On Building a Gingerbread House
I grew up building gingerbread houses.
Every December my father would take out his meticulously measured stencils, each a wall, or roof panel, or sides of the chimney. We would roll out the dough and place the stencils on top, making sure to cut closely around them. Then in the oven the baking tray would go.
The stencils had been drawn on graph paper, the lines slowly fading over time, and for the other 11 months out of the year they were housed in a yellowed manila folder, marked with big red letters on the front: “jul recept.” “Christmas recipes” my mother had written in Swedish, and along with the gingerbread house stencils were a variety of classic Swedish Christmas recipes, mostly torn out from magazines of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the recipe for our annual gingerbread house dough. I loved pulling that folder out at the beginning of each December, identifying my favorite cookies that we would make and store in large cookie tins.
While it was always a focused affair, the act of making the gingerbread house never felt like a stressful one. There was of course the part where my father melted sugar in a pan on the stove in order to make an edible glue to bind the pieces of the house together. With the power of cement, when it dried it was so strong that you would practically need a hammer to break the house down. The hot sugar burned easily and dried even faster, so gluing the edges of the house was always his task. I took charge of the more entertaining part: decorating.
Me in the early years of gingerbread house training.
As a child it’s easy to be blissfully unaware of your surroundings, unaware of what it takes to make things happen. A kind of child tunnel vision. My parents spent the holidays making sure that it was a magical time for me, and I was rarely privy to the adult realities of the tasks involved.
When every morning during the month of December my advent calendar held a new note – a handwritten message about some holiday task I was supposed to complete that day – it was because either my mother or my father had written it the night before, often after an “oh shit, we forgot to write the note before going to bed” moment experienced in the middle of the night. I only learned this years later.
When I woke up to the Christmas Eve morning spread of cookies and flickering candles on the table, it was because my mother had been up late the night before preparing it (not to mention all of the baking that had happened for several weeks leading up to it). But I was a child, the magic of the month of December was simply a given, not anything ever to be questioned or analyzed.
Which is why it never occurred to me the stress levels that can come with building a gingerbread house. Until this year.
My partner, an architect, had decided that we should recreate my childhood home, the house that my parents still live in. We didn’t tell them; the construction would be a surprise, an ode to the wonderful home that they built with their own bare hands. My parents had designed and built that house themselves, so I joked that when all was said and done, maybe my father would tell us that the scale of the building was a bit off, or that we had missed some crucial house detail, like putting the chimney in the wrong place.
The entire house was well thought out, painstakingly planned. Luc drew the plans and cut them out with an X-acto knife. We decided that in the aim for true precision, we would do the same with the dough.
Growing up, my father and I would cut the pieces out first, then bake them, a common gingerbread house building strategy. But since the dough rises ever so slightly while baking, regardless of how well you measured and cut, it will never come out of the oven in perfect dimensions. My father had recently mentioned to me that based upon this pesky problem of imprecision resulting from the baking process, he had always debated on going the bake-first-cut-second method, but had never gotten around to trying it. Roll the dough out, bake it, remove it from the oven, let it cool enough to not burn your hands, but cut it before it hardens.
We opted for this method, which sounds simple enough, but when you are in the midst of baking god-knows-how-many pieces of gingerbread house siding, frantically trying to cut each piece out, this all of a sudden seems like the worst idea that you could ever come up with. It did however lead to perfectly sized pieces for the gingerbread house. Not that I necessarily cared at that point, given that the gingerbread house was starting to feel like my nemesis. What the hell are we doing?
As I cursed the pieces, they laid there calmly on the countertop in all their glory, their dark brown color just waiting to be decorated with white icing. In a very smart decision – or perhaps one made after realizing what we had gotten ourselves into – we decided that instead of cutting out the multiple doors and windows, we would outline them in icing.
All the windows and doors were perfectly iced when Luc turned to me and said, “is this supposed to still be soft?” He was pointing to one of the three larger pieces on the countertop. Dough that should have crisped when baked had not done so, given its size and thickness. I should have baked it for longer. Rookie mistake really, one that I should have known better about. More profanities from me. F*cking gingerbread house.
“It’s ok, calm down. Can we just re-bake it for a few more minutes?” he asked.
I opted for testing a piece first, realizing that if we had come this far, I wasn’t about to just start putting the carefully rolled out and cut pieces back into the oven in trial and error mode. I didn’t have time for such shenanigans, certainly not with all the time that we had by now invested into this construction.
We decorated a scrap piece of gingerbread with icing and popped it in the oven for a few minutes. I opened the oven door and pulled out the tray. The icing had bubbled up all around. I imagined how terrible the gingerbread was going to be when it looked like we had made an odd attempt at decorating it in white bubble wrap. “Shit,” I swore, yet again. I was outwardly cursing the gingerbread house, and internally cursing my frustration. Anna, people are dying and starving around the world, this is just a gingerbread house… Yes, the ultimate first world problem.
Eventually we realized that it was a question of temperature, and that if we kept the oven on low heat, we could re-bake a piece of gingerbread and harden it up without totally destroying the icing. Of course, the time required to dry out multiple pieces of gingerbread was a different story. We were in it for the long haul.
At this point, many hours into the gingerbread house making endeavor, and far too many profanities for a Saturday afternoon, I started wondering: Why do we even make gingerbread houses?
Really, what is the purpose? It’s not for the taste. Unlike taking time to bake a batch of Christmas cookies, a gingerbread house always looks good, but after a few weeks of sitting out on the counter or kitchen table on display, break off a piece and it’s usually stale and unappetizing. You stop after a few bites and the rest of the now decrepit house gets tossed.
The gingerbread house doesn’t serve any other kind of functional purpose either. Hours may go in to designing, measuring, cutting and baking, but unless you recently invited a family of gnomes to come stay, the house isn’t going to be used for any practical reasons. You would have been better off spending time building a tree house.
Which leaves one last option for the point of a gingerbread house: we want it to look at. We want to show it off, so that people who come to visit ooh and ahh over our masterpiece. Maybe we’re just vain. Isn’t that part of the reason that we lose our sanity over perfectly decorating houses this time of year? And why when the main Christmas dinner dish doesn’t bake properly we feel that all is lost? The upkeep of tradition is often far from magical.
We eventually got the entire house together – I even added small details like the cat in the second story window – and we took a step back to look at our masterpiece. It was beautiful. Almost a perfect replica of my childhood home. “Well, we didn’t kill each other,” Luc said to me.
“Almost,” I responded. I paused for a moment, then added, “what an absurd activity.” We laughed.
The gingerbread house now sits on the kitchen counter, with a glass jar of lights behind it. I love having it there. Part of that might be vanity, but as the dreary Pacific Northwest winter keeps up with pouring rain, it is in fact magical. And we built it ourselves, adding yet another year to the tradition of gingerbread house making.
My mother would later tell me that it was the best Christmas surprise that they had gotten in a long time. No longer a child, it’s now my turn to create magic.
Yes, when it comes to gingerbread houses, and many other things this time of year, we humans are often vain. We want things to look good – whether it’s a cookie, a wrapped present, or a wreath. But in this day and age, we don’t like to acknowledge the reality of how much time and effort it takes to do all of it. All of those “Easy Gingerbread House” recipes certainly don’t.
When we are trying to stick to tradition, to recreate a part of that magic that we remember as children, it’s easy to get upset. We want things to be perfect after all. But as we all know, it’s not perfection that makes for tradition; often it’s the imperfections that create the most magic, the most serendipity. The process is more important than the result. That’s where the tradition comes from in the first place.
The roof is already starting to slightly cave in. Thank god we built an additional reinforcing wall for the inside (see: architect). But I don’t really care. Even if it falls down today we still built a gingerbread house, it still sat there as a reminder of Christmas present and many Christmas pasts. And so, next year, I promise, I will try to swear less.
But I will build a gingerbread house.