28 December 2013

The Gingerbread House, part 2

Okay! You've got a big bowl of chilled dough, templates, parchment, a Silpat, cookie sheets, an icing syringe, the ingredients for the glue, a mess of candy, and the patience of a saint? Good. If not, re-read the previous post. I'll be here when you're ready.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Lay out your Silpat, and lay a sheet of parchment on top. Using a rolling pin with a nicely floured sleeve, roll out a blob of dough on the parchment until it's big enough for your first house piece and about 3/16" thick. Using a pizza wheel, or a gently wielded table knife, cut out your piece. With the knife, nudge the scrap dough away from the house piece.

Gingerbread house in the works

Trim the parchment if you'd like, and transfer the dough - ON THE PARCHMENT - to your cookie sheet. Repeat until you have all of the pieces made - and don't forget to make two roof panels, two pieces for the front/back, and two gable end pieces. [Note - you're actually not using the Silpat for cooking. I find that it has a nice stickiness about it that serves to hold the parchment in place on the counter while I'm rolling out the dough. I used to try to glue the parchment to the counter with dabs of shortening, but the Silpat works much better.] If you don't have enough cookie sheets, colonize all the flat surfaces in your house with dough-covered parchment, until the cookies sheets are free again.

You want doors and windows, right? Before baking, cut out window openings, and a door. You can use some of the scrap to make shutters, you can roll scrap into little balls for decoration, you can gently score the chimney sides to make the dough look like bricks. If you're crazy, you can even make window muntins out of thinly rolled bits of dough. You might want to keep the piece you cut out for the door, so that you can later glue it in place propped open. [I used the wrong sized platform this year, and so there was no room for the door. It got eaten by someone.]

Gingerbread house in the works

Bake the pieces in the 375°F oven for about 10 minutes. You want the pieces to be well-baked, and nicely dry, but not burnt. Cool on the pans. The pieces are big enough that you don't want to risk having them sink - even a little - into the spaces on a baking rack.

Gingerbread house in the works

Stained glass windows are a delightful thing to include in your house, but making them isn't for the faint of heart. I always used to do it by smashing up the sour balls and carefully filling up the window openings BEFORE baking. It was always kind of messy looking though, and when I did it this year, the candy didn't melt properly. So we cut that window out, and hit the google looking for a solution. Ta da! The microwave! Thanks to Heart of Light, we used the microwave to melt the crushed candy in custard cups - which we then spooned into the window openings. Again, stained glass windows are not for sissies - and not for children. Melted sugar is dangerously hot, so be careful.

Gingerbread house in the works

Gingerbread house in the works

Once all of your baking is done, and your stained glass windows are fabricated, make the royal icing, and find a big board or huge platter to build on. This would be a good time to enlist a helper monkey, like your ten year old.

Also, if you're planning on putting a light inside that requires a cord to exit the house discreetly at the back, you'll want to position the light and make a little cut-out for the cord. This is completely optional, by the way.

Load up your icing syringe and pop on a small plain round tip. [Or use a piping bag or a ziploc - I prefer the syringe.] Peel the parchment off of the back of one of the four sides of the house and run a bead of icing along the bottom. Position it on your board, and get your helper monkey to hold it in place. Find the adjacent piece, run a bead of icing along the bottom and the side that will be adjacent to the first piece. Maneuver it into position, and help your helper monkey hold it in place. Continue around until your four walls are up. If your husband is a wood-working model-builder, he may try and "clamp" the house together with string.

Gingerbread house in the works

Use the icing like caulk and make sure all the gaps between the walls are sealed. Not only does it help with the aesthetics, the icing is structural - it dries like concrete and will help hold your house together.

I cheat at the roof. Using dental floss and a blunt needle, "sew" the roof together with two loops, hinges, if you will. Run a bead of icing along the tops of all of the walls and gently place the roof. Take a deep breath, and pause for a cup of tea. Once the icing is good and dry, add your chimney (if you made one).

Meanwhile, have your helper monkey start unwrapping the candy. I always start with the roof. We used to do it with rows and rows and rows of mini-marshmallows, but Necco wafers are really the best roof tile ever. Work two-handed, and squirt a blob of icing on each wafer as it goes on the roof. Work from the bottom up, just like a real roof.

Once the roof is done, get to work on the rest of the house. I like doing rows of spice drops like quoins, and candy canes can be broken into lintels. I also have OCD control issues, but I did hand the syringe over to the helper monkey. In fact, she did the whole Mike and Ike application for the chimney bricks.

Gingerbread house in the works

You can also tint some of your icing. This is nice if you want to make vines, and morning glories, and Painted Lady Victorian doodads around doors and windows.

Gingerbread house in the works

If you happen to have access to cotton candy of some sort, it makes nice smoke coming out of the chimney. However, it has to be replaced periodically, because it tends to absorb moisture out of the air and collapse into itself.

Gingerbread House

When you're all done, have a party, because you're totally going to want to show off your house. And when the kids go back to school in January, the whole thing is edible, so break it up and pack it off in their lunch boxes.


The Gingerbread House, part 1

For years, starting when I was about 12, and annually until sometime in my 20s, I made a gingerbread house at Christmas time. It was a major production, and got to be a thing - people expected it, so you did it, so people expected it. I think I've been asked about it every year ever since.

This year, what with the girl having turned 10, I thought it was time to resuscitate the tradition, and so we did. We laid in candy. I located the templates - which had surfaced as we were cleaning out my mother's house. [Have I mentioned that she kept everything? She did.] I made a batch of dough. I dug out the frosting syringe; I got out all the cookie sheets. I convinced my husband to wire an extension switch onto a little battery powered light, and several days later, we were done.

You want to make one too, right?

Here goes. [And if Christmas is twelve days, this post isn't too late!]

Necco WafersYou'll need candy. I'm very particular - no chocolate allowed, fruit flavors only under duress. It's a gingerbread house; the flavors need to be complementary. Or something. So:


  • spice drops (spice flavored gum drops)
  • Necco wafers (7-8 rolls - for roof tiles)
  • cinnamon red hots
  • wintergreen Lifesavers (or another solid white flavor)
  • green & white starlights
  • candy canes
  • red Mike and Ikes (chimney bricks)
  • sour balls or five flavor Lifesavers - or other multi-colored hard candy (for the stained glass windows)
  • mini marshmallows

You'll need dough. Make it today, bake it tomorrow.

GINGERBREAD DOUGH (adapted from the New York Times cookbook)
2/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 T. ground ginger
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground cloves
1 1/2 t. salt
1 egg
3/4 cup molasses
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder

Cream together the shortening, brown sugar, spices and salt. Add the egg and mix thoroughly. Add the molasses and blend. Stir the baking soda and baking powder into the flour; add flour to wet ingredients and stir well until blended. Chill overnight. [Note: this will make enough for the house - if you want to make gingerbread trees or people or stars, bump it up by 50%, or double the recipe.]

You'll need glue, to glue all of the pieces together and to attach all the candy. Make it last, though, right before you want to assemble the house.

ROYAL ICING (a/k/a glue)
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 egg white
1 t. lemon juice
pinch of salt

Put it all in a standing mixer and beat the hell out of it - it wants to be smooth and white and it will look almost like meringue. Seriously, 5-7 minutes in the standing mixer. Sure, you can do it with a hand mixer, but you'll get bored and tired. Use the stand mixer. After you've loaded up your frosting syringe, keep the bowl covered with a damp towel while you're working on the house. Otherwise the icing gets crusty. [If you're squeamish about the raw egg white, it is possible to make royal icing with powdered egg whites, but you're on your own for the recipe.]

You'll need templates. Use mine - print out the pdf onto card stock, or trace it onto shirt cardboard. Make sure you note which pieces you need two of - nothing worse than having all of the dough baked and realizing that you've forgotten one of the four sides of the house. Or be adventurous and design your own house. You might should make it simple the first time out, though.

Lay in some parchment - it's essential for transferring the dough onto the cookie sheets. Lots of cookie sheets help, as does a Silpat.

Okay - you have everything in hand?

The instructions continue here: Gingerbread House, part 2

17 December 2013

Facebook: Good or Evil?

Because part of what I do with my life has to do with not-for-profit organizations and raising money, and because I am as bemused by Facebook as everyone else, I found it interesting that Facebook has decided to help out non-profits by adding a "donate" button to a non-profits Facebook page. Good or bad?

Well, driving donations is good, and Facebook is even picking up the vig - meaning that 100% of the donation is going to the charity. [When you give by credit card, the charity normally pays about 3% to the credit card processor, so your $100 gift is really only $97 to the charity.] On the other hand, Facebook isn't telling the charity anything about you - so from the charity's point of view, not so good - if they don't know who you are, they can't ever solicit you again. Granted, maybe that's what you want, as an individual.

Just to test it out, someone in my office made a little donation to the World Wildlife Fund, through that organization's Facebook page.

Here's the email receipt that she got from Facebook:

From: "Facebook"
Date: December 17, 2013
To: [redacted]
Subject: Facebook Payment Receipt #[redacted]

Donation Date: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 at 12:50pm, Receipt Number: [redacted]
Hi [redacted],
Thank you for your $10.00 donation to World Wildlife Fund. On behalf of World Wildlife Fund at 1250 24th Street, NW, Washington, 20090, we thank you for your generous support. You may print this receipt for your records. This receipt confirms that you have made this donation as a charitable contribution and you are not receiving any goods or services in return. As the tax laws vary by state and by country, please consult a tax professional regarding the deductibility of this donation.
The Facebook Payments Inc. Team

The thank you from Facebook - not from the WWF - is awfully sterile, and it seems to be the end of the interaction. Also, at no point in the transaction did she get notice that the WWF wouldn't know that the gift is from her. Also, even odder, she had no option to "share" the donation event with her Facebook friends - and since Facebook is always all about the share and the self-glorification, that's a little peculiar. The Facebook help page for Charity Donations says that there's a "share" option, so maybe she missed it, or it was a glitch.

From the point of view of a non-profit administrator, I want to know who my donors are. I want to be able to thank them, personally, in our own idiosyncratic style. I want to be able to invite them to things - paid things like performances, but also unpaid things like open class day. I want them to know about us. Yes, some of that can go on our website, or our Facebook page, but special invitations to donors only? That needs to be more controlled than Facebook allows.

I don't think this is going to be a great tool for the non-profit world. But I'm curious - how do you, as individuals, feel about it? Do you like the "make a gift without leaving Facebook" friction-less-ness of the transaction? Do you like the anonymity of it? I'm genuinely interested in your thoughts, so leave a comment, pretty please?

16 December 2013

Perplexing Packaging

It's cold. So, I stopped at the Greenmarket for a hot cider on the way into the office, as I am wont to do. The guy put the cup down in front of me, while I fumbled for some money. And out of the corner of my eye, I read the numbers on the (unsidedown) lid.

today's date on a cup lid

12/16? Why's today's date on the lid? Is it an expiration date for what, the cider?

It took longer than it should have for me to realize that it read 12/16/20 - as in, what size cup in ounces the lid was for. I probably should have been at Starbucks buying coffee.

* * * * * * * * *

Puttering around my kitchen this weekend, I was bemused by the labeling on two household staples.

The bacon was marked as gluten free.

gluten free bacon

The sugar was marked as fat free.

fat-free sugar

Am I especially enlightened in that I already knew that bacon is gluten free and sugar is fat free? Because, frankly, I thought everyone knew that, in which case, WHY ARE THE PACKAGERS TELLING US THINGS WE KNOW?

04 December 2013

When It Rains...

I was sitting around chewing the fat with my father the other day when the subject of "It's Raining Men" came up - why, I can't say. It turns out that he loves that song, and knows all the words, and plays the CD in his car all the time - this, my seventy-eight year old, Fox-watching, conservative father, who voted for Nixon in 1960. I mumbled something about "gay anthem" but he dismissed that notion - "it's sung by some women", he says, "the Weather Girls". Then he tells me that he played it for my even older, even more conservative uncle while they were making Thanksgiving dinner, and that my uncle was "dancing around the kitchen to it like a maniac".

I'd like to say there's hope for us all, what with my father and his brother singing "It's Raining Men", but...

At least they know how to cook.

03 December 2013

Giving Tuesday

I had this idea that I was going to do a Giving Tuesday post about how to read a 990, and why you'd want to, and what you might want to look for, in case you wanted to check out how much net profit your local non-profit hospital was making and what the percentage of contributed income was, but instead, I decided to ask you to support a cause near and dear to my heart.

It's a tuition-free ballet program for New York City public school children. With an on-site public school. And an awful lot of laundry to do, each and every week.

Support Ballet Tech on Crowdrise

The 990 dissertation will have to wait. Just for the record though, Guidestar is a great resource where you can download 990s - which are the non-profit equivalent of an individual's 1040, also known as a tax return - for free.

So, if you're into Giving Tuesday, assuming you survived Black Friday and Cyber Monday, won't you please support Ballet Tech?