Children’s author Tina Hartigan delights us with this family friendly tale of a determined Mother making a special Christmas treat.
The Gingerbread House
“Visions of sugarplums danced in their heads”.
Yes, beautiful creations of magical confections I imagined making. A grand gingerbread house that would create a memory forever for the girls. Being new teenagers, they had never made nor received one. I wanted to give them something they have never had. After all, I am an expert baker. Well, I made a birthday cake train once for my youngest, that counts, doesn’t it? I had no idea what kind of life this gingerbread house was going to take on nor how it would consume mine. Here’s the story of THE Gingerbread House.
We spent the summers at our cottage on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. A newly blended family that wished to include family on both sides, I finally met my 2 new nieces who lived there. We spent a lot of time doing girly things that summer, our nails, looking at movie star magazines. Laying on the dock soaking up the sun, talking about boys and school, we got to know one another very well. I asked them their favorite time of the year and they both stated emphatically “Christmas!”
Being a fellow Christmas fanatic I instantly lit up and said “Why?”
“Christmas is the only time the cottage is open during the winter,” Heidi said.
Heather and Heidi told me that they helped their grandmother put up decorations and bake cookies for the holiday. Being originally from Sweden, my mother in law had several sizes of Dalihorse decorations. These were wooden, usually painted all in red and then decorated with white and green paint in ornate holly designs. I closed my eyes envisioned how lovely the cottage looked all decorated. The girls’ eyes looked lost but dreamy as they thought about Christmas. Heidi, her head leaning on her hand said, “Christmas is perfect at the cottage, There’s only one thing that would make it better. Something I have dreamed about for so long. A homemade gingerbread house.”
When I asked why they had never had one Heather told me that it was because their mom was too busy tending to the farm and grandma was too busy at the family business. This information gave me an instant thought of what I was going to do for them at Christmas time. How hard could it be? Little did I know what I was in for.
The months after the summer at the cottage flew by and it was suddenly the first of December. I knew I should probably research how to build a gingerbread house but pushed it off for another day and another and another and busied myself preparing for the holidays. By December 10 the house was decorated for Christmas and I dug into the research for the gingerbread house.
Some resources said that you could make one in 3 hours and others said it took at least 3 weeks. Instantly, I could feel a flush of panic hit my face like Santa’s rosy cheeks and suddenly had doubts of whether I could pull it off. “Aha! Maybe a pre-made one,” I said to myself with a grin.
I looked at some kits online and shook my head. They are convenient but I wanted this house to be special, to add a memory for the girls’ Christmas at the cottage. Determined, I started looking at recipes and pictures and realized that I needed templates for the pieces. I saw a show on the cooking channel about the National Gingerbread House Contest and their rule for size was 24x24x24. Getting a tape measure out and looking at the 24 mark, I instantly squashed that idea. That is too big and even though I had decided to not go with the ‘start small’ rule I still needed it to be big enough for my special surprise. I had to admit to myself that fear was setting in. I know! I could just buy one and they wouldn’t know the difference. No, I would know the difference, and it wouldn’t have that special element I wanted to add. I settled it in my mind that if I had to work night and day to get this house finished by the 23rd, I would, by golly.
The reason for choosing the 23rd as the date to be finished is because I would have to travel 148 miles to deliver from Vermont to New Hampshire. I wanted to enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my new family.
I found a template and a recipe in an old Good Housekeeping magazine. I cut the cardboard pieces for the sides, front, back, roof, windows and door. Pleased with myself that I was finally making progress, I tackled the dough recipe. So I measured and sifted, mixed the dough and a waft of the mixture between ginger, cinnamon and molasses brought me back to my childhood in the kitchen with my mom making gingerbread men. I knew instantly that my decision was a good one. I read that the recommendation was the dough ‘chill out’ overnight. With my stress level over this house maybe I should take that same recommendation!
That chill out period for me lasted about 20 minutes after I remembered that it was the 14th of December! I became more and more anxious about time slipping away so I decided to do prep work. Thankfully I have an 8 foot table that I am calling my canvas. I spread out the gumdrops, rope licorice, peppermint candies, stick pretzels, slivered almonds and mini marshmallows. Feeling accomplished I started dinner and put aside my project for the night while I got the boys ready for bed. The next morning was chaotic, we all overslept. We all had a long winter’s nap for sure! I had to rush the boys out the door for school after they choked down breakfast and threw their makeshift lunches in their bags. I had a twinge of guilt that I had not prepared their lunches the night before but shaking my head I told myself: “You don’t have time to wallow in guilt.” At that moment our black lab, Charlie, was whining for his walk. So I begrudgingly put on my boots, hat, jacket and mittens and headed out the door muttering at the inconvenient timing.
By the time I got to work on the gingerbread house it was mid-morning, and I was already annoyed. I looked around the downstairs and it was a disaster, with books, clothing, shoes and papers all over the place. I had to tidy the kitchen in order to bake so I did just that, grumpily I might add. I went into the dining room to prepare for rolling out the dough. I measured some flour and started spreading it out on the flat table. I glanced at the farther end of the table where I had organized my candy pieces. My visions of sugarplums became a vision of a sugarplum! The candy was gone. The pretzels were still there though, go figure! I let out a very loud growl, “Grrrrr…those boys!”
My husband came out of the den and asked what was wrong. I told him that I had prepared the candy pieces for the gingerbread house and the boys ate them all. I looked up at him and saw him staring at the ceiling, shuffling his feet and looking very guilty. I knew that he was in on it too. Frustrated, I slapped the table with both hands and a cloud of flour flew in my face, my shirt and on the floor. Exasperated, I gave him the ‘look’ and he quickly stepped out of the room. I heard a soft chuckle and felt a fresh resentment building up towards him. “Geesh,” I thought to myself.
I shook it off though as I had too much to do. I set about cleaning up the mess I had made with the flour. I went to the refrigerator and retrieved the dough, went back to the table and let out a big sigh. Ready. I rubbed my hands into the flour on the table to coat the rolling pin. I rolled out the dough to a thickness of about ½ inch. I cut the pieces with a pizza cutter, (I thought I was so clever to find this tip online), and put the first batch of the house in the oven to cook. I continued this process until all the pieces were baked. The house smelled of cinnamon and childhood. I let the gingerbread cool on trivets and looked for a good royal icing recipe.
The best one that I found included meringue powder. Well, not every household has meringue powder and mine, for one, did not. So I proceeded out the door in search of the uncommon ingredient. After 3 stores and countless frustration with Christmas shoppers, I found the meringue powder and replenished the candy stock that the men in my family ate.
Got home, shrugged off my coat, flung my boots onto the boot tray and went into the dining room. I stopped in my tracks. It seems the ever hungry Charlie had sampled my cooling gingerbread as there were crumbs on the floor and one of the windows was missing. I did not have time to do another batch of dough so I revised my design. Giving up was not an option. So I looked at some pictures and saw painted on windows, that can’t be too hard, can it?
With that settled I prepared my royal icing as instructed. I scooped it into the icing bag and it seemed to be a little thick. I tried to test it on the gingerbread window that I was no longer going to use, and it wouldn’t come out of the bag. I squeezed and squeezed. It looked like a giant sausage bunched up at the bottom with nothing coming out! I went back to the recipe and it did say that you could thin it out with water drops, a few at a time. I used a spoon to test the thickness and it still seemed to me to be too thick, so I added more water, put it in another piping bag and went to assemble the house.
After all this prep and time spent to make this painstaking house I had forgotten that it needed a platform with which to sit on! “Geez Louise,” I said out loud, “It’s one problem after another with this house. Maybe I’m not supposed to make it!” Instant stress and frustration set in. I walked through the kitchen, the man door and into the garage in search of something that I could set this house on. After it seemed like forever looking for something flat in that garage covered in dust and leftover belongings, I found a wooden seat of an old chair that I was going to use for another project. It would be perfect! I took it to the sink and washed it.
As I was doing this I thought about how to cover it. Cheesecloth came to mind and I already had some on hand. I could wrap it in cheesecloth and then, once the house was in place, use the mini marshmallows as snow. I went back to the dining room with my cheesecloth covered chair and set about putting the sides on the house. As I was holding one side of the house to the back side of the house I had to quickly ice up where they were to be joined. Now the icing was too thin and I juggled the pieces in order to not drop them. “Wow,” was all I said.
I quickly wiped off the icing and set the pieces down. I had had it! Normally a happy, even keeled person, I had become a stressed out, flour-encrusted hair, sticky-fingered mess! I needed a shower and some meditation. Or medication, not sure which. After a much needed shower, I decided to work on the girl figures I wanted to make. I wanted them to resemble Heather and Heidi. I made a batch of rice crispy treats (that I found online too) and molded them into little bodies. I covered them in regular icing out of a can and then proceeded to paint clothing and features on them. Well, I can pretty much copy paint anything but to come up with an original paint project, um…No. They came out looking like a cross between the horror movie Chuckie and Beetlejuice. “I won’t be using those,” I muttered to myself. Looking back on the day, all I could think was another day down and nowhere near done. I still had to do the special surprise too! I was seriously continuing to doubt my abilities.
The next morning was the 16th of December and I had a new resolve. That house was going up today! I went into the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee and scrutinized that icing recipe. Glancing out the kitchen window at the beautiful snow I marveled at nature and wondered why this task was so difficult. My little voice piped in and said, “You are the one making it difficult. Just make the house!”
I had that newfound determination, and it was like I became an automaton. I followed the exact instructions for the icing and the bottom part of that house was framed! It was now time for the roof. My special surprise needed specific things so I called my husband in to watch the house while I went out. “Please don’t let anything happen to this while I’m gone, please,” I begged him. He assured me that he would guard it with his life.
I set off to find the items I needed. I was gone for hours and a little concerned about what I would find when I got home. I quietly opened the door, gingerly took off my boots and coat and tiptoed in the dining room expecting the worst. I was shocked!! I walked in there and he had decorated the bottom part of the house and it was beautiful! He even made a walkway out of the pretzel sticks. He was also able to make two windows out of the one using a scroll saw and rope licorice cut to look like window panes. I would have never thought of that.
“I thought maybe you would be upset that I did this, but I wanted to be a part of it too, and I know how stressed you have been. I thought I could help,” he said, with a concerned look on his face.
Instant relief flooded through me. Weights were lifted off my shoulders. He had certainly redeemed himself after the candy fiasco. I told him, “No, it is the exact opposite, I am so relieved, I could have never finished it without your help. The bottom part of the house I had to slather with icing to get it to stand up.”
He looked at me teasingly and said, “Well, you do know that there is an architectural component to making a house right?” I squinched up my face and gave him my deepest disappointment face, and he laughed.
I blurted out, “Nobody said there was going to be math!” I started placing the slivered almonds in rows on the one roof and he started the other.
For the rest of the day we worked to get that house assembled with the added special surprise and it was finally done. I had made it! We had made it! Ahead of time! My youngest came in and said, “Wow! Are you going to the college now?”
My husband and I looked at each other and laughed at his misword. He had always called the cottage the ‘college’. We definitely needed the comic relief after the stress of THE gingerbread house.
So I decided to deliver the house on the 20th of December so that I would have more celebration time with my family. It was a long 3 hour drive from Vermont to New Hampshire. For ease of travel we had placed it in a large laundry basket so there would be less jostling. I finally arrived at the cottage and couldn’t wait for the girls to see their house. Opening the door was impossible with my hands full so I just yelled, “Can someone open the door please?”
My mother in law opened the door and saw what I had in my hands and smiled. “They are going to love that,” she said.
I placed it on the kitchen table and reached in to lift it out of the laundry basket. Just then the two girls came in and shrieked, “Is that for us?”
“It sure is, but you have to start eating it right now,” I said.
Both of their faces fell and I could tell by that look that they wanted to admire it longer than a few minutes. I chuckled and lifted the roof off the house to reveal hair bands, bracelets, necklaces, stickers, nail polish, makeup and lots of other girly things that I had stuffed inside the house. “Merry Christmas,” I said.
My special surprises were things that I had bought for them for Christmas, and I had just decided to ‘wrap’ them differently and give them another special memory of Christmas at the cottage.
Tina is a children’s author and lives in Northern NY. A former teacher, she is writing the 3rd in her children’s series, as well as a novel that is close to being finished. Amazon Author Page