Friday, December 21, 2012

Last-minute Christmas Gift

 My god daughter and I spent our afternoon doing some holiday baking for friends as well as treating ourselves. A month or so ago I came across a great set of six mini-bread tins mounted on a holder that connects them all for easy handling in and out of the oven. So we mixed up a batch of my favorite nutty pumpkin bread and poured it into the tins.

Lucky for us, we had some left over. Anna had the idea of copying something her mom does; we added chocolate chips and used the rest of the batter to make mini-muffins. After all, the cooks deserve a treat for ourselves.

Treat yourself and your family well and have a Merry Christmas!

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!

Friday, December 7, 2012

School chef educates children

 A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Chef Ryan Laudenschlager about cooking with whole foods for a school cafeteria. Check out the approach he takes for The Lexington School at

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A gardening writer finds gems in the soil

When the garden is put to bed but four persevering plants continue toward their production goal, I stand in awe of their insistence in fulfilling their purpose. I planted broccoli, brusel sprouts and bok choi in late August. Because of shading from the Tulip Poplar trees in the back yard, the plants grew slowly until late October when the trees dropped their leaves. I feared our early frosts would kill them. 

Until Sunday. Jim decided to till the garden so I could put the winter coat of cardboard, manure and straw on the garden in preparation for trying lasagna gardening next year.  Before he tilled them under, I wanted to check the remaining plants. The broccoli looked healthy and happy so I asked him to till around them. The weather report said we would be having a week of unseasonably warm temperatures; maybe we would still get some nice, round broccoli to enjoy.  

All four plants have small broccoli heads. The largest is presently the size of an apple. It rained last night and we’re expecting more rain today, so we’ll have at least some to harvest. Now I have an unexpected morning gardening task, to check on their progress.

Just when I thought the gardening was over, a gem delights me.

As I begin a new writing routine this week to devote more time and energy to my fiction writing, I’m also mindful of the lesson the plants teach me. Don’t give up. Maybe, like them, I just need longer than usual to grow into my potential as a fiction writer.

I also have a blooming African violet on my desk to remind me of the importance of persistence. After years of African violet failures, I finally learned to water it from the bottom. Sometimes reaching a goal requires both time and a new approach. 

Then there’s last year’s poinsettia, which is transforming from green to red. Yes, you can nurse them throughout the year and they’ll come back red. By Christmas time? I’m not sure but I’ll let you know. Maybe we’ll have a red poinsettia on our table along with fresh broccoli salad to eat as we give thanks for the lessons the garden continues to teach us.