Every Chistmas for more than twenty years, I ogled over all the slick magazine covers with their lavish and increasingly more elaborate gingerbread houses. I clipped and saved the covers and directions, amassing a thick portfolio of gingerbread houses, all of which dripped with catchy descriptions such as “charming”, “fairyland”, “irresistible” and “fantasy-like”.
Anyone could make one. The magazines said so. It’s a piece of cake…er, gingerbread. Sometimes they’re not just gingerbread houses. They’re castles. Or barns, complete with gingerbread cows and pretzel fences. They’re gingerbread churches, gingerbread log cabins, gingerbread crèches. Or the gingerbread houses are Victorian mansions with little spearmint candy-leaf trees and Necco wafer shingles. There are gingerbread dollhouses and general stores and gingerbread villages.
If that’s not your cup of tea, you can make gingerbread Santa’s sleighs and gingerbread tugboats and gingerbread covered bridges. Not to mention that most famous of all standbys, gingerbread men! (One year we decorate an entire tree with little gingerbead men—it rained that Christmas; my gingerbread men got damp from the humidity and the baked dough worked its way through the ribbon ties. They all fell down…I’d be laying awake in bed listening to the plop, plop, plop of gingerbread men.
I’ve seen a Gingerbread Noah’s Ark, a Gingerbread Circus train, and a gingerbread dollhouse (much more difficult to make than it is to read about).
It more recent years, some magazines began to sponsor gingerbread house contests, with Good Housekeeping Magazine leading the way. With each passing year, the contest entries became more and more elaborate. More intricate, more detailed.
Many years ago, when my sons were still very young children, I discovered directions for a cookie house in an old Sunset cookbook. This house was fabricated out of a cardboard frame, then decorated with homemade cookies. (I have since seen a number of similar houses, usually made up with commercially purchased cookies, and you can buy a number of different cookie-house kits. I’ve even seen a cast-iron gingerbread house kit.
But, way back then the idea of making a cookie house was novel and I put together a cardboard pattern of a very simple house, with a door, a few windows and a roof. I made batches of royal frosting and the children helped me frost the house, one section at a time, pressing an assortment of candy – red hots and M&M’s to the frosted surfaces. The idea worked and I wrote a story about it which appeared in a Women’s Circle magazine in 1978.
My next idea was to put together graham cracker houses using melted sugar for “glue” and letting the boys decorate them with royal frosting and candy, to make a village. A couple boxes of graham crackers and several batches of royal frosting made a dandy village. The only rule was, you couldn’t eat your house until after Christmas. We added a mirror for a lake, plastic ice skaters, and a little wooden Santa Claus. The children would breathe heavily on their houses, salivating on the candy roofs, waiting for Christmas to come and go, so they could eat their house.
One year when we lived in Florida, the melted sugar wouldn’t dry properly (oh, the agonies the humidity of Florida put me through!) – I thought I could “dry” the house parts, assembled with melted sugar, in the electric oven. What I did was set the oven on fire, when the melted sugar dripped onto the electric coils. After that we just stuck with royal frosting that does dry, eventually, even in a humid climate.
Another year, my girlfriend, Neva, wanted to make a house too—well, actually, she wanted to make a castle. No problem, I assured her—we’d use boxes and cardboard tubes for a “frame”, mix up a lot of royal icing, and buy a wide assortment of decorative candy.
We did just that—I spent the day whipping up batch after batch of royal icing while Neva, being a most creative person, created a castle. But, I admit to being just a little non-plussed some weeks later to see, in the newspaper, a photograph of my friend and her daughter, along with their castle, with an article noting that “building candyland castles is a Horvath family tradition…”
Perhaps it’s not just making a candyland-gingerbread house/castle/village—it’s a part of all that makes Christmas so special. Like making fruitcake and springerle and Pfeffernusse—it isn’t something you do all through the year. It’s a one shot-deal, something special.
But the irresistible urge to make a gingerbread house wouldn’t go away—each year greater and grander gingerbread houses appeared on magazine covers and each year, I clipped and ogled some more. Meanwhile my children grew up and lost interest in candyland/gingerbread house fantasies (having discovered girls). I became a single parent and acquired, along the way, a gentleman friend (Bob) keen to cater to some of my sillier whims.
Finally, after years of collecting magazine articles and pining over their houses, castles and villages, I persuaded Bob – or perhaps he persuaded me – that we could make one of our own. A real, honest-to-goodness gingerbread house. My friend, who knew considerably more than I did about one inch squares and make templates, spent several nights, while I was in photography class, creating a pattern and copying it onto light cardboard. We spent hours scouring the supermarkets for the right kind of little candies. TRY to find candy spearmint leaves when you really need them!
Then we spent one entire Saturday mixing up batches and batches of gingerbread dough. I used one of the recipes found in a Christmas magazine, figuring we’d need the same number of batches of dough as one of the more elaborate houses. Then we spent another day—from early in the morning until late that evening—rolling out the dough, laying down the pieces of pattern, cutting out the pieces and baking them. This is, of course, a simplification of how the day went. In actuality, we had flour, gingerbread dough, bits of wax paper and various other gingerbread paraphernalia scattered all over the kitchen and dining room—the floors, tables, chairs and all available counter space were littered with these things. Funny, none of the magazine articles ever mentions the mess.
Gradually, we assembled all the baked pieces, taking great care not to break any of them or let any overbake. Oh, we might have broken a piece here or there and had to re-cut and re-bake a few parts. Finally, though, we were ready to assemble.
My friend took an aspirin to calm his shaky nerves and I poured a cup of coffee and we both tried hard not to hyperventilate.
“Do you suppose Frank Lloyd Wright felt this way when he was about to put together his first house?” I asked.
Next is where we made The Big Mistake. Let me explain. MOST gingerbread house directions call for putting the pieces together with royal icing. A very few call for melting down sugar and using it like glue. I reasoned that, since we used to put graham cracker houses together with melted sugar—and it worked out just fine except for that one year in Florida—and since we live in California where it is dry, not humid like Florida, that it would be easier and more practical to melt down sugar and just use the royal frosting for decorating. The problem was, the melted sugar looked fine to start with, and then began to “bleed” through the baked dough. Most of the places where it bled, I was able to cover it up with heavy layers of royal icing. Sometimes it bled right through the royal icing.
It was just about this time that I decided I had other fish to fry, Christmas was right around the corner and I still had a closetful of presents to wrap, cards to address and mail, and fruitcake to bake. I suggested that my friend, who after all, was doing so well at gingerbread house making, could finish up the decorating. I came home from school that night to find quite a blotchy decorated roof. Nonpareil shingles went every which way. The chimney—made from red licorice candy—was, let’s face it, askew.
“I think you’d better stick to designing and let me do the decorating,” I suggested.
Now, I know there is no kind way to tell someone, a very good friend at that, that while he was a skilled craftsman at templates, his chimney decorating was off-kilter. But he took it with good grace, actually something more like relief, and sauntered off to string miniature twinkle lights on the fichus tree, while I whipped up several more batches of royal icing and bought another ten dollars worth of candy from the supermarket. I scraped all of the candy and icing from the roof and chimney, breaking two cupola sections in the process and had to stop what I was doing and quickly baked up two more sections (we had the foresight to save some of the gingerbread dough) and then proceeded to finish decorating the house. It took two more days and I had a terrible backache when I was finished. We swept and vacuumed both the kitchen and dining room repeatedly but I stepped into those tiny little multicolored sprinkles every time I walked through the house barefooted, for months afterwards. I found bits of royal frosting in the cat’s fur and on the ceiling.
After our house was finally complete, we ran through several rolls of film photographing it from every angle possible, including in front of the Christmas tree, on top of the dining room table and out in the back yard surrounded by foliage. Then we entered one of the photographs in one of the contests offered by the slick, glossy, magazines and were slightly miffed at not-even-getting-an-honorable mention. However, all of our friends who came to visit during the Christmas holidays were suitably impressed. Everyone asked if it were entirely edible. (yes, but the first person who tries to eat any of it will get a hard smack) and no, it wasn’t awfully hard to make. To the latter, we lied a little. (Not a bit hard, actually, it was a lot of fun and would we do it again? Well, to tell the truth we were seriously thinking of going out of town for Christmas next year…)
Of course, that was months ago and now the new glossy slick ladies magazines were coming out with their newer, bigger, fancier, more lavish gingerbread houses. I found myself ogling and looking around for my scissors and portfolio.
** This was originally written when I lived in Van Nuys between 1986-1989. I was forever finding myself enthused about some new project and he was always suitably enthused about going along for the ride. We did create a second, much prettier gingerbread house a few years later, after we had moved to the Arleta house. The plan was to enter that house in the L.A. county fair but when my sister and her granddaughter came to visit and go to our sister Susie’s wedding, Becky’s granddaughter Megan ate a section of our chicklet wall and we decided to give up on entering the house into the fair. I think we were unable to find any more chicklets to fix the wall. And, I was discouraged about the logistics of wrapping and STORING this house for a year. We broke it into pieces and fed the house to squirrels and birds.
For years we talked about creating another gingerbread house—and then would look at each other and sigh. “Maybe not.” I’d say.
Years later, I began making gingerbread houses with my grandchildren – using kits from Michael’s or Joann’s. This was a lot less complicated and the only mishap occurred when one of their dogs ate half of a gingerbread house roof.
Oh, well. Mishaps are part of the gingerbread lore that ends up in your family history.
Sandra Lee Smith