When I was a kid, one of the many things I anticipated at Christmas was going to my Mom Mom’s house. It was not because of the presents she gave. To be honest, that was a little disappointing. Every year, she gave her grandchildren savings bonds. I can assure you–nothing is more anti-climatic to a six-year-old than opening an envelope with a savings bond inside. It might as well have been brightly hued Monopoly money. Because of those savings bonds, years later, I took my first trip out of the country to Ghana, Africa and discovered things about myself and the world that I couldn’t have fathomed at six or in my wildest dreams as a young adult. Those are different stories for a different day.
I looked forward to going to Christmas with her because she loved me and my cousins with every grain of her kind, gentle being. She showed her love for each of our families by gifting us a gingerbread house; rolled, hand-cut, baked, assembled, and decorated by Neva. Each house was unique and each was covered with some of our favorite (M&Ms) and not-so-favorite (spice drops) candies. We could only admire the gingerbread houses from afar until after the holiday, which was torture to us “youngins” but we always managed to sneak a candy or two without anyone noticing.
I inherited her recipe cards and house patterns. To keep my family’s tradition alive, I made a big batch of her gingerbread cookie dough again this year. Once baked, I couldn’t resist and took a bite of the thin, crispy gingerbread Christmas tree and the spirit of my Mom Mom and the fond memories of Christmas’ at her house welled up inside of me. Nostalgia.
I don’t know if anyone has ever hypothesized or written about the correlation between nostalgia and a haunting, but I would bet that the two are synonymous, or at least closely connected. A haunting is uninvited. So maybe that means nostalgia is when we invite the ghost into ourselves.
Regardless, I like to think my Mom Mom and I are sharing a moment together in my kitchen each time I bake any of her recipes.
I want to wish you and your family a very happy holiday. I hope you find peace and comfort in your own nostalgia, while you reflect and remember those you can only spend time with in spirit. And I hope you find some of that comfort in old recipes, or handwritten letters, or stories told by loved ones.
I must note: assembling a gingerbread house is a bear. After cutting the individual pieces, the dough ripped on more than one occasion. I burned two batches because the thin dough baked lightning fast. When it came time to assemble, I got all four walls together with the builder’s icing and all came tumbling down because, I swear, I looked at it wrong. With help from my husband and tons of builder’s icing, it stands now. I held my breath as I was photographing it, in fear it would resemble, yet again, a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Is it worth it? Well, I’ve got nostalgia on my side, so it is to me. It’s just as tasty if you simply make and decorate cookies vs. going the whole nine yards to make the house.
The Recipe: Gingerbread Cookie House Recipe
- For the Dough--From Neva's Collection (can be used for gingerbread houses, cookies, or crusts):
- 1 cup shortening (Crisco)
- 1 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp. ground ginger
- 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 cup dark corn syrup
- 2 eggs (room temperature)
- 5½ cups AP flour, divided
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- For the builder's icing:
- 3 large egg whites, room temperature
- 4¾ cups powdered sugar
- ½ tsp cream of tartar
- Candies of choice (M&Ms, candy canes, Hugs, Kisses, peppermint, chocolate bars, gum drops, etc)
- For the Dough: (written verbatim from recipe card)
- In a large bowl, cream shortening with brown sugar, cinnamon, and ground ginger until fluffy. Beat in corn syrup and eggs until well blended. Mix 2 cups of flour with the baking soda; beat into creamed mixture. Stir in remaining 3½ cups flour, working with hands if necessary to smooth dough. Divide into four parts and wrap airtight and chill a couple hours or up to overnight.
- When ready to roll, let warm up slightly or until dough is pliable.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Don't be afraid to use extra flour on the dough and your hands. Roll ¼ inch thin and cut in desired shapes. See hints below for cookie house patterns.
- Place shapes on parchment paper and bake regular sized cookies for 7-8 minutes and larger pieces (walls and roof) for 10-12 minutes.. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack.
- For the builders icing: In a large bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar together with hand mixer at medium speed. Add powdered sugar, ½ to ¾ cup at a time, mixing at high speed after each addition. Once all the sugar is added, beat at high speed for four(ish) minutes or until thickened. Use immediately or refrigerate until ready to use. If refrigerated, let sit a few minutes at room temperature and stir until icing softened enough to squeeze out of a piping bag.
- When ready to decorate, use a piping bag with a #76 or #96 tip. Fill with icing and assemble the base. You may need to add a good bit of icing to help keep the walls standing. Use soup cans on either side of the gingerbread walls to prop them up while the icing dries completely. Add the roof.
- When adding candy, place a small dot of builders icing on the back of each piece and place on the cookies, holding it in place while the icing dries.
These gals’ gingerbread skills are strong.