I don’t remember too many classic “family traditions” when I grew up. Of course, I have fond memories of certain favorite meals, and my mom’s homemade goodies, but no “every Christmas Eve we _______”.
When we had Junior, I vowed to have at least one tradition around the holidays, and my choice was one I had always wanted to do as a kid — Gingerbread Houses. The decadent kind, with lots of icing, and at least 20 kinds of candy.
We’re on our third year of Gingerbread Houses at the DINKs, and we’ve learned a few things along the way — like
DON’T STIR the caramelizing sugar after it starts to boil (you would think the chemist in me would have guessed that)
DON’T accidently drop hot caramelized sugar on your fingers (HOT!)
Be patient. Caramelized sugar takes a lot of time to, well, caramelize. Make sure it is good and dark.
Let the caramelized sugar cool quite a bit on the house parts before you try to stick them together. Hot caramel = slippery mess.
Don’t wait until the night before the party to try to make, bake, and assemble 6 houses.
Can you tell that the hitch in all of this usually has to do with the caramelized sugar glue? That said, we finally worked out the sugar kinks and this year was the smoothest yet. Dough on Sunday. Rolled and baked on Tuesday. Assembled Thursday. Decorated Saturday.
The Hows and What-Nots:
Dough Recipe c/o Epicurious.com
Keep in mind that I don’t normally cook with Crisco. And had I known that so many families would actually eat their houses, I woldn’t have chosen this recipe. That said, it is the easiest to make and roll. I should know, since I have made 18-20 houses over the last 3 years…..but look for a recipe change next year!
* 6 3/4 cups all purpose flour
* 4 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
* 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
* 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
* 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
* 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
* 1 1/2 cups solid vegetable shortening
* 1 1/2 cups sugar
* 3 large eggs
* 3/4 cup robust (dark) molasses
Sift flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and cardamom into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat shortening in large bowl until fluffy. Add sugar and beat to blend. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Add molasses and beat on high speed until well blended. Add dry ingredients in 4 additions, beating at low speed until dough forms. Divide dough into 6 equal pieces. Flatten each piece into rectangle. Wrap each in plastic and refrigerate until firm enough to roll, at least 6 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep refrigerated.)
While Epicurious does give basic template instructions, this year we relied on our friend Sean….an architect…to provide us with some fancier models – a New England Saltbox, and a modern wonder. I’ll keep you posted on the book of Gingerbread House Plans we want him to publish in time for next season!
If you want to get fancy, use a knife or cookie cutters to make doors, windows, and skylights. If you want to get really fancy, crush up some butterscotch candies (or assorted jolly ranchers for a stained glass effect) and put them in the windows after the cookies have baked. Return the cookies and candy (on parchment paper) to the oven until you see the candy melt. Remove it promptly, and you’ll have some pretty snappy windows!
Rolling the Dough
Ignore the instructions – ice cold is not best for rolling. Let it warm just a tad and you will have an easier time.
Roll the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap.
Replace the top sheet with parchment.
Flip the dough using a piece of cardboard wedged under the dough.
Place design cutout on top of plastic wrap, outline with knife of pizza cutter, remove plastic, and cut dough through. Use the bottom parchment paper to move cutout to cookie sheet.
Years of Experience leads to these few pieces of gingerbread wisdom:
Caramelized Sugar Glue
While a colleague of Mark’s confesses to pulling out her glue gun to assemble her Gingerbread Houses, I’ve spent too many years, and sacrificed too many fingertips, perfecting Caramelized Sugar to succumb to modern technology. To use sugar glue:
Place 3:1 Sugar:Water into a large sauce pan
Heat over low heat, stirring until all sugar is dissolved
Raise heat until sugar begins to boil. DO NOT STIR at this point, or the sugar will come out of solution and you will have a big mess on your hands.
Be patient….caramelization takes longer than you think!
Dip, or spoon, a stripe, of sugar glue on each edge to be glued to another. Let cool until touch-able and tacky. Hold respective edges together until reasonably stable.
Decorate to your heart’s content. Each year, the kids get older and more creative and use candy in ways we adults could never imagine!
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