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Friday, December 12, 2008

It's Gingerbread House Day

It's that time of year again for gingerbread and guess what, today is Gingerbread House Day. (it's also Poinsettia Day.) Have you ever engineered a Gingerbread House? I haven't. Gingerbread houses are a lot of work, there's planning, drafting, and construction much like building a family dwelling. And, like a house, the brick and mortar must also be considered. There's the making of the dough, cutting out pattern pieces, rolling, baking, assembling, and decorating. Whew! A person almost has to have a degree as a master builder to develop a gingerbread house. That leaves me out. Although, I'm pretty good at simple carpentry tasks, I've held myself back from creating a gingerbread house because, quite frankly, it just seems so intimidating. I'm mean really, I haven't even honed my baking skills yet.

I've wanted to build a gingerbread house for as long as I can remember. I can't say I've ever gotten very far though. It isn't like I have a pile of gingerbread house kits stashed away with the Christmas decorations. Nope. The most effort I ever expended on my Gingerbread House fantasy has been as an armchair browser glancing through magazines and books. The covers of Good Housekeeping magazine have always been one of my favorites. In recent years, I've taken my chair to the internet. There are so many sites to visit for inspiration. Aren't they simply amazing! Did you see Santa's Castle and the Wizard of Oz? Oh my goodness, such talent, such patience, such creativity. Did I read that the Wizard of Oz house was that woman's first attempt at fabricating a gingerbread house? Perhaps, there is hope for me in the realm of Cockaigne.

The Gingerbread Lady, aka Patti Hudson, has a website called Gingerbread Land. She also has a Gingerbread Art Gallery. I wish her pictures were a bit larger though.

"The first gingerbread man is credited to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who favored important visitors...with charming gingerbread likenesses of themselves...After the Grimm Brothers' tale of Hansel and Gretel described a house "made of bread," with a roof of cake and windows of barley, German bakeries began offering elaborate gingerbread houses with icing snow on the roofs, along with edible gingerbread Christmas cards and finely detailed molded cookies. Tinsmiths fashioned cookie cutters into all imaginable forms, and every woman wanted one shape that was different from anybody else's...Most of the cookies that hung on nineteenth-century Christmas trees were at least half an inch thick and cut into animal shapes or gingerbread men..."Gingerbread," Karen S. Edwards & Sharon Antle, Americana [magazine], December 1988 (source)

When I make up my mind to attempt my first constructive house of candy, there are a slew of resources available online. I'm fortunate enough to have a gingerbread book by the Gingerbread Lady. Its title is Gingerbread Ideas copyright 1987. Wow! She's been at it a while. The book is chock full of recipes, patterns, and step by step directions.

The recipes and patterns enclosed in this book were prepared with the idea of inspiring more novice gingerbread creators. Through her many workshops and appearances, Patti has learned the questions most frequently asked and has attempted to make this guide readable, workable and understandable.

The Gingerbread Lady's motto is "Gingerbread houses don't have to be perfect;" I also read somewhere they don't have to taste good either. I suppose if the adorable little house is destined to be eaten after New Years Day, as is the custom in some cultures, staying focused on the recipe is most important. (not a good thing for moi) Reinforcing the mixture with extra flour is probably more up my alley. I tend to be a bit clumsy. I can just imagine me putting the last gum drop (I'm thinking a gum drop smoke stack:) on the gingerbread train and having the caboose fall apart.

First, carefully read the directions to become familiar with the procedures and materials involved in constructing a gingerbread house. Novices may wish to consider making cookie cottages (pages 25-29) Constructing these small house with graham crackers is an excellent way to develop skills and learn techniques required in gingerbread house making. (Gingerbread Lady)

A Make Your Own No Bake Gingerbread House recipe sounds rather childish but it just may be the ideal remedy should I not make my first gingerbread house before Tabi & Noah get old enough to help. They would have a ball. 

Mrs. Gingerbread says:

The history of gingerbread begins first by understanding the colorful past of gingerbread's most unique and differentiating ingredient: ginger. The search for spices such as ginger was so important that it stimulated exploration around the world.  The famous explorers Marco Polo and Vasco de Gama documented the cultivation of ginger carefully in their travels, providing justification for financing future explorations. The trade of spices like ginger became the measure of an empire’s wealth and power, and this lasted for thousands of years.  The economics of the cultivation of ginger stimulated further exploration and colonialism. Without question, the quest for ginger has had a tremendous impact on the world as we know it today...

The choice of what to construct weighs heavy on my mind when I'm in "gingerbread mode." This might be a good time to share what I've learned about the different types of gingerbread I discovered in my travels. As much as I have this burning desire to build a gingerbread house, I don't relish the thought of gingerbread. Quite frankly, first thought, it doesn't appeal to me. How unfair am I? I've forked gingerbread into the corner of hard and steadfast when gingerbread can be quite "gingerly." As a matter of fact, there's a lot more to gingerbread then what meets the lips. Some gingerbread recipes flourish as soft delicate spice cake. Some are crisp flat snap cookies. What about warm, dark gingerbread "bread" with a tangy lemon sauce or a dollop of whipped cream? Now, doesn't that sound inviting?

The popularity of gingerbread cookies and houses spread to colonial America. Recipes varied from region to region, according to the national origin of the immigrants who had settled there. Most recipes had fewer spices than in European recipes, and often settlers included local ingredients. Maple syrup molasses was included in many recipes in northern areas of the country, while sorghum molasses was used in the South. Gingerbread houses were also extremely popular in early America, more popular than in England. Furthermore, the hard style American gingerbread more closely resembled traditional German recipes than the softer English gingerbread. This similarity was even stronger in areas like Pennsylvania with a large German immigrant population. In these areas cookie boards were also commonly used. source

The Gingerbread Lady says to "choose the house pattern that best suits your needs." Hmm...that dear friends may take a while. Truthfully, that just may be the problem in my Gingerbread Journey. There are, oh so many choices.

  • Eating gingerbread on muster or training day when volunteer soldiers were drilled on the village green, was a tradition that endured well into the nineteenth century in New England."
    Muster Day, or Training Day, Gingerbread is named for a New England tradition. Before the Civil War the first Tuesday of every June was set aside as Training Day for all men from ages eighteen to forty-five.  This military training began at nine o’clock in the morning, and the men were usually accompanied by wives, children, cousins, aunts, uncles, sisters, grandfathers, and friends.  It became, of course, an occasion for festivity, and this Gingerbread was one of the indispensable ingredients of the day. source
  • Swedish settlers made gingersnaps called pepparkakor, the Pennsylvania Germans added Lebkuchen to our gingerbread repertoire, and their Moravian brethren in North Carolina rolled gingerbread dough paper-thin for crisp, thin wafers that are still sold today.
  • Soft, cake-like gingerbread was a favorite in 18th-century America, the kind that George Washington's mother served to General Lafayette when the French hero came to visit after the American Revolution. A recipe for Lafayette Gingerbread can be found in Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book by Eliza Leslie (1857) A modern version can be found here.
  • New Englanders were great gingerbread enthusiasts. At Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts, Louisa May Alcott's mother made both gingersnaps and "soft" gingerbread, as did Emily Dickinson at her home in Amherst. One of Dickinson's neighbors, MacGregor Jenkins, recalled the "long, oval cakes, crisp and brown or yellow and delicately sweet and gummy. The flat tops were hard and shiny and on these a bit of decoration was often added in the way of a pansy or other small flower." Here's Emily Dickinson's Gingerbread Cookie Recipe. 

After selecting a base to display the gingerbread creation, one then gets to pick a gingerbread recipe. The Gingerbread Lady offers a variety of recipes in her book. Apparently, the recipe depends upon the type of gingerbread art that is chosen. Choices include, gingerbread favors, gingerbread tree or sleigh centerpieces, cottages, ornaments, and no bake gingerbread recipes. I like the idea of a Gingerbread House Decorating Party. Some have gingerbread house parties with themes such as a Sugar Cube “Gingerbread” House Party or a Pretzel Log Cabin Party. Everyone brings a different edible decoration and they share. Necco Wafers make great decorations for gingerbread houses as do candy canes, cinnamon red hots, licorice, almonds, coconut, Mini-Wheats, and Gummy Bears, Trees can be made with an ice cream cones, pretzels for fences and hard candy for stained glass windows or frozen ponds. Snacks, beverages and holiday music also add to the festivities.

I may not contrive the World's Largest Gingerbread House, or participate in a "A Red, White and Blue Christmas" at the gala held at the White House, (Gingerbread Houses are a tradition at the White House) nor will, I fabricate a Gingerbread Castle like Pastry Chef Jean-Francois Houdre, however, I will one day fashion the house of my gingerbread dreams even if I have to improvise. Perhaps, I will build a traditional German Gingerbread House (Lebkuchenhaus) and bake a winner! If not, there's always these tempting Gingersnap Pancakes to see me through...

Whoops! Looks like my six year old my grand daughter Tabi is the Gingerbread House Maker in our family. Below is her first creation. Now, I understand the use of the milk cartons! BTW, Did you see the Fairy Gingerbread Poem I posted for Gingerbread Day in November. It's quite enchanting...

Resources

  • 1. What is the History of Gingerbread?
  • 2. Gingerbread Journeys (article by food journalist Meryle Evans)
  • 3. Winning Gingerbread House Contests
  • 4. Ginny's Gingerbread House Photo Gallery
  • 5. Make a Graham Cracker House! (detailed, easy instructions)
  • 6. Kids Make Your Own Gingerbread House
  • 7. Kids can make their Own Gingerbread Houses using single serving milk cartons as a frame for their houses.
  • 8. Gingerbread House 101
  • 9. Muster Day at Old Sturbridge Village (Saturday, May 16 (2009)
  • 10. Gingerbread muffins
  • 11. Through the Ages with Gingerbread
  • 12. Gramercy Tavern’s Gingerbread (@ the smitten kitchen)