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.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm