I have a love-hate relationship with the holidays. On one hand, I love getting together with friends and family, sharing food and laughs, old and new traditions, seeing the ornaments from my childhood on the tree, wrestling for that last crab leg. On the other hand, I despise the stress I self-generate to get everything done. I blame Martha for setting unrealistic expectations we can never achieve without of staff of 50. (Where IS my staff by the way?)
This year, I really shot myself in the foot by leaving the country for a few weeks around Thanksgiving. Egad. WHAT am I thinking sometimes? Upon landing in O’Hare in early December, it was suddenly CHRISTMAS!! CHRISTMAS!! CHRISTMAS!! and the countdown began in triple time. Baking a zillion cookies, planning the perfect holiday meal, finding the ideal gifts for everyone, wrapping everything ever so precisely and getting it in the mail. Sometimes I just want to hide under the covers and come up for air on January 2nd.
Yet, I adore Christmas and all the effort I put into it. Ridiculous. I love when my family opens up their presents and I’ve nailed it or bought something silly that makes them laugh. It’s my favorite part of this big ‘ol mess – the gift giving. For years I struggled with what to get my godson for Christmas. It’s my vanity … I want to get THE gift. The present that trumps all others. The one that proves I am the best present giver ever. Yeah, silly but little kid adoration is addictive and I need a fix on a regular basis like some kind of junkie. A standard issue toy just wouldn’t cut it. Jeez, anyone can hit the Toy Super-ama Bling Bling Store right? I wanted a memory! So I came up with the brilliant idea to make a gingerbread house with the kid. This I can do.
The first year, he was four and couldn’t have cared less but his mother and I rocked out the best damn house you’ve ever seen. The next year I bought a kit and we made a lovely little chalet. Eventually his younger brother and sister joined us and the designs became a little more intricate and unique over the years. I learned early on that each kid had a better time when they had their own house to decorate rather than elbowing each other to smoosh candy on the same house. One year it was townhouses, the next igloos. Then we did gingerbread teepees complete with a little Indian village. Last year it was windmills, which were pretty cool.
This year, I solicited the kids’ input. What could we do? Sailboats! Skyscrapers! Rocket ships! Japanese pagodas! (That was from their mother – shut up Keryl.) For a while I considered hot air balloons but realized I didn’t have the time to pull that off properly. Then the eldest suggested pyramids. Yeah, pyramids! Easy to make – four triangles – consider it done. Throw in a couple camels and palm trees and we’re good to go.
Decorating gingerbread with kids is a triple gold star with a cherry on top kind of activity. They really get into it. To make it easy, you can buy a prefab kit – Trader Joe’s, Target and even Ikea have decent inexpensive ones. However, there is one key rule. No matter what the box says there is NEVER enough candy for decoration. Never.
If you do want to go the extra step and make your own house, it’s relatively easy. First, you need a paper template for all the pieces parts. Tape it together to make sure it works and make any adjustments. Then you just trace out the pieces on gingerbread dough that has been rolled out between two pieces of plastic wrap. The dough is pretty sturdy and transfers easily and the scraps reroll just fine. If you want to make cookie ornaments, poke a hole for the string before baking. Then bake until crisp and let cool thoroughly.
Next whip up a batch of royal icing – powdered sugar, lemon juice and egg whites. The stuff is like cement. Once your gingerbread is cool, start putting it all together. Use a piping bag or a Ziploc with the tip cut off for better control and have some small cans – like tomato paste or a soup can – on hand to prop up the sides until the icing sets otherwise you’re holding it forever. Trust me, that gets old quick.
Now let the whole thing dry completely overnight. This will save a ton of aggravation as kids tend to press down pretty hard and if the house collapses mid-decor, ugh. Make sure it’s sturdy and save yourself a lot of pain.
As for candy, think variety in shapes and colors and buy stuff off season when it’s cheap and on sale. Our favorites include chicklets and Necco wafers (great for roofs), tic tacs and Fruit Stripe gum. Pretzels make great logs and shredded wheat cereal makes an awesome thatched roof. Asian markets are great– candy rocks and all kinds of weird things. We’ve amassed quite a selection over the years. The added bonus is that most of the candy is super old so the kids don’t eat it. Do not overlook this point – they will eat the candy and the results are usually not good.
On the designated night, I lug the huge tub of candy, a massive batch of icing and my assembled gingerbread to their house. We cover the table with newspaper, put the candy in clear plastic cups so we can tell what’s what then slap a thick coating of icing on one side of the house and turn them loose.
It’s fun to watch them go at it … the eldest is very thoughtful, the middle kid always has a lot of chatter about weapons and defense systems (made with pretzels and candy corn) and the youngest is very methodical with a great design ascetic for a 7 year old. There’s always very serious discussions of what candy would be right for this spot or how this color combination might look. It’s extremely entertaining. Then there’s their mom … every since I made an extra igloo one year as a back up, I’ve had to bring a 4th for her every year. And I have to say, it’s pretty funny to watch her sitting right alongside her kids intensely focusing on her design, fighting over candy.
But the best, the absolute best was when one of them was given a homework assignment to write about their favorite holiday memories. Right there, at number one, was “making gingerbread houses with Kathy.” My eyes welled up, just a little, and my stomach did a little flip. Maybe I will do those pagodas next year. I better start now.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: SKY FLIPPIN’ HIGH. At first I get a little crazy figuring it all out, over-achiever that I am but once I’m there laughing and decorating with the kids, it’s the best part of the Christmas season and sticks with me all year.
GINGERBREAD FOR HOUSES & ORNAMENTS
This makes a lot of cookies and this year was enough for four pyramids with 8” bases. Guess it all depends on what you want to make.
6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
3 Tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened (6 ounces)
1 ½ cups light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
1 cup molasses
1 Tablespoon water
- For the dough: Sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, salt) and set aside.
- In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and the brown sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated.
- Add the molasses and the water and mix until combined.
- Add the dry ingredients in 4 or 5 increments and mix until well blended.
- Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead a bit to combine all the ingredients.
- Rest: Slip the dough into a Ziploc bag and let rest at room temperature for 2-6 hours or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and line baking sheets with parchment or silpat mats.
- To roll: between two pieces of plastic wrap, roll the dough to about 1/8”-1/4” thickness.
- Using your template and a sharp knife, cut out the desired shapes and carefully transfer to the prepared sheet pans.
- Bake 12-16 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until dry and crisp.
- Let cool completely before assembling.
3 egg whites
1 pound powdered sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice
- Place all ingredients into a mixing bowl and beat until stiff peak and the icing is thick and glossy.
- Royal icing will keep in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for up to 1 month. Rewhip before using – the icing may need to be thinned with a little water.