We have reached the tipping point of the holiday season where we teeter closer to January, a month sprinkled with far less tinsel and merriment. The New Year threatens to expose our recently expanded waistlines and our freshly elevated cholesterol levels, sending us scurrying back to the gym. We reacquaint ourselves with treadmills, stationary bikes, and replenished water bottles. For those of us revisiting frozen outdoor running surfaces, we will dodge the empty corrugated Amazon boxes that topple from curbside to sidewalk.
Bakers will scratch their heads, dreaming of ways to reconfigure calorie laden treats, aligning with our resolutions to eat healthy. Some will go as far as to swear off sugar, a concept I respect but cannot abide by. I will continue to follow the doctrine of my father who believed in the combination of moderation plus exercise. This translates into baking a 7” cheesecake instead of a 9” and divvying it up into a dozen slices. Double crusted full size pies will be scaled down to single serving, open-faced chiffons featuring citrus. In a feeble attempt to climb back on the sensible eating bandwagon, I might add frothed skim milk to my morning coffee instead of whole. Seems far more likely that I’ll switch over to tea.
I am not sorry to see the holidays end, taking all of their retail insanity with them. My hope is for a few lingering chestnuts and open fires to stave off the winter chill. Nice knowing you December, but I'm looking forward to the sass of January citrus and cashmere mittens on sale. Should your New Year’s weekend force you to brave the mall or post office as you return all of your unwanted gifts, find consolation in the words of Charles Schultz, as eloquently spoken by Lucy Van Pelt.
Lucy Van Pelt: I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.
Charlie Brown: What is it you want?
Lucy Van Pelt: Real estate.
Chances are real estate will not be in the offing for most of us. Regardless, may your New Year be bright and your dessert plate over-filled with goodness, enjoyed amidst your favorite company.
Rummaging through too many out-of-print holiday food magazines, I recently came across a book that was given to me many Decembers ago by Sibling Sister, Barbara. Newly armed with a Masters degree in Historic Preservation and Urban Planning, Barbara casually mentioned that members of her architecturally savvy office team were participating in a holiday bake-off. One team was creating some sort of baked good suspended in jello, or what I envisioned a Pacific Northwest Gingerbread House competition to resemble. My days were spent running a restaurant in Philadelphia, which often entailed baking, building, and delivering wedding cakes. Barbara thought it might be a good idea for me to take my head out of Martha Stewart’s Tiffany blue hardcover treatise Weddings, and peruse a different kind of book.
What It Feels Like To Be A Building, written by professor and architectural virtuoso Forrest Wilson, combined succinct explanation with humorous illustration. A far cry from the approach taken by my art history professors in Ithaca and London, Professor Wilson was speaking my language. Without broaching the topic of Wilton plastic wedding cake dividers and snap-in columns, without uttering the words, ‘royal icing,’ Professor Wilson offered valuable insight to those of us dabbling in wedding cake and gingerbread architecture. What Professor Wilson forgot to mention was that one girl’s gingerbread house was another’s Vintersaga, and yet another’s Hexen Haus.
On my once yearly visit to IKEA in search of an odd sized/oversized picture frame, I was drawn to the Vintersaga (Gingerbread) aisle like confectioners’ sugar to pasteurized egg whites. The packaging and sentiment of the pre-fabricated gingerbread house forced me to add the $3.99 item to my cart. How could I resist a product that tempted with italicized signage adjacent to the Swedish meatballs and hot chocolate?
In wintertime, Swedish families gather and make their homes cozy by preparing Christmas decorations while enjoying good things to eat. The home becomes a serene shelter from the winter cold.
Instead of gathering up the picture frame that didn’t quite fit in the shopping cart and exiting the building, I faltered. As someone who has purchased and witnessed the all-too-real-struggle that is assemblage of IKEA home furnishings, I should have known better. I should known the gingerbread house would never be as easy to build as promised.
The house was composed of six pieces plus a four-sided chimney. While I rhapsodized over Swedish families cozying up in front of the fireplace with mugs of steaming hot cocoa and bobbing marshmallows, I didn’t think beyond icy windowpanes. Of course the IKEA instructions promised easy set-up with minimal tools. Of course the packaging taunted with whimsical illustrations. The truth was, upon closer inspection the house was defective. Beyond the cherry red packaging and the step-by-step guide to assembly was a tidy plastic clamshell. Unsnapping the container and gingerly removing each piece, I noticed a huge fault line running diagonally across the western exterior wall of the house. I wanted to cry. Slathering a generous portion of royal icing across the crack in the foundation, I set it aside. The roof was composed of two identical, weighty pieces of gingerbread, whimsically imprinted with a lattice design. The folks at IKEA suggested through illustration that the rooftops should be piped in decorative icing. One of the two roof pieces was also broken, requiring intricate masonry work. Kicking myself for not purchasing two house kits, it was clear that my Vintersaga was turning into a sad saga. One of the angular pieces of the chimney was broken, making it an unsafe platform for Santa, let alone his tiny reindeer. I was reminded of a light sconce purchased from IKEA all those years ago, one that promised to attach to the wall, shedding a beacon of late night reading light. My Swedish-inspired tabletop cookie house was proving to be as unstable as the light sconce that never attached to the wall, This was the first, and last time I would purchase a pre-fabricated holiday house.
Unwilling to return to the Swedish superstore at the height of the holiday season, I played the gingerbread hand I was dealt. Rustling up a batch of Home Depot industrial strength royal icing, I slathered the fixative on all of the remaining broken house surfaces. Anxious to utilize European inspired roofing materials, I painstakingly cut miniature stroopwaffels and Belgian butter waffle into roof tiles. The truth was, the design of my little seasonal house was not what I had envisioned. Not only were the windows uninspired, the front door was short and square and pedestrian. I wanted bow windows framing the front of the house, and a generous archway welcoming compact ginger people through the front door. It was all wrong, all listing horribly to the side, despite a generous application of royal icing coupled with Dr. Oetker’s tube of baking glue. With one hand, I steadied the precarious foundation, adding interior gumdrop support at every buttress, every beam. It occurred to me that the IKEA design team should include additional cookie two by fours in their gingerbread house kits. It would also serve them well to peruse Professor Wilson’s What It Feels Like To Be A Building before embarking on next season’s Vintersaga blueprints.
On a side note, Trader Joe’s also offers a build-your-own Gingerbread House kit. Technically, the house is more A-frame than English Colonial, but it provides many accessories their Swedish competitors do not. Trader Joe’s Authentic German Hexen Haus offers brightly colored candies and jovial cookies, including an adorable dog. The sturdy gingerbread base features a cut-out affording easy (and stable) assembly. Unlike the plastic clamshell that unsuccessfully harbored the IKEA building materials, the Trader Joe’s house is packed in an oversized cardboard box with a deep-sided rim. This provides a safe haven for the house as you build and embellish, catching any wayward icing or runaway candy.
The gingerbread people and woodland creatures housed in and on my Vintersaga fear for their little lives. They would have been safer bobbing around in a bowl of jello. Listening carefully, I can almost hear the fractured wall and roof of the house shifting and settling, causing concern within the small molasses village. Vacuuming up the remnants of royal icing that stubbornly dot the carpet, I remain cautiously optimistic and reach for another sugared gumdrop.
Seven years ago this week, I started a part-time job at a recently opened bakery in Maplewood, NJ, called The Able Baker. I was hired as a cookie decorator, joining a very small crew around a very long table. Our primary focus at the time was thousands of sugar cookies in varying sizes, sharing the commonality of Christmas.
My tenure at Williams-Sonoma and Tabora Farms had provided me with plenty of hours of cookie decorating. I took an open spot around the table at The Able Baker and grabbed a piping bag. In the background, Etta James crooned “At Last” on repeat, occasionally interrupted by Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. The well-seasoned Hobart mixer droned on, beating quarts of egg whites and pounds of powdered sugar into fluffy submission. The ornamental icing was divvied up amongst half-quart plastic tubs. Drops of Christmas Red and Forest Green transformed the stark white royal icing into an instant holiday piping and painting medium. Blank cookie canvases were outlined, then filled, finally embellished with sugar crystals and edible candy pearls. Santas, snowmen, and tiny reindeer stared back from parchment lined sheet trays.
In the beginning of my tenure, the color palate remained fairly traditional, reds and greens with one renegade blue reindeer. In time, things changed, as did the faces around the table. More importantly, social media revolutionized our approach to cookie decorating, affording way too many examples and options to snag from the internet and make our own. It felt like cheating in some ways, a far cry from the early days, when cookie inspiration was limited to a handful of examples provided by the cookie cutter manufacturer and one’s imagination. Imagine that.
Seven years later, holiday cookies continue to be a mainstay of the bakery’s business. The baker’s racks are presently weighted down from top to bottom with overfilled sheet pans of everything Christmas, making the racks practically immobile, much like a pesky shopping cart with wheels that won’t turn. We have reached capacity around the worktable, with some new faces and a few seasoned worker bees. Thick royal icing spins around the tired Hobart mixer at a furious rate, splashing bits of stubborn meringue on bandanas and fingertips. There are now far too many food color choices to be contained in one oversized plastic tub. The array of sprinkles, edible glitter, and something identified as ‘disco dust,’ is staggering, crossing the line from whimsical to excessive. There remains one constant however; once you walk away from the oven, out of earshot of the oven timer, that is when the cookies will turn from golden to dark brown to burnt.
It seems appropriate this week to share a little background information on my cookie decorating past. From the early days on the blog, December 2013:
You Can’t Catch Me, I’m the Gingerbread Man
Truth be told, I arrived rather late to the Christmas Cookie/Eggnog party. The closest our kitchen came to actual holiday cookie baking wasn't a holiday at all. It knew no specific season, it was simply heralded by Jessie's aluminum Mirro cookie press. Technically, I suppose, you could consider this Christmas cookie-ing, or Spritz cookie-making. In a somewhat child-like disconnect, it reminded me just a bit of my Play-do Fun Factory, and was infinitely more fun than Mr. Potato Head. The chocolate and vanilla doughs were quick and easy to mix. The challenge was selecting just the right cookie disc. I agonized over the myriad of choices and always gravitated towards the dog, maybe because he shared just the slightest resemblance to the dog in Monopoly. In hindsight, I must admit that somewhere between going into the oven and twelve minutes later, exiting the oven, the poor doggie looked nothing like the picture in the Mirro-Cookie press recipe pamphlet. And although Spritz cookies were apparently quite comfortable gussied up for the Christmas holidays, there was nary a green or red sprinkle to be found in our kitchen.
My first foray into the professional Christmas cookie leagues began when I was hired to work at Williams-Sonoma. I had restaurant experience which plummeted me to the front of the demonstration line. Whenever a new product or technique was center stage, I had the misfortune of being selected to "demo" the product. Unpacking cases of holiday cookie decorating kits, I found myself knee-deep in sugars, icings and sprinkles boasting the titles, "Christmas Red" and "Evergreen Green." To say this was baptism by fire sums it up rather accurately. Standing at the demo counter, brandishing my piping bags, I had to dig deep into my Ithaca College acting skills. I promised the decorating novices they, too, could boast their own cookie glitterati that very holiday season. I piped red bow ties on terrified gingerbread boys. I sprinkled crystal sanding sugars with great abandon, temporarily blinding a young woman leaning in a little too closely. The regulation green Williams-Sonoma employee apron tied around my waist resembled a Jackson Pollack canvas of royal icings. My audience waved farewell, clutching their decorating kits with the same fervor mother's had clutched Tickle Me Elmos a few years prior. The store manager deemed it a very successful afternoon. I clocked out and ran for my life.
With every series of culinary jobs that followed, Christmas holidays found me armed with piping bags and literally hundreds of naked cookies waiting to be costumed. I navigated angels on the wing with gold sugar crystals as they flew perilously close to reindeer sporting oversized red non pareil noses. Gingerbread families dodged mistrals of confectioners' sugar, while the houses in which they lived fell victim to asymmetrical window placement and slightly toxic gold metallic door knobs. Every year, as Christmas slid into New Year's, it became easier and easier to understand why Santa and Mrs. Claus had a penchant for eggnog.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm