What every kid really wants for Christmas is a mother who wears clean gingham aprons, wins Pillsbury Bake-Offs and always has a sheet of cookies just about to come out of the oven. Most of the year I don't feel guilty about being none of the above, but just before Christmas visions of sugarplums entice me into a project so outrageously overambitious that it gets the whole guilt thing out of my system for another year. This year's togetherness-in-the-kitchen project was a gingerbread house.
Not that I had mastered the prerequisites. I had not, as one recipe advised, practiced with gingerbread cookies "to get to know the dough." Nor had I served my apprenticeship in basic construction. Last year's project, a cookie house made from a $15 kit, was held up only by an excessive amount of confectioners' sugar cement, and even then the chimney and gable fell off immediately.
Nevetheless, two developments over the past year moved me to try the project: My five-year-old daughter Tabitha had mastered the art of making brownies from a packaged mix; and during the intermission of a ballet version of Hansel and Gretel, I has made a rash promise about a gingerbread house.
From a tile borrowed from a friend who's saving such recipes, untried, to make gingerbread houses for her grandchildren in her old age when she plans to have more time, I chose a recipe dating from 1971. I modified it slightly to avoid going to the store, principally by sustituting honey for molasses - which made the final product look pale and interesting, rather than dark and rich like cliche gingerbread. I also made some major modifications in the cardboard cutting guide. First I eliminated all doors and windows, fearing that openings might cause structural weakness. Then, perhaps unwisely, I decided to really simplify things by making one template for all four sides.
"Is it time to put the candy on?" asked my daughter's kindergarten classmate, Jordan, who had been recruited to help.
When I explained that decorating the house was the very last step in a long process, they consoled themselves by helping me break eggs, measure flour and add spices for a few minutes before getting bored and running off. Two-year-old Caroline also participated briefly by kneading the dough and then licking it off her fingers. Concluding that it didn't taste nearly as good as uncooked brownie mix, she too ran off to play.
Left alone with melancholy thoughts about what Christmas means to mothers, I rolled out the first batch of dough. Probably because I had rolled it too thick and/or because the kids had eaten some and gotten a lot more on the floor, there wasn't half enough. So after I put the first installment in the oven, I started all over again.
"Is it time to put on the candy?" asked Jordan and Tabby, lured back by the spicy smell of baking gingerbread. Disappointed again, they helped me roll out the roof, then disappeared while I tried to scrape dough off the table and floor.
When all the pieces were finally baked and cooling on waxed paper, I realized in horror what I'd done. Since I'd made the sides and the back and front identical, there was nothing to support the roof - no wall that came to a point at the top.
"Have you ever heard of Frank Lloyd Wright?" I asked the kids, who hadn't. I explained that no one really knew exactly what the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel looked like, and that lots of witches lived in modern, flat-roofed houses. So we put the two roof pieces flat on top of the walls, seaming them with icing and creating a Frank Lloyd Wright-style gingerbread house, if that isn't a contradiction in terms.
Wright's idea that less is more, however, held no sway when it came time to decorate. Unfortunately, Jordan, who had been so eager to put the candy on, had to go home for supper, his mother not buying the argument that no one was a bit hungry. So Tabby and Caroline had it all to themselves, their mother being too tired to restrict their creative impluses in any way.
First they glopped on the confectioners' sugar icing with spoons, and then stuck raisins, red cinnamon disks, green and white mints and ice chocolate cookies (Pepperidge Farm Orleans cookies) into it in vaguely appropriate places. Since, by this time, any preconceived ideas of what it should look like had gone down the drain, decoration was strictly free-form. Last year, when we made the Bahlsen cookie house, my aunt-in-law, who is of German descent and always follows recipes to the letter with delicious and eye-pleasing results, came visiting just in time to make us put the cookies exactly where they were supposed to go according to the picture on the front of the kit. This wash't half as creativeas outlining a door on our Frank Lloyd Wright gingerbread house in raisins and mints, wherever we wanted a door. When some of the mints fell down, they became a rock garden "just like the lady next door has." The round Orleans chocolate cookies, which I had envisioned as roof tiles, also served as porthole-like windows, a back door and, glopped with white icing, a snowman in front of the house.
If the house survives until Christmas, it will become the focal point of our second annual demolition derby and tea party. Last year, we invited 11 little girls to come and gently pick cookies off the cookie house and eat them daintily with hot chocolate. But, as anyone but me might have predicted, the sugar cement had hardened enough to make a structural engineer smile with satisfaction, and we had to attack the house with hammers. The kids loved the part, but complained that the cookies were inedible so I had to go out to the store for Oreos. This year, I plan to buy the Oreos in advance.
To make the house, first make a template out of cardboard. It can be any size and shape you want, as long as the pieces fit together. You can either cut out doors and windows or paste on false ones, as we did. Chimneys are optional, and gables only for the confident. Use the recipe below or consult your favorite cookbook. Butter and flour the template, put the buttered side down on your dough, which should be rolled out to about 1/16 of an inch, and cut around it. Then transfer the piece to a lightly greased cookie sheet, using two spatulas. Or roll the dough out directly on the cookie sheet, cut around the template and remove the rest for re-rolling. Be sure to remove the cardboard before baking the pieces for five to seven minutes at 350 .
For decorating and cementing, use icing made by beating five eggs whites until froghy and then sifting in five cups of confectioners' sugar, gradually. Make a gingerbread base slightly larger than your house, and cement the rest of the pieces to it. Put the base on a larger cardboard base so you can carry the house from the kitchen to its place under the Christmas tree.
(Double or triple unless you're very neat and have no dough-eating helpers.)
Beat on egg in a large bowl. Add 1/2 cup light molasses, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup melted lard and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda. Beat until well mixed. Sift together 2 1/2 cups flour, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ginger and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Blend the two mixtures and chill the dough. Makes one house approximately seven inches wide, five inches deep and seven inches high. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Susan Davis.