Friday, December 23, 2011


Ginger cakes can be traced all the way back to the early Greeks. Wealthy Athenian families would make their way to the Isles of Rhodes to savor the delights of the island's ginger honey cakes. The development of gingerbread found its way into Europe with each country or region putting its own mixture of spices into the batter giving it its own signature zing. In the 1600's the bakers of Nuremberg, Germany came up with a recipe they called Lubkuchen, the flat shaped bread we associate with gingerbread.  They added spices like cardamom, clove, white pepper, cinnamon, anise and of course ginger to give it its flavor. Eventually, the master bakers of the Lubkuchen guild started using the bread as the structural material for their elaborate houses known as Knusperhaeuschen, "houses for nibbling at". In the nineteenth century the Grimm Brothers brought out their collection of Germany fairytales and we all know the one where Hansel and Gretel find a gingerbread house that almost hastens their demise.
Today there are kits for making your own gingerbread house, contests for amateurs and professionals and bakeries all over North America displaying beautifully crafted renditions of Knuperhaeuschen. When Emmy was a little girl I tried several times to use my architectural skills to make our own little gingerbread house. Even with the aid of a kit I was no Frank Lloyd Wright. I'd get three sides attached and as I'd reach for the fourth side the house would slowly pull apart and collapse like the barn walls in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The roofs were impossible. I could stay for hours trying to prevent the painful slide of the gumdropless undecorated panels from their decent off the forty-five degree slant of the peaked roof line. My Knusperhaeuschen were certainly not works of art. They were just a mess, but this year was different.
Our friend, Julie Moskal whose talents as a seamstress, manual laborer, florist and baker have been touted throughout the year in previous posts once again earned her title of Jack-of-all-trades. For the past two decade Julie and her family have hosted an annual gingerbread making party. It started out as an event for her own kids but soon spread to the kids of her brothers and sisters and Julie has a large family.
Now family and friends gather at the long table stretching down Julie's media, dining and living corridor, a good thirty feet to work on one of the twenty houses she makes ready for them to decorate and then devour. Like the Rose Bowl floats having to be made from real flowers, Julie's rule is everything you put on your house must be edible.
Here's her recipe for the houses:
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar - beat together
1/2 cup molasses
1 egg - add & beat well
3 cups flour
1 tspn ground ginger
1 1/2 tspn cinnamon
1/4 tspn ground cloves
1/4 tspn salt - add & beat until thoroughly mixed
Press 1/2 dough into a very well greased mold and bake at 350  for 20 minutes.
Now repeat this process 40 times for 20 houses.
For frosting Julie make 2 kinds: Royal icing is made with meringue powder (you can buy this at most craft and kitchen stores) and will start to harden within a few minutes.  She uses this for sticking the houses together and for decorating them with candy.
Royal icing:
1 2# bag of powdered sugar
6 tspn meringue powder
Mix these together. While mixing the sugar and meringue powder slowly add 3/4 cup of warm water. Put the mixture into a pastry bag with a medium sized tip and you are ready to work. This tasty glue is the magic tool that makes putting together and then decorating your house a breeze. It's a tip worthy of a Martha Stewart gold star. No more having to worry about having six hands to hold your gingerbread roof in place while the watery slow setting icing of normal cake decorating oozes out from between the cracks and your roof pieces tumble and crumble before you even make it to adding those jellied gum drops.
The other frosting is a soft frosting that Julie finds works well for kids. The Royal frosting can be a little hard for a kid to handle. It's kinda stiff and after a few minutes of trying to squeeze it out of your pastry bag even an adult's hand can start to cramp. This frosting is also easy to add color to, Julie usually mixes up bags of green, red, yellow and blue.
It's called Decorating Frosting and here's how to make it:
1 cup shortening (Julie recommends Crisco as it is very white and makes good snow) You want to beat well and break down its consistency then add and continue to beat
1 2# bag of powdered sugar. You can, of course do this by hand but we highly recommend a good stand mixer
4 tbspn water - keep beating and adding one tablespoon at a time until well blended. For stiffer frosting decrease the water
Put your decrating frosting into a pastry bag and add any tip you want.  Here Julie uses disposable bags for the kids so the clean up is easier.
This past weekend Julie used 20 pounds of flour, 12 jars of molasses, 28 pounds of powdered sugar and 24 cups of shortening
Twenty-four hours after the last gingerbread house had disappeared out her front door, Julie was still scrubbing frosting off the tables and floor.
The upside, twenty sets of families and friends had some of the best gingerbread houses I've ever seen. Sharing traditions like this is what makes Christmas a joyous and memorable holiday.

I couldn't have had more fun and it couldn't have been easier. Of course, I didn't have to make twenty of them and I didn't have to scrub the floor. Thanks Julie for a true holiday lesson in giving.

December 17th, the first snowfall of the season, not a big one but enough of a dusting to turn frostbit lawns to white wool blankets. Those first snowfalls of the season are the most beautiful. The biting cold of winter and the icy slushy streets haven't turned our joy to depression. This year's first snowfall came late in the season, just in time to give us the hope for a white Christmas, but the thought of having to go to our store to shovel the front walk was starting to turn my euphoria to a nagging regret, and then I saw my salvation, a bearded angel with stretch hoops in his ears, out in front of his house with a Wovel. He was gliding down the sidewalk, hands held high guiding his Wovel well past his own sidewalk and onto the neighbors, tossing loads of snow as if they were loaves of airy bread fresh from the oven.
Throughout time man has seen where two good ideas could be combined to make one better one; we've breed a donkey with an zebra to make a zonkey, we've grafted an lemon with a tomato to make a lemato, now man has combined a wheelbarrow with a shovel and made a Wovel.
Using leverage to magnify your effort the Wovel provides a healthy, economical, earth-friendly alternative to the traditional snow shovel or expensive gas-guzzling snow blower. Testimonials abound with praise for the efficient way the Wovel reduces the amount of time it takes to rid your sidewalks and driveways of piles of snow. The reduction in strain on a person's heart and back are even regaled by the Surgeon General making shoveling a safe form of moderate physical activity. Throw away that New Year's "I'll join a gym" resolution and buy a Wovel, your body will thank you. It's just three easy steps: scoop, lift and throw. You'll thank me later.


Old Man and Deanna, 1986
Joyce Tenneson, photographer
Represented by Photographers Gallery, Los Angeles

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