Friday, December 14, 2012

The gingerbread tradition continues, sort of

It’s been a tradition in my family for three generations—making a gingerbread house before Christmas, enjoying its scent throughout the season then breaking it and eating it to celebrate the New Year. It was when my grandparents were living in Chicago and my mom was a baby that a neighbor taught Grandma how to create the house that we still make today.

So no, this has nothing to do with the goodness of my back yard garden or any other local food producer. This story is related to the garden of our memories and family traditions that, when we share them, unknowingly touch countless people through the years.

I was reminded of that this year when I posted updates on my Facebook page about making the gingerbread house. Friends from college, work situations and family all commented with their own memories of the gingerbread houses they’ve partaken of along with me—even so far back as in my dorm room in the 1980s! And you’re right, no one else in our residence hall had a gingerbread house in their room.

As a child I always looked forward to helping Mom decorate the house, but even more to the fun of breaking and eating it. I’ve shared that with the children of many friends over the years. My most recent and constant gingerbread house companion has been my goddaughter, Anna. This year, we also invited a younger girl who had helped break it when she was smaller (so young that she didn’t remember it).

I baked the gingerbread on Saturday so we would be prepared to build on Sunday. It was quite rainy, so I was concerned about the gingerbread hardening properly. Mom has always warned me that when the weather is too damp, the gingerbread softens. Mom’s, of course, know best.

So when I checked the gingerbread pieces on Sunday, they did feel softer than I wanted. I put them in front of the fireplace for a while hoping that would dry them out. The weather didn’t help. The rain continued to drop outside.

When Anna arrived, we chose the driest pieces and went to work. First, we made the sugar water “glue” then stood up the pieces to construct our house. We had a hard time with the front but when all four pieces of the house’s base stood steady, we put on the roof then drizzled our glue as if it were an ice storm. The house stood.

We gave it a small test, leaving the house for 30 minutes or so to go pick up Jeneimy to help us make the snow icing and decorate. When we returned, the house was still standing, Hurrah! So we cooked the icing and continued with the fun until we had our beautiful house.

That evening, I put it on a table in the living room, thinking it was a drier room than the dining room. As I sat near it, I enjoyed the rich, molasses scent, imagining the days until New Year’s as a time to relax with the family tradition by my side. How sweet.

It rained all night. It rained hard. It had been four days since we had seen the sun. Yet, when I woke in the morning, it the gingerbread house stood.

Until sometime before noon. When I walked into the room after lunch, the house had collapsed as if an earthquake had struck.

I admit, it was very damp and the one wall that caused the collapse could have simply buckled. But as I spied my cat napping on a chair I wondered if someone had been too curious when I had my back turned. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that I treasured the experience of creating the house with my two friends. And now I don’t have to wait until New Year’s Eve to eat it.

If you want to try to make your own house, find a dry day then follow this recipe.

Grandma’s Gingerbread House
2 ¾ C flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/3 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ginger
2/3 C Brer Rabbit molasses
½ C brown sugar
1 egg
1/3 C butter, melted

Sift together flour, baking powder and ginger. Cream together butter, egg and brown sugar. Mix well then add molasses. Slowly mix in dry ingredients. It will be thick and take some work to get in all of the flour. Heavily grease cookies sheets with butter then grease patterns pieces. You can cut them from a graham cracker box. Start with a little over the size of a walnut. Place dough on cookie sheet and pound with heal of hand to the size and thickness desired. Make it as thin as you can without making it so thin you see through it. Put greased form on top and cut around it with a butter knife. Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees. I typically make twice as many pieces as I need in case one breaks during construction.

Choose the best looking pieces for your house. Make glue from water and sugar. Start with 1 cup sugar and a little water. Cook to medium thickness. Put some on a heavy board to stand a piece in. Put an adjoining piece next to it and use a spoon to pour the sugar glue over the joint. Sometimes it’s easiest to begin with two sides and the front. When you get to the roof, put some of the glue icing on the underside of the roof where it will sit on top of the house base. Next, use glue icing on the top seam. You’ll be continually making more glue throughout the process.

Next, make the snow-boiled icing to finish and decorate the house.

1 cup granulated sugar
1 TBSP water
1 TBSP white syrup
½ tsp. vanilla
1 egg white 

Cook until soft ball then add 1 egg white and beat with mixer until you have enough to spread on board. Add ½ tsp. vanilla. You’ll have to double or triple this amount to cover and decorate a large board and drizzle some on the house to look like snow. When the snow-icing is still soft, add miniature trees and whatever other decorations you have purchased for the yard. Use jelly beans or other candy to make a walking path to the from door. Let your imagination go wild with the decorations!

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