When I was a child, one of the many things I looked forward to at Christmas time was going to my Mom Mom’s house at Christmas. It was not because of the physical gifts she gave–in fact, that was a little disappointing at the time because every Christmas, she gave her grandchildren savings bonds. Then, I didn’t understand why you would get something that looked like money that you couldn’t spend. Even if it was spendable immediately, I didn’t have any use whatsoever for money. It might as well have been brightly hued Monopoly currency. Thanks to 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 imagined in my wildest dreams. Those are different stories for a different day.
I looked forward to going to her house at Christmas because she was the type of woman who loved me and my cousins with every grain of her kind, gentle being. Every holiday, too, each of our families got a gingerbread house, rolled, hand-cut, assembled, and decorated by Neva. Each house was covered with some of our favorite (M&Ms) and not-so-favorite (spice drops) candy. We could look, but not touch the gingerbread houses until after Christmas, which was torture to us “youngins” because well, a candy, icing, and cookie combination was our kryptonite.
My Mom Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when I was seven. The evolution of that despicable disease started with a complete sea-change of her being. Stage one, she turned from the sweetest, gentlest, most loving and giving woman to an agitated, fidgety shell of herself. Stage two, my family had no choice but to put her in an assisted living facility when she began heating tupperware containers on the stovetop. She lived in the facility for a brief time as her memory continued to slip–I remember it more as a slide than a slip. Each visit, she resembled my Mom Mom less and less. In that particular circumstance, the worst case scenario happened when she fell and broke her hip. After that, she was admitted into a nursing home where she would live out her days in a shared bedroom, curled up in a feeble, withering ball, watching fuzzy television and living in a world none of those who loved her knew. Towards the final stage of this evolution, her sweet spirit prevailed. She smiled when you’d walk into her room, even though she didn’t know who you were, and she loved. You could tell she loved by the smile on her face and the energy, though weak but notable, she released into the unknown world around her.
I didn’t think about the gingerbread houses until my mom sent me Mom-mom’s cookbooks last year when two photographs, her handwritten gingerbread recipe and house patterns fell out from the inside front cover.
To keep my family’s tradition alive, I made a big batch of her gingerbread cookie dough last week. Once baked, I couldn’t resist and took a bite of the thin, crspy 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 at its finest. On a lighter note, I should also say, ADULTHOOD FOR THE WIN!! You can dig into the gingerbread whenever you want and don’t have to wait until after Christmas to eat the candy or cookies!!
Before I move on to writing about other things, I want to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas. I hope you find peace and comfort in your own nostalgia, while you reflect and remember those you can only spend Christmas with in spirit, and I hope you find some of that comfort in old recipes, or handwritten letters, or stories told by loved ones.
The gingerbread house was 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.
I had an extra ball of gingerbread dough, and I wanted to share it with my food swap/pen pal from Food52. For the last couple years, Food52 community members sign up to participate in a Holiday Food Swap and share sweet treats and regional goodies with complete strangers at Christmas. Noelle, from Food52, matches individuals and once you know your person, you send them a box of goodies. You give to and receive from people you’ve never met before. Best idea ever!! Creating community through food is a practice I wholeheartedly believe in, and being able to practice this with a stranger from Nevada, well that’s just the best. (I found out my new friend, Leslie, is a food and lifestyle blogger at Butter and Salt . She’s awesome and you should check her blog out here. If you don’t know what you’re making on Christmas morning, her Challah french toast looks great! )
I obviously couldn’t send a gingerbread house all the way to Reno, so I improvised by making a “village” of sorts with one dimensional cookies. I also found some really cute mugs to send, along with some all purpose baking mix and Maine blueberry jam. What’s not pictured in the LL Bean boot cookie. I don’t get any props for that. I bought it at LL Bean two weeks ago and couldn’t resist sending it.
When I went to mail Leslie’s package, I had a box from my food swap pal, Lauren, from PA! She sent wonderful tea, candy cane kisses, to-die-for almond and cranberry cookies, peppermint bark, and the most delightful lemon truffles (when I say delightful, I mean I’ve eaten almost all of them). Oh, and she sent a picture of her sweet fur-baby, Laci WITH SANTA!!! Thank you Lauren and Laci!! Happy Holidays to you both!
Speaking of fur-babies, here’s Izzy looking at the ducks swimming on the lake:
One gingerbread house and one gingerbread village later, I still had some dough left over. It was a little dry so I added about a tablespoon of heavy cream to it and rolled it out thinly. I mixed some fresh blackberries, diced crystallized ginger, sugar, and cornstarch, put it in the center of the dough, folded up the sides, baked it, and called it a galette. It was SO simple and tasted SO delicious. I SO hope you enjoy it!
- 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 filling:
- 3 cups fresh blackberries
- ½ cup sugar
- 3 Tbsp. cornstarch
- 1 Tbsp. crystallized ginger, minced (or 1 tsp. ground ginger)
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- Juice from ½ lemon
- Pinch of salt
- For egg wash:
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 Tbsp. cream
- 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 overnight.
- P.S. I chill a couple of hours and start my cookies. Don't be afraid to use extra flour on the dough and your hands.
- For the Galette:
- Preheat oven to 375.
- Roll a ball of dough out into a thin circle. It doesn't have to be perfect. We're going for rustic here.
- In a bowl, stir together the berries, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, lemon juice, and corn starch. Spoon the filling onto the rolled dough, leaving a 2-inch border uncovered around the edge. Fold up the edges over the filling, forming loose pleats around the center.
- Mix egg yolk and cream together. Brush edges of crust with egg wash and sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake until the filling is bubbling and the pastry is golden brown, about 35-40 minutes.