Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gingerbread House How-To

So, every year we make a gingerbread house, and every year I turn to my binder of recipes and first see this Gingerbread House nightmare recipe from a woman who is trying to be reassuring about the difficulty of making a GH, and then says you have to be prepared, have 4-5 batches of icing ready, and set aside the entire weekend. And then she includes a picture of her finished house.
Um, no thank you. If it really was that much work, to make something that looked that bad, I would never make one. So here is my recipe and my tips on making a gingerbread house. I won't pretend our finished house is brilliant, but I think it's pretty cute and it only took an evening.
First you need a couple of helpers standing on a chair, blocking your access to measuring cups, baking sheets, and anything else you might need handy. It helps if they have cute helper poses.
Gingerbread recipe
5 cups flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 eggs
Combine first 6 ingredients in large bowl and set aside. In mixer bowl, beat shortening and sugar until creamy. Add the molasses and eggs and beat until well combined. Slowly mix in flour mixture until smooth dough forms. Divide into 3 balls. Roll out dough on foil lined cookie sheets, cut out your pieces, and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. Cool on sheets slightly, then move foil to cooling racks to cool completely.
I've made this every year for the last 3 0r 4 year and it has worked every time. In my Kitchenaid, the dough didn't really come together, but I dumped it out and kneaded it and it was just fine. Now, I don't ever eat this gingerbread, so I'm not really shooting for taste in this recipe. I'm mainly extolling its virtue for ease of use, good smell and sturdiness. Chloe thought it tasted really bad. I couldn't get Addie to stop eating the dough. She may look like it tastes bad in this picture, but let me assure you, she loved it.
To roll out the dough, I line my cookie sheets with foil. It makes removing the pieces so much easier, and it enables you to do stained glass windows. Basically, roll out each ball of dough to about 1/4-1/8 inch thickness. If you roll it out in a jelly roll pan, or lipped cookie sheet, your rolling pin will naturally rest on the edges of the pan ensuring that your dough is evenly rolled out and of a uniform thickness. Cut out two large pieces from each roll out, ie 2 walls, two roofs, one back and one front. Make sure that you leave space between each piece as you cut or they will take longer to cook and might not separate easily. After cutting, remove any excess dough. I didn't use a pattern, just cut out 5 x 4 inch walls, 4 x 5 x 3 inch front and back, and 4x7 inch roof pieces. You can find lots of patterns online, or just come up with something on your own. Just make sure the sides of the walls match up, and that the roof is big enough with some overhang. I then cut a door out of the front piece, and used a small cookie cutter to cut windows out.
If you want to do stained glass windows, just fill each window with broken hard candy pieces, or even whole hard candies. When you bake the pieces, the candy will magically melt. After the pieces have cooled, you can just peel them right off the foil and the windows will stay intact. If you don't use foil, you will not be able to get the candy off your cookie sheet and will have to soak it in the sink forever and start the whole project over. I then gather all the scraps, roll them out again, and cut out trees and snowmen, a chimney, and any other decorations I want. The dough will still seem a little soft when you remove it from the oven, but it is a good, dense gingerbread, and it will be plenty sturdy.
Icing glue
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
Beat egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Gradually add in sugar and beat until combined. Fill pastry bags and keep remainder covered tightly with saran wrap or a wet cloth until ready to use. If you're planning on eating this and are concerned about salmonella (ignoring the dust and spider webs that often accumulate throughout the month) use powdered egg whites instead of fresh.
This stuff sets up like a rock, and quickly, so you don't want to leave any you're not immediately using exposed to air. Most recipes call for only 3 1/2 cups of sugar, but I think that's way too runny and I don't want to have to wait for it to set up. This recipe works really well for me, and gives me just the right amount of time to set up and decorate the house.
Usually I use a piece of cardboard covered in foil. This year I used my nice cake plate. Which will have to sit in the sink for days after Christmas is over in order to soak all the icing off of it. Not my best idea. It's good to use something disposable so if you want to destroy it with a hammer or maybe fireworks, or even just throw it away, you can.
Anyway, decide where you want your house to sit, then pick a wall piece and pipe a good amount of icing along the bottom. Try to stick it to the base, but don't worry if it falls over. Do the same to an adjoining piece, but add another heavy bead down the joint. Stick it to the base and hold the two sides together until it sets. Add more frosting to seal the joint. Repeat with remaining side pieces. Once they are all connected and stable, let it set for a few minutes. Then add the roof. Fill in any gaps with icing. Let the house set up undisturbed while you distract the kids from touching it by filling bowls with candy and telling them not to eat them yet.
Once the icing you glued the house together with feels firm to the touch, start decorating. It seriously will set up within minutes, and you won't have to worry about the house collapsing as soon as you slap the first m&m on.
And here's our finished product. I think it's pretty cute, and only took about 3 hours start to finish. I love the necco wafer roof, though frosted mini wheats are cute, too, and I've heard good things about golden grahams. I usually add the chimney after the rest of the roof decoration is on. As far as candy options go, we always use necco wafers, m&m's, gumdrops, candy canes, licorice all sorts, and a variety of boiled sweets. And a warning, if you live in CA or somewhere else humid, you will lose various pieces of candy off your house throughout the holidays. The hard candies tend to go first, so if you're not concerned about edibilty, try some hot glue.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Credit where credit is due

You may have noticed I updated the pictures on my blog. My friend Janelle took them for us and did a wonderful job. You can see more of her work here. Amazingly, we actually ended up with pictures that had everyone looking at the camera, and everyone smiling. This first one, while not the best picture of the bunch, is one of my favorites and makes me laugh everytime I look at it. Can you guess why?

Oh, I just love my cute family.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The final scoop

I meant to get right back after the show aired, but somehow, the whole week disappeared. Wow. So, for those who didn't get to see it and have wondered how to see it, I'm working on getting a copy I can somehow share or post or something. Millionaire doesn't provide copies of the show, nor are the available online, so you'll just have to be patient. I'm just not technologically gifted enough to get it together quickly. If anyone wants to come over to my house and show me how to link my Tivo to my home network so I can transfer stuff to my computer, that would be awesome. If not, you might be able to catch it in reruns. Bracken pointed out that thanks to the Gameshow Network, it might live forever.
But for those like my brother Ben on his mission who can't watch it anyway, here's what happened. After the previous contestant went with the audience and got the answer to his question wrong, poor thing, I stepped into the hotseat. I, thankfully, was able to breeze through the first 5 questions. It was a little surreal to watch myself answer them because in my head, I took a long time with the answers, but it turns out I really zipped through them. And I had completely forgotten some of those questions. I'd had a huge fear that I would stumble or need to use a lifeline before the thousand dollar question, and was relieved that I didn't. However, on the $4000 question, I needed another minute to think about whether Barack Obama had won an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy or an Emmy and asked the audience. Their answer was really mixed, and I didn't trust it, so it went with my gut and said Grammy. Thank Goodness!
About that time in the show, Meredith asked about my daughters and my family, and revealed that they had Bracken and Chloe on the line! I was so surprised. Then this picture flashed up on the screen of Bracken as a pirate and the girls in their Halloween costumes from last year. It made me laugh for two reasons. For one thing, Bracken had been after me to take a picture of him with the girls for a couple weeks, and I hadn't known why. Ooops. It also made me laugh because one of the main battles of our marriage has been over who is funny. I guess he finally settled that arguement on national TV, because he certainly looked like the one with a sense of humor by using that picture. I got to talk to him for a minute, and then Chloe whispered, "I wuv you, Mom," and totally choked me up. I just don't think that was quite fair to do to me in the middle of the show, though it certainly was sweet.
I continued on with the questions, and used my ask the expert lifeline to confirm that MI6 was the British Intelligence Agency. I had a gut instinct, but since it was the $25,000 question, I wanted to make sure I got it right. I then phoned my brother on the the next question because I had no idea that the Toven Specimen was an aluminum penny. Dan came through for me.
And then I got the the $100,000 question. I had no idea how large the Sahara Desert was, but I had my double dip lifeline and I had told myself that I would go for it if I had a chance. After all, I had a lot more to gain than I did to lose. I first tried the Gulf of Mexico, and then Mongolia. Boy, do I wish I had not underestimated the size of that desert. Turns out it is about the same square footage as the good ole USA. I haven't for one second regretted going for it, but I sure wish I had known the answer! Still, I'm grateful for the $25,000 I won, and am so glad that all those months ago I decided to take a chance and try out for the show. I got to visit New York for the first time, had a wonderful time with my sisters, met some great people, and for a very little work, "earned" a nice chunk of change.
However, I still have not seen that chunk of change. I am eagerly anticipating its arrival. It sure would be nice to see it before Christmas. As I wait, I'm figuring out which game show to try out for next.
Thanks to everyone for all your excitement and enthusiasm about the show. It sure means a lot.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Check this out!

I made the local news website. Check it out. If you want to.

Pedicure anyone?

In an effort to increase our family's cash flow, Chloe will now be offering pedicures throughout the holiday season. She enjoys her work, so it's not really exploitation. Just make sure she stays focused, or she will paint all the way up your toes because even though she's not looking, she keeps that brush moving.

The truth is, because she was good in nursery on Sunday (and good translates into not repeating the crime of hitting 4 kids like she did last week, even though she did refuse to sing with "those kids" and instead stood in the back of the room and had her own singing time), she got to paint her nails. Then she asked to paint mine and I let her. They make me laugh every time I look at them.