Sunday, December 07, 2008

Helpful Hints from the Holiday Masochist's Notebook: Gingerbread Houses

I have no idea where the Kiddo saw a gingerbread house before, but it happened, and of course, she asked if we could build one, and of course, I agreed. And I asked her best friend to join the fun.

This is the innocent beginning to the tale of two four-year-olds (nearly), faulty construction, a long day, and lots of sugar. And an important lesson. The tale starts here, with a gingerbread house kit that proclaimed it included cutters and everything you need, except, oh, candy, and actual house piece cutters. It had gingerbread man cutters. Homeless gingerbread man cutters with no home cutters. But I will get there.

I was okay with the whole mix, figuring the recipe must be extra hard cookies for housebuilding, which is not my favorite kind of gingerbread. This part worked. I never use mixes for anything we're actually going to eat.

What didn't work, was that this kit required you to cut patterns of dough for the house by using the box (still assembled). You can't take apart the box because you use it later as a base for your house. You have to wrestle the box onto the dough and guess at the cutting where the house is still attached. Small children should not attend this part due to language expressed by cook.

Step One, Making the House Structure:
  1. The dough has to be very well chilled, adding 2-3 hours to the schedule
  2. You will need parchment paper to lift the pieces up and flip onto the tray so that the large, floppy pieces of dough sort of stay the right shape. Sort of.
  3. When you bake them, they swell up and stick together at the edges and lose the shape.
  4. You will need lots of cooking spray and lots of cookie trays. Like five trays.
  5. You will then have to match the pieces up and trim them as best you can back to a usable shape.
  6. Overbake the dough to make sure it is crisp and will stand up
  7. This process takes a few hours, your child will not stick around for this. You probably want to spend the hours of prep yourself and include your child at the assembly point.
  8. Who the hell is going to entertain your child for hours? Ah yes, invite a friend over. This does require assembly of not one, but two houses.
  9. The best part of the kit is the house to stick the cookie to so it stays upright.
Lessons for Step One:
  1. This is not the beginner house kit I would choose.
  2. With a young child, I would likely opt for a kit of all the pieces pre-cut and baked ready to assemble. Yes, I said it. Pre-made. It's not like you are going to eat the thing after it sits out getting stale. But, I bet the candy gets picked off ...
  3. To make my own, I would recommend baking forms that help the dough keep it's shape and keep you from having to make your pattern, stretch the dough, retrofit the dough, etc. These cost a bit, so be sure you want to do this activity again.
  4. I had to pull out the big-dog marble pin to work that dough. Good equipment helps.
  5. Good equipment is not included in the kit.
  6. If you want to feel like a total failure, look at books like these before you build a first one. Martha-effing-Stewart couldn't pull one of those off even if she does grow her own ginger for the dough.

Step Two: Assembly of the House
  1. The kit comes with royal icing mix, which is the right type of icing for the job
  2. The icing tastes like sugary plaster, which is kind of the point
  3. It's made from sugar, egg white powder (be warned of egg allergies), and water
  4. Really mix the stuff on high until it has the consistency of sugary plaster
  5. The cheap triangle-shape piping bag included is a weapon of mass frustration. Recycle it promptly before use. I used a real decorating kit, and that was the smartest move I made all day. The dumbest move all day was grinding up the plastic collar piece in the garbage disposal.

Step Two Lessons:
  1. Kids can help with the assembly part, Age four and above is best.
  2. You really can't fill some things in with frosting later. Like inch gaps.
  3. Faulty construction is a problem even for tiny houses.
  4. The cardboard box form was the best part of the kit here.
  5. Royal icing may just work for caulking the bathtub.
Step Three, Decorating. Or, the part where your child eats all the candy:
  1. If the candy isn't included, and it wasn't, get different shapes and a good variety
  2. Plan on twice as much as you need to decorate the house, it disappears
  3. Don't get your expectations set on a cross between Gourmet and Architectural Digest here.
  4. Pre-load the quality pastry bag with frosting. Set out bowls of the candy, fingers will be too sticky reaching into a bag to get it.

Step Three Lessons:
  1. This is the step where most kids have fun and want to "start" the project.
  2. Before your young child touches it, it already looks like a pre-K art project, don't get anal about the perfect design.
  3. Make sure your kid had a decent lunch, cause the rest of the day is blown nutritionally at this point.
  4. Screw Martha Stewart. With all due respect.
  5. When done, don't move the thing until the icing sets. It will. Boy, will it ever.
Biggest lesson? It's the journey here. Unless you plan on making this a hobby, it's really about having fun and enjoying the experience, making a fun activity with your child. Your child will be proud of the result. A house! Out of cookies! Even if you are considering enrollment in a remedial course in construction using Lincoln Logs. Just chill (both you and the dough) and have fun. Get crazy with the frosting. Eat the jelly beans. Sing sappy Christmas songs (but not "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," that's just plain bad music). Play now. Vacuum later.

Seriously, the last thing I want my child to remember when she looks back on the holidays is Mommy being a perfectionist. Ornaments she can't touch, cookies that aren't good enough for company, perfect decorating she can't help with, color-coordinated Christmas trees, sterile, all-white lights because those are classy. Grouchy, yelling mom trying to make the house perfect to impress all-important guests and strangers even as she makes the family miserable.

That's not Christmas. That's the ghost of my Christmas past. It will not be Christmas present or future.

Frosting wars. Occasional sugar-highs. Wobbly gingerbread houses. Laughter. Messes. Things that break sometimes. Gingerbread men with extra "parts" (yes, my brother, that one is for you).

Baby, that's Christmas. That is definitely Christmas. And I am all about that.


Cheryl said...

These are cute! And your account is very funny. I am trying to get out of the fog of christmas past and make things more fun too! thanks.

Carina said...

We do a gingerbread house every year. From IKEA. That's right...they do a flat pack gingerbread house. You just take the big cookie pieces, stick them together with frosting, and load it up with candy. No one ever eats the walls anyway. :)

Miranda said...

Thank you! Thank you! Now I know to (a) wait two years and (b) buy a pre-made set. We'll just decorate sugar cookies this year, I think. Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Cool, I'm planning to visit the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC to see the finalists from the national gingerbread competition. It's very humbling, to say the least.

Also, this is for the next Carnival of Recipes:

Orange Peel Candy

Rachel said...

IKEA flatpack gingerbread house!? What will those Swedes think of next. I might have to truck over to there now...

You're a braver woman than I, Gunga Din. I'm sticking with cookies, like Miranda. Thanks to Ken-the-Chef for his vegan/egg-free cookie recipes.

Kris said...

Spectacular, and made even more so by the hilarious description! :)

We will probably cheat big-time and do the graham-cracker kind. Pathetic, I know, but it works.

Pamela Huxtable said...

We have a a bakery nearby that sells gingerbread houses, already constructed and glued together with that nasty white icing. Nobody eats the walls anyway, right? So we skip all the swearing as mom tries to get the %$#@ wall to stand up, and the kids move onto the best part. They even sell containers of the icing/glue. I love it!