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December 11, 2006

489 Simple Steps to Building a Gingerbread House

by Michele Martinez

I had this very deep, meaningful, totally intellectual blog planned about how it feels to be half Christian and half Jewish at the holidays.  And half Latina, half Eastern European.  And half author, half lawyer.  Never fully one thing or the other.  That blog even had a picture of Barack Obama -- another halfsie -- in it.

  Couldn't resist -- isn't he cute?

But then I started building my gingerbread house.  I started on Saturday morning, which meant that when the time came to write this blog on Sunday night, I was only 36 hours into the process.  Obviously, not a good time to take one's eyes off the royal icing.  I had two choices.  I could let TLC go dark for a day.  (Didn't seriously consider that one).  Or I could blog about my annual descent into Martha Stewart-esque madness.  So here, in really very few simple steps, is the Michele Martinez Guide to Creating the Edible Holiday Decoration of a Lifetime.

Step One -- If you have to ask why, you shouldn't be doing this. After I warned my seven-year-old for the umpteenth time to get his little hands away from my gingerbread house if he wanted to make it to Christmas morning, he had the audacity to ask, "Mommy, why do people do this?" Friends, you must realize, the process itself IS NOT FUN.  Watch "Gingerbread Genocide" and you'll see how I feel about my gingerbread house most of the time I am working on it.  Do I let these negative feelings stand in my way?  Of course not.  Gingerbread house-building is not for the weak.  If you want to have fun, go buy a kit.

Step Two: Pick a Pattern.  There are many gingerbread house patterns available for free on the internet.  If you're a first-timer, pick something simple.  Even a slight step up in design, like adding a chimney or a gable, can make the assembly process a lot trickier.  Pick a site that posts pictures of the completed house along with each pattern.  Trust me, you'll need those pictures when you're trying to figure out what the hell the pattern means.  I got my pattern this year off this great site called Frankysattic. 

Step Three: purchase ingredients. Here's what you need to build a gingerbread house.

  • Base -- A piece of plywood covered with white felt works just fine.  Consider the dimensions of the house you're planning to build, and be sure your base is big enough to accommodate all the elements of the diorama you plan to create around it.  Paths, trees, stone walls, streams, a water wheel, Santa and his sleigh?  Surroundings don't just happen.  You need to plan for them.
  • Gingerbread -- No reason to make gingerbread from scratch.  This is not about the baking.  If you care how it tastes, gingerbread is the wrong medium for you anyway.  I use Betty Crocker Gingerbread Cake and Cookie mix, with less butter and more flour than they recommend for extra-hard, sturdy walls.  Buy more than you think you'll need -- my house this year required six boxes.
  • Royal Icing -- This stuff is such powerful cement that you could use it to send a mafioso to the bottom of the sea.  ("Gingerbread House Murders" anyone?)  Again, no reason to go to the trouble of making from scratch.  King Arthur Flour has a great white icing mix that has instructions for turning it into royal icing right on the back.
  • Decorations -- This is it.  The big Kahuna.  Where you wrestle your demons, make this thing your own, become a woman.  The whole point of building a gingerbread house is decorating it, people.  You must develop your own voice.  I can't help you.  I can't tell you what to buy. I will reveal that my personal signature is a slate roof made from halves of Nilla wafers, carefully laid out in an offset pattern.  I get goosebumps just thinking about it.  But we'll get to decorating later -- hopefully by Tuesday or Wednesday!

Step Four: cut and bake.  For a simple house, you should be able to get away with one day for cutting and baking.  If you're lucky. Here are some tips. 

  • Use a pizza cutter to get straight edges.
  • If the edges round during baking, wait until the gingerbread is really, really hard, and sand them straight again using a lemon zester. 
  • Label your baked pieces so you know where they fit in the pattern. Otherwise, once they're cooked, your components will all look the same and assembly will be a bitch.
  • Let the pieces sit out to harden for at least 12 hours before attempting assembly.  Be prepared for some of them to break anyway, thus requiring re-baking.

Step Five: assemble.  This part is the nightmare.  You'll need all the help you can get when it comes time to put the little bugger together.  My advice -- be really nice to your husband for days beforehand and enlist his services.  If he's not a good carpenter (fortunately, mine is!), try your general contractor instead.  But be warned: money alone will not be sufficient inducement.

I am pleased to report that Michele's Gingerbread House 2006 has now made it through Step Five.  Here are some photos below.  Now you fess up:  What's your holiday obsession?

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Comments

oohhh! I *love* these - was glued to Food Network the first time they had the show about the contest.

Can't wait to see the progress - you're going to keep us posted right?

My holiday obsession - holiday music. I have to hear the new stuff. I have to revisit the old stuff. I have to shut myself in my office and design special CD covers and jewel cases for my hand-picked compilations.

Hi. I'm Kathy and I'm a holiday musicholic.

My obsession;
trying to find a present for my loved ones who insisit that they do not want anything. Sigh!

I have that problem with my husband, Dave.

So, Michelle - why do people do this?

I do cookies, but if I'm working that hard on a baked good, I want my sweet tooth to be able to enjoy it. I'm ignorant on the rules of gingerbread houses, other than I like looking at them in magazines. Do you just display it? for how long? Then you just have to throw it away?

Can't wait to see the finished product.

Oh, and I'd be interested to read that "halfsies" blog, too.

HI, KATHY!

All of us "holics" need to stick together. Mine is cheesecake. Key Lime Cheesecake. The aforementioned Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake. Egg Nog Cheesecake. I've heard of a Champagne Cheesecake, but have not tried it. But the Ultimate....

Kahlua Cheesecake.

Blend two shots of Kahlua into cream cheese and refrigerate overnight before making cake. When ready to serve, drizzle warmed Kahlua over the top and let it flow down the sides. (A microwave will do, but for full effect use old fashioned Spirit Warmer.) Serve with flourish, sit back, and wait for guests to enjoy. Savor reactions when guests learn a GUY made it...:)

Wow, Michele, that's an impressive project! Does putting this all together give you some kind of good karma escapism? Or is it the challenge? The praise from family or friends? If you were a character, I'd inquire about your motivation, I suppose. Whatever the reason, it's a beauty. And I must ask, are Mimosas helpful with this project?

My Christmas obsession is, probably, obsessing about how much I hate Christmas. Sorry, folks, there are those of us out there, too, and we deserve to be recognized and accepted for who we are. I did buy a tree. It's in the garage still, but it's on the premises. Technically.

OMG, there are PATTERNS??? There are gingerbread MIXES???? No wonder my own family turned on me the year I insisted we make a gingerbread replica of our own house. It was really ugly. The family situation, that is, not the house. Which was ugly, too, come to think of it.

My hat is off to you, Michele. If a person is capable of fully explaining your obsession I'm not sure it's really an obsession. There must be a visceral, inexplicable component that borders on insanity. Fortunatley, yours is seasonal. Godspeed!

We get one each year as a gift from the kids next door. I think charming is the best word to describe them. I'm going to miss it when they outgrow making them.

I have no Christmas decorating obsessions - I'm too busy finishing up knitted gifts! (No kids either, though.)

I just have to ask...in the middle picture, we see a sign that says DO NOT. Touch? Breathe? Speak to me while I'm doing this? Ask me why I'm doing this? Just curious.

I was fascinated watching the Food Network lady prepare her gingerbread train, complete with licorice-and-jelly-bean track. I honestly can't imagine spending that much time on something I can't eat.

I'm not sure I have any true obsessions around the holidays. I do love my music and twinkly lights and Quest For The Perfect Gift, but so far have managed to keep it all under pretty good control. Maybe ait's because the run-up to the holidays is such a busy time at work and I don't have a lot of spare energy until the final week.

What I can say with certainty is that this holiday season is being made all the brighter by the gang here at TLC. If you haven't been getting Kathy's music reviews, you're really missing something special. Um, Kathy, about those hand-made CD's with the personally-designed covers and jewel cases -- any chance of landing one?

Hi, my name is Kerry and I'm a TLC-a-holic . . .

You guys still seem to be asking me why. Why am I making something that I can't eat? Something that nobody in my house is allowed to touch? (You read that sign right, Ramona! Now I know I can trust you in my kitchen). I told you, I don't go there. I don't ask why. Maybe if I'd written the halfsies blog instead, I'd understand myself better. (Hopefully someday soon I will get to that one, Laura). I'm sure it has something to do with striving for that perfect holiday experience that makes us feel like we belong. Or maybe I'm just Type A and I don't know when to turn it off.

Speaking of, time to go tile the roof. Yes, Kathy, I will be posting updates -- complete with photos -- so stay tuned. And thanks for your wonderful holiday music reviews. I love them too! You should connect with our blogger Rebecca. She's big into holiday music.

Special note to Dave -- maybe you should take your loved ones at their word this year and skip the presents. Then you'll find out whether they're serious when they say they don't want anything. Personally, I've gotten to that moment in life where I know exactly what I want, and if I don't want it, then I really don't want it. If I want it, you'll know.

If this wasn't already clear enough to TLC-ites, here's what I'm begging Santa for this year:

http://www.saksfifthavenue.com/main/ProductDetail.jsp?PRODUCT%3C%3Eprd_id=845524446149174&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=282574492703778&ASSORTMENT%3C%3East_id=1408474395222441&bmUID=1165845648501&ev19=1:8

Yes, those Gucci shoes! You thought I forgot? Will I get them? Who knows -- was I naughty or nice?

How about you all? What do you want under that tree/menorah?

PS -- Nancy -- did you really build a replica of your house with no pattern and gingerbread made from scratch. Now, THAT's Martha madness. Tell us all about it!

Those are some shoes, Michele. Did you notice the comment:

DUE TO HIGH DEMAND, A CUSTOMER MAY ORDER NO MORE THAN THREE UNITS OF THESE ITEMS EVERY THIRTY DAYS.

How many units does one pair of feet need?

Uh-oh. My husband and kids went to some strange friends' home to make a gingerbread house yesterday, so i could decorate our tree without interference. They returned with little squares of gingerbread. Am I supposed to . . . construct something out of this? (if so, Ha! Ha!) Or is this spare drywall? Or what? No one seems to know.

Now I feel even more lame that all I have going is my Trader Joe's swag on the door. I think that I am going to ride the young kid
dispensation for just a little while longer, though I suppose that I could surprise the gang and drag out the holiday box during nap...

I'm with Ramona that ultimately this is just such a rough time of year. I think that my family (of origin's) unresolved halfsie status just sucked the joy out of the season.

To TLC's credit, you have all done more to give me a sense of the joy that can be had with all of the holidays than I have seen in a long time. I have also gotten ideas for traditions that never would have occurred to me... Gingerbread houses, give me a few years, but right now, mimosas anyone? GBH to all.

Obsessions?????
Shortbread.(At least four batches) From my mom's recipe..although I use shortening instead of lard (for more than the obvious reason). She never did cookie cutter shapes and neither do I. Just bake the batch in a rectangular pan and cut into squares. Also chocolate snickerdoodles. :o)
Christmas music...currently A Christmas Celebration (Celtic Woman).
Don't know what I want for Christmas. I actually have more fun giving...drives my kid crazy :o) If someone wants to give money to Best Friends or the Louisiana SPCA or my local Humane Society, I'm happy. But I could use some socks :o)
And Michele, a gingerbread house is a cool tradition! Do we get to see the finished product?

You bet, Maryann. Like I said to Kathy, I will be posting updates complete with photos.

On the Gucci shoes, that "only three units" thing is a bad sign. I'm hoping there are some left for Santa to buy for me. The elves do pretty good knockoffs, but I want the real thing, straight from Italy thank you.

Holiday traditions I am in awe of -- shortbread, cheesecake and knitting. Who was knitting? And what are you making? Knitting is one of those things that if I got started, it would be scary. All else would fall by the wayside while I pursued the perfect scarf.

Hi.

I need a meeting. And this is the dark side of the holiday obsessions. I treated myself to this fabulous new Epson printer that prints right on the CDs - FAB-u-lous, right? Because I learned that the self-adhesive CD labels can start to peel, and then you can't play them.

Get the damn thing all set up and now it won't print on the CDs - it just has that squiggly line in the Printer Window that says it's printing but it doesn't ever stop saying that to actually print. I already wasted time last night then thought maybe the printer elves would've made a visit by morning, but no.

And of course I have clients who actually expect me to produce documents of various sorts, which I need to do to pay for the printer, and it's just vicious, isn't it.

There. I feel better. Thanks for listening.

Kerry - e-me on this later when I'm calm.

Kath, take Cheryl's advice. Deep breath and . . . a mimosa. They're not just for Thanksgiving any more.

I also have to say LOVE what I can see of the kitchen. Someone with a very serious crack (or maybe meth, since this is MO) problem did our kitchen.

I do hope that Santa or Hanukah Harry comes through with the goods on the shoes.

Cute story, my then 3 year old daughter wanted to know if Santa and Hanukah Harry lived together. We live in a gay friendly 'hood, so it made perfect sense to her. Two older, bearded guys, lovinging the holidays, bringing gifts and joy...

Oh my, this is going to be just like those Food Network shows. Have you seen them where they follow the Ginger Bread House (house?!! How about village?) contestants from design to the big contest? They air all month - check www.foodnetwork.com and search for "Gingerbread" under "Topics".

William and Maryann - I'll be watching for your favorite recipes when we do our Heart of Tartness Online Recipe Exchange this weekend!

Cheryl - you need to get to your Trader Joes and see if they have any Holiday Candy Cane Joe Joe Cookies left. Ours is sold out!

I'll bet you could sell them on E-Bay and make a killing.

Cheryl, that is too hilarious!

One thing I'm really enjoying these days is creating holiday traditions from a late start. When my daughter was young, I always took her Elsewhere for Christmas: either to my parents in California or my aunt's in northern Virginia. My current hubby stayed home. Given that schedule, having a tree etc. Then we had cats, and a tree made even less sense.

Several years ago, I finally decided that the holiday was too short to spend it travelling hither and yon and that I wanted to be home. The tree was still out ('cuz the cats were still in), so my daughter came up with the perfect Christmas morning. We gathered downstairs around a little stuffed tree (about 12" high -- you've seen them at craft fairs) that my Mom made for her, each with our gifts for each other in some kind of bag or box. Swapping and fun ensued, followed by breakfast at IHOP and A Christmas Story and nap.

Now that the cats have gone to that great litter box in the sky, we get to have trees again. After so long without one, I take nothing but joy in the selecting, hauling inside, and decorating. We finally get to display the ornaments my parents bought my daughter every year (and that I'm adding to now that they're gone), and I can tell her the stories: about the pipe-cleaner-and-tule angel my best friend's grandmother made for me when I was 2, and that my Mom and sisters used to tease me about when I insisted on a place of honor for it every year; about the handful of little wooden toy and papier-mache apples still left from the Christmas when I was pregnant with her; about the ornaments we had when I was a kid.
One real secret, too, is that I don't try to do much. The tree, the staircase, a wreath on the door, and the Santa's Village my Mom made on the mantel. Quick and easy, but full of meaning. Perfect.

We're working out other traditions, too, and it's fun to see what will stick and what doesn't.

We have a small tree this year (no room except on the table)which Max just loves. I did get to help pick out my daughter's tree when I was in Portland though, and we decorated it the night before I left, to the tune of a crackling fire and carols on the CD player. The first ornament on the tree is always a 'dead lady' ornament, one of the old ornaments Cath and Kip found in the attic of their New Orleans home. They hang them every year because, as Cath says, everyone deserves to be remembered at least once a year. We started traditions late at our house too, traveling to my dad's every Christmas. Then he moved to Florida and we created some of our own, one of which is cranberry-orange muffins on Christmas Day (we have lots of food traditions I guess). Now our major tradition is calling each other after all the presents are opened and then settling in to watch a movie.
Thanks for the reminder on the cookie exchange :o) Makes me hungry just thinking about it :o)

Kerry and Maryann, those are wonderful traditions. Thank you for sharing.

Mmm, cranberry-orange muffins, now *that* makes me hungry. That recipe qualifies for the Cookie Exchange in my book. What do you think, Rebecca, should we re-name it the Holiday "Treat" Exchange? Or else we still call it the cookie exchange but welcome all holiday recipes, like William's cheesecake.

And so it is written.

It shall be the Holiday Treat Exchange, starring Michele's Gingerbread House, Maryann's Muffins and shortbread (yes - one can always post more than one recipe), William's cheesecake, and everyone else's favorite holiday treats.

And if we all live long enough, I have no doubt we will be able to share not only recipes but the real thing via some metaphysical, internet-enabled device.

Rebecca- I just got back from TJ's, but next time I go I will check on the Holiday Joe Jo status, if I find some, I will send them your way. They do have the gingerbread kits...

Like Harley, I have found sending my 8 yr. old over to the neighbors to make gingerbread creations is the way to go! The neighbors get to spend special holiday time each year with the little darlin' and I don't have to get in over my head in the gingerbread construction process. It's a win-win situation!

Hi all,
From our Blended family to yous.....celebrate!

We always do a Hanukkah Dinner featuring the Shicksa Pot Roast-----a cross between my mother's saurbraten and Richard's mom's pot roast-----which was renamed Three Mons' Pot Roast last year. Almost scraped it this year to avoid the cooking marathon involved in feeding 40 plus. There are little christain kids who think this is haunkkah who I worried about. To the rescue came our friend Mary Kathryn Reschini who solicited gobs of friends and is putting on a "catered affair". It is so liberating for me and exciting to have such angels in our midst.
A triple thanks to all our friends, writers, laywers, and more. I cannot wait until Saturday night. My new boobs arrived in the mail with the bra------do I dare? My hair's cut really short-----maybe I'll party with no boobs.

Joy to the World and good luck Michele,
Mary Alice

opps....The Three Mom's Pot Roast
ma

Is The Three Mons' Pot Roast the Jamaican version?

Boobs or no boobs, just party, ma.

I agree. MA, you are fun with or without boobs, with or without hair. Go for it!

Nice to hear from you Beachfla. I must confess, my kids would probably be having more fun doing gingerbread at somebody else's house. But I promise to turn over a new leaf and let them help decorate. As long as they can tile with a nice straight edge, that is.

I dunno, Michele. Allowing your kids to mess with your gingerbread seems dangerous. Maybe just let them decorate their own gingerbread cookies instead? At a safe distance from your house, of course.

I hear you, Nance. What was I thinking?

You know, sometimes I worry about you guys.

Man, I hate not being able to get on here during the day.

As far as traditions, I don't have many. We moved away from family about 10 years ago, and don't have any in the area. I, too, got tired after a while of spending every Christmas driving or away from home, so we stay home, sometimes down to just 3 of us. I still cook yummy dinner, which usually includes chocolate cream pie (and all the cookies). My daughter and I do decorate the tree together every year, and she's in charge of frosting the cut-out cookies (her favorite - and mine!).

And I've had both cats and trees for years! Only one mishap along the way (the unmistakable sound of a Christmas tree falling in the middle of the night); they actually didn't turn out to be mutually exclusive. In fact, my cat loves Christmas so much (the tree, the boxes, the wrapping paper!) that I think that's when we'll miss him the most when he goes to that litterbox in the sky.

Margie, I know you think we're uptight, but need I mention what you left inside the gingerbread house when you stopped by after the office party the other night? I should have known better than to let you help when I saw you in those boots.

Laura, glad you could check in!

Wow, the house looks great! I'm so jealous! Make sure you post a picture of the final product! I hope to one day make a gingerbread house like that. I will have tons of holiday cooking and decorating obsessions once I have my own house and family, etc... Right now, I stick to passing out candy, cookies, and cupcakes at work, haha.

I too am looking forward to your halfsies blog. Let me know if you want a half-asian perspective! =) Talk to you soon!

Hey - you found it - so? How did it work?

See, I knew it would be safe there since your kids are scared to get near it.

Johanna, I could not write a halfsies blog without including you. To me, you are the embodiment of how the younger generation is so much cooler and at ease with it and less conflicted than my generation is/was. The idea that in your college there was a half-Asian student association kind of says it all.

Margie -- yeah, about that thing, ahem, I'll e-mail you off list.

Sorry was sick since I said something about the pumpkin pie and had to setup a new pc. But better late then never.
Apple Butter Pumpkin Pie as seen on Paula Dean TV Show
preheat 425 degrees F
1 cup apple butter
1 cup fresh or canned pumpkin
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 ground ginger
3 slightly beaten eggs
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1 unbaked pie shell
sweetened whipped cream for garnish
Combine apple butter, pumpkin,brw sugar,salt, spices in bowl. Stir in eggs. Gradually add milk and mix well. Pour into pie shell. Bake for about 40 minutes or until set.
Enjoy SusanCo

Reading the posts between Michele and Margie, I feel like I dropped into an episode of WEST WING:

MI: "I found the thing."
MA: "So, what did you think of the thing?"
MI: "Well, let's not make a thing of my finding the thing."
MA: "You wanna talk about the thing?"

That, and reading the recipes flying around here, I can almost feel my arteries hardening..:)

Michele, you've got to post pix of the House when you're done. I cannot wait to see it.

Margie, you need to call me. Seriously....:)

Gay couples should be, should not be allowed to marry

I haven't been up to much these days. Such is life. I've just been letting everything happen without me these days, but I don't care.

People should be allowed to go naked in certain recreational areas only

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