time is on your side

time is on your side

Long-time readers may notice my new perm and bangs, aka this site makeover, brought to you by No Trouble At All.  The transition was actually pretty painless, handled as it was by an expert (thank you, Spenser!).  The need to make a transition in the first place was handled painfully, by me directly, in the form of the endless whapping of the head on the desk that the old format required in order to make it go. I am still finding all the knobs and sliders on this platform but so far, so good. No whapping.

Fortunately all the crashing around backstage wrapped up in time for the annual Lament of the Tiny Gingerbreads, an annual activity since 2012 in which I make many small mistakes repeatedly and some big ones regularly, all in the dogged pursuit of holiday cheer, as much of it as can be captured in a tiny building made of cookie.

Those guys!  Those dang cookie house guys! Every year I swear I’ll quit them.  I say THINGS ARE JUST TOO LOONY RIGHT NOW FOR THAT KIND OF NONSENSE, and make other sane-sounding statements of self-awareness and self-care.  I suppose if I were a drinker I could blame a few fingers of Dewar’s or an extra glass of wine for the way I catch a glimpse of the cinnamon in the drawer in the second half of December and the old feelings stir.  Looking back at photos of the earlier iterations allows me to appreciate that this year, the cookie shacks really show the strain of the general mayhem in which they were produced.  There’s not enough graft in all of faerie land to persuade an elfin building inspector to grant a certificate of occupancy to these structures. Not watertight! BUT THEY WILL PERCH ON A CUP, BY GUMBALL, AND THAT’S WHAT THEY WERE HIRED TO DO.

Throwback to more solid times.

Throwback to more solid times.

You may not believe me when I say that they are not difficult to produce, just fussy.  But they really aren’t. Simple motions and repetition is 90% of what they require. Possibly some light math, if you want the parts to come out even (unless my middle child is involved, I always have lonely extra bits leftover). Not hard, though!

And yet.  My learning curve is slow to steepen. The mistakes are so much easier to remember than the lessons!

In the lumberyard of light math.

In the lumberyard of light math.

Maybe some day I will start making them on Thanksgiving.  If you are a sane person, conscious of the infuriating “laws” of physics and other sciences that prevent time from expanding and bending to one’s will, then you will maybe just bookmark this idea for next year. It's nearly Christmas Eve. Let's be realistic here! That’s the only prudent approach.  Bookmark the recipe and mark a November date in your 2018 calendar to take them on. 

As 2017 draws (finally) to a close, let me direct your attention to these healthy, simple dishes to fill the holes in your holiday menus.   This saladThis squash.  They’re fabulous.  We enjoyed the heck out of them at Thanksgiving and I think you’ll be glad to have them around for any meals on your dance card this next week. They are powerfully tasty and full of fiber and antioxidants.

This squash! SO tasty.

This squash! SO tasty.

See? We handled that with so much sanity and pragmatism.  Good for us!

But come on.  You know you want to make the teeny, cup-perching houses.  You have cinnamon and ginger, right? You do, right there in the drawer. Think of the tray of cocoa you could flounce around the living room with.  Imagine the happy faces at the breakfast table.  YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO MAKE THESE.

At some level I believe that the proper ambience for taking on a project like this—a project that falls squarely under the heading that my dear cousin classifies as “Martha on Crack”—is really only fostered in the truly peri-Noel, penumbral-Santa, eleventh-hour, Last Chance With Expedited Shipping period, when people tend to take leave of the senses that protect them in other seasons. This is who-needs-sleep-when-I-could-be-making-magic, not-a-creature-was-stirring material.  Is there some other point in the year that we consider such a maneuver?

I leave the decision in your hands, along with the instructions. I wish I had progress photos for you but I don't.  If time bends to my will, I'll add them.

Fast Facts & Useful Tips:

  • A full recipe makes about 60 little buildings.
  • A good playlist, podcast and/or good company is essential.
  • You can easily halve the recipe.  I suppose you could also double it but I’d ask that you sign a waiver or establish that you have access to a hotline or other interventions before doing something like that.  It’s December 23rd, for pete’s sake! There is a limit.
  • The proportions and outcome are identical using all-purpose flour or a cup-for-cup gluten-free flour blend.
  • You absolutely must use a pastry bag. It’s very simple stuff we are talking about using it for, but really a spoon will not do the trick here.
  • Your royal icing must be the closest thing to spackle you have ever produced in your kitchen.  Use literal drops (not spoonfuls) of lemon juice or water, or tablespoons of powdered sugar, to adjust the texture as needed if what happens in the bowl using the proportions I give you below doesn’t amount to something firm but still pipe-able. RUNNY IS NOT OKAY.  Too stiff to pipe is also no good.
  • It is worth it to make a jaunt out to your grocer or a baking or craft supply store to secure either powdered egg whites or meringue powder to make said icing. Safer to eat than raw or pasteurized liquid whites, and basically foolproof.

Mug-Perching Houses

Step one is to cut templates from a cereal box or some comparable-weight cardboard (coated cardboard is nice because it stays tidier).

You need three:

  1. the pointy house ends or gables, with a door cut-out that will accommodate the rim of a mug. If you drew houses in 1st grade, you have all the skills you need to sketch this out stashed in your muscle memory.  Minus the peak, the face of the house should be about 1¼” x 1¼”
  2. the walls about ¾” square, and
  3. the roof, about 1¼ “x 1½”

Make the cookies:

  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (packed) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee (or coffee substitute) powder (also optional)
  • 4 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour or a cup-for-cup gluten free blend

Cream the butter until smooth and add the sugar.  Cream these together well, for 3-5 minutes, until fluffy.  Add the vanilla, the dry spices, the eggs and the molasses.  Beat well, being sure to scrape the bowl down part way through the mixing.

On low speed, add the flour in batches and mix until you have a smooth, stiff dough.  Divide it in two portions onto wax paper, flatten each into a disk, and wrap securely.  Chill for 30 minutes to an hour.

Heat the oven to 350° and line two baking sheets with parchment. Let the dough warm up a bit at room temperature, just enough to allow you to roll it out thin (¼”). Keep peeling the wax paper back and replacing it as you roll; I find this dough is stiff enough that it doesn’t really require flouring but it’s good to loosen the paper now and again. Use your templates and a thin, sharp knife to cut the dough, and try to keep your math even (equal numbers of each type of piece, doesn’t that sound so simple, ha ha), arranging the cut pieces on the prepared baking sheets. They don’t need much space between them because the dough doesn’t spread much.  If the dough gets too warm through repeated re-rollings, send it back to the fridge and work on the other disc.

Bake the sheets for 7-9 minutes, until the top sides are set and the undersides just golden. Cool them on a rack and just keep on trucking. Keep going until you run out of dough or time or patience.

The spackle-tastic icing:

  • 2 cups utterly lump-free powdered sugar
  • 1½ tablespoons meringue powder or egg-white powder
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Combine these ingredients in a mixer, and beat on low-medium speed until smooth, then at medium-high speed for about 3 minutes, until you have stand-up firm peaks.  Adjust as needed with a drop or two more liquid if it seems too stiff to pipe, or additional sifted sugar if it is too runny.

Scrape into a pastry bag fitted with a small plain round or star tip.

Turn two gabled pieces face down.  Pipe two lines of icing from eaves to baseboard on one piece.  Grab two walls and stick them into that glue, then stand this three-sided structure up; pipe the same eaves-to-baseboard line on the other gable end and fit this to the walls.  Roofless house! Progress.  Pipe icing up and down the slanted edges of the structure, and clap the roof panels on.  Now fiddle and fuss as you like, creating a snowy line along the peak of the roof and adding icing in drips or dots or scrolls anywhere else you feel it’s called for.

It doesn’t take long for the spackle to set enough that you can nudge the houses into orderly rows, and after an hour of air drying, you can carefully set them into a box or tin that can be covered.  By the morning the icing is totally cured and set, and the little houses are surprisingly sturdy.  Slip them into little cello bags for gifting (a few of these and a tin of cocoa makes a handsome presentation), or keep them stored airtight to serve to friends and relations, should any happen through.

Happy Holidays and may 2018 be a marked improvement over whatever just happened in the last 12 months. Drink plenty of water! Love your peoples! And thanks for reading.