cookies, rotating and switching the position of the baking sheets halfway through, until they are slightly firm to the touch but not browned, 12 to 15 minutes.
Cool the cookies 5 minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to a rack and give the dowels a gentle twist to loosen them. Let the cookies cool completely, then slowly slide the cookies off the dowels one at a time, being careful not to break their arms. (The cookies will continue to firm as they cool.)
For the icing: Combine the confectioners' sugar and meringue powder in a large bowl. Add 4 tablespoons water and beat with a hand mixer on low speed until the frosting thickens and becomes pure white. Separate the icing into bowls and color as desired.
Put the icing into piping bags or resealable plastic bags and snip the corners to the desired size. Use the icing to decorate the cookies, then allow to dry, about 1 hour.
Carefully slide the candy canes in place, with the hook facing behind each head, and pipe a small amount of icing in the holes to lock them in place. Rest on the edge of a cookie sheet with the hooks hanging off to set, about 1 hour.
Hang cookies on a mug or glass filled with your favorite holiday beverage.
When measuring flour, we spoon it into a dry measuring cup and level off the excess. (Scooping directly from the bag compacts the flour, resulting in dry baked goods.)
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