I love holiday baking. Really, what’s not to love about it? My annual holiday tradition is to bake something time-consuming, tedious, and unnecessary instead of doing laundry and packing for my annual trip out-of-town to celebrate Christmas with family. You see, when you always travel for the Christmas holiday, you’re supposed to be excused from going over-the-top with holiday decorating, baking, and merry-making because you’re not going to be home to watch the Christmas tree dry up and drop all it’s needles. And the amount of time required to adequately deck the halls means that by the time my halls are decked, I’m heading out-of-town. To make the time investment of setting up my Christmas village pay off, last year I left it out until May when my cleaning lady opted to pack it up herself in lieu of adding some sand and cocktail umbrellas and calling it a summer resort town.
But I am stubborn and I have some grand notion that decorating the perfect Christmas tree, setting up the extensive collection of holiday village pieces I’ve collected, and baking enough holiday treats to send the entire population of Georgia into a diabetic coma will awaken that elusive “Christmas Spirit” that I feel confident is present but perhaps trapped beneath the layers of stress that seem to be ever-present these days. Each year I convince myself that depriving myself of rest in the name of Christmas traditions such as cookie baking and decorating will make the holidays more enjoyable. In other words, I seem to be under the impression that causing myself more stress to go with my stress will make me merry. Obviously I am delusional. And despite the fact that I am fully aware of my delusion, I did it again.
Every year I bake and decorate a gingerbread house. And every year when it’s complete I wonder why I felt the need to be so elaborate when very few, if any, people are going to see it. And gingerbread house-making is tedious and nobody ever eats it because by the time you’re done decorating it, you’ve usually ingested an unethical amount of sugar in the form of royal icing and the idea of consuming more of it makes your stomach turn. So your gingerbread house just sits there collecting dust and looking pretty for about a week and then ends up dumped into the trash. I spend most of my time that it’s on display patrolling the area with a water gun to dissuade the cats from becoming too interested in it. So this year I decided to change all that. I decided that my gingerbread masterpiece must be admired by humans, and not just cats. I decided to make a gingerbread version of my office and not just leave it as a sitting target for the felines but to leave it in the break room at work so everyone can admire my work and praise my creativity. Surely admiration and praise is the missing key to unlocking my Christmas Spirit!
The project got off to a rough start. My selected “baking day” turned out to be a “migraine day” which delayed everything. All I was able to accomplish that day was getting the dough mixed up and resting in the refrigerator for another time when I felt that I would be more capable of operating a rolling-pin without my head exploding. Even mixing up the dough was probably a poor idea. Do you have ANY IDEA how LOUD a Kitchenaid stand mixer sounds when you have a migraine. Let’s just say it was the first time I did any baking wearing noise canceling headphones. And so it was not until 3 days later that I retrieved my dough from the fridge, dusted my rolling-pin with flour and started engineering my masterpiece.
The first thing I did was find a box suitable for being the stage upon which I could display my masterpiece. I wanted to light the gingerbread office from inside using the same type of light that illuminates my holiday village houses. I covered the top of the box with foil and set to work cutting holes to run the cord through. Yes, a gingerbread building wired for lights – this is the kind of obnoxious stuff us engineers come up with to entertain ourselves.
I decided that I didn’t have time to make a scale model of my building and we’d have to just be okay with an “artists interpretation” of the building. So, I used a ruler and scissors to turn some pieces of paper into templates for the walls, roof, windows, doors, and even the A/C unit on the roof that seems to be constantly under repair.
Then I pulled out my first carefully wrapped brick of gingerbread dough and started rolling it. And it refused to cooperate. With each pass of my rolling-pin, the dough cracked and crumbled like one of Charlie Sheen’s marriages. I realized that the vegetable shortening was still too cold from being in the fridge so I spent the next 5 minutes kneading it to make it more pliable and elastic and tried again. This time was better but just one or two rolls short of the finish line, the dough stuck to the rolling-pin and tore a huge hole in itself. I was obviously dealing with kamikaze gingerbread dough.
At this point I started to feel defeated. But, I was not going to let Christmas down, I was going to force this gingerbread into submission. I prepared for battle! I made myself a Jack and coke, gave my torn dough a stern look as if to say “you can’t defeat me as long as I don’t run out of whiskey, I shall be victorious and Christmas shall be saved!” I kneaded the dough and shaped it into a disk. I floured the pin and the dough to prevent sticking. And I rolled like I’ve never rolled before! When the dough was finally large enough to cut out a side of the building, I tried to transfer it to the parchment lined baking sheet. The plan was to cut the shape out after it was on the baking sheet to be sure that the dough didn’t stretch or tear after it was cut due to improper moving techniques. Unfortunately, the dough had different ideas and it fell apart despite my best efforts. There was some festive holiday cursing as I realized that I needed to just roll the dough out on the parchment paper and then transfer it onto the cookie sheet already on the paper.
On roughly the 42nd try, I succeeded in getting one side of the gingerbread building onto the cookie sheet without cracks and successfully cut out the door and window openings. I realized I needed to work faster because it was getting late and we were running out of whiskey and at this point, there was nothing worth admiring. I couldn’t just bring a gingerbread wall into the office and expect praise and admiration.
Construction of the other walls did go significantly faster but not without hiccups. I finally had all the dough ready for the oven and it was time to address the issue of windows. Some people might be happy with leaving the windows as open holes in the side of the building but that was obviously way too easy. I had about 4 bags of butter rum life savers and I happen to know from previous years of obsessive compulsive gingerbread making that melted lifesaver candy makes excellent gingerbread windows. Unfortunately, butter rum life savers are all individually wrapped in their bag and so I spent a ridiculous amount of time opening teensy little individual packages of life savers and reminded myself that next year I should make a building with fewer windows. I then loaded the lifesavers into a plastic baggie and wrapped it in a kitchen towel and took a meat mallet to the bag until I’d beat those lifesavers to death. I filled the window openings with lifesaver chunks and dust and I turned my creation over to the oven to be baked.
All was going beautifully and so I whipped up a batch of royal icing. If you’ve never used royal icing, it is supposed to be magic. It’s supposed to be loose enough to be able to pipe it easily. It’s supposed to be stiff enough to use as glue for vertical elements like walls of a gingerbread house without running everywhere. It’s supposed to dry like cement – able to stand up to the occasional cat paw or child trying to pick candy off. Unfortunately, there’s a very fine line between icing that’s too stiff to work with and icing-soup. And supposedly you can add more powdered sugar to thicken it up or a few drops of water to loosen it up but even if you do find that perfect consistency, it starts setting up fast so by the time you get it shoveled into your piping bag, it’s pretty much guaranteed to seem like you’re trying to squeeze biscuit dough through a straw. And if you’re like me and you don’t have a real piping bag and you use the old trick of cutting the corner off of a gallon size zip top bag, you’re guaranteed to blow icing out of the seam of the bag within the first 10 minutes. This happens every single year without fail. Yet I try it again every single year without fail.
Despite my icing woes, I was not going to be defeated. I managed to assemble the sides of the building using a butter knife dipped into the growing blob of icing leaking out of the destroyed plastic bag on my cutting board. I had even baked up a few structural supports for the inside corners of the gingerbread building to support the roof. unfortunately, when I went to set the roof into place, it cracked right down the middle into two large pieces. I’m pretty sure I felt the same way the engineers designing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge felt (not an engineering geek? Use the Google – it’s an amazing video). However, I was too close to give up now! So, I decided to support the roof using skewers and hide the crack by making it a white membrane roof (if only the designers of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge had access to royal icing…and a better understanding of resonant frequency). For those of you not familiar with membrane roofing systems – I decided to just cover the entire roof with icing to hide the crack.
For the finishing touches I added an air conditioning unit to the roof and baked up a couple gingerbread repair men. You might think that the gingerbread men would be easy since surely I have a gingerbread man cookie cutter. I searched in my pile of cookie cutters and I found stockings cookie cutters, sleigh cookie cutters, reindeer cookie cutters, and bells, and stars, and even a duck, 2 butterflies and an elephant…but my gingerbread man cookie cutter is missing. I put out an APB and searched everywhere I could think of that he might be living in my kitchen but I finally had to give up the search and free hand my gingerbread men. This is why one of them is really short and the other one has one arm shorter than the other. What they lack in symmetry, I’m pretty sure they make up for in tastiness. I even made them some gingerbread tools because somehow that seemed like an effective use of my time at 11 pm on a night when I had to work the next day and was only about 70% of the way through finishing my gingerbread creation.
And since my office is right next to the back door of the building and the people in my building are physically incapable of looking behind them to make sure the door closes when they leave, those of us in the back corner of the office are CONSTANTLY getting up to close the door, I added the door to the back of the building…in the open position in a little passive aggressive jab. I did opt not to add the giant sign that hangs on the door in real life that says “BE SURE THE DOOR CLOSES BEHIND YOU” because it’s obviously invisible to at least 50% of the office population anyway.
As a finishing touch, I printed out the logo that is posted on our building and “glued” it to the building using corn syrup. Yeah, I know it’s cheating since paper is not edible but since I already have skewers holding up the roof, I gave up the “completely edible” design already.
I brought it to work. I placed it in the break room. I plugged in the light. I received praise. And it made it almost 2 whole days before it became snack food and pieces started disappearing.