Wednesday, December 18, 2013

From the moving frontlines

We are no longer here (thank god).

moving day!
{moving day}

Instead we are here ...

new living room
{new living room}

And, sadly, here ...

settling in
{settling in}

I failed to appreciate just how inadequate our adorable 1930's kitchen would be to my not-so-minimalist stash of kitchen equipment. It's an issue. We are putting in shelves as I type this and I'm hoping I actually make it in there for at least a single batch of Christmas cookies.

Whenever I get discouraged (about ten times a day, for the last two weeks) I just remind myself that my gift this year will be having these scraggly little legs on my sofa full time. Assuming Circe can adjust to apartment living, that is.


Eyes on the prize, people, eyes on the prize.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Putting together the gingerbread house party

Last year I wrote this up as I was prepping and then never posted it because the party wore me right out. This year might be the first time in nearly three decades that we aren't able to have the party and that makes me sad, even though I realize that adding a big party on top of our move and some ongoing house renovations at my parents' place probably would be hard for everyone involved. Maybe we'll manage to pull it together but in the meantime, I'll try to be a gingerbread house enabler.

cookie cutters
{cookie cutters}

The beginning of December is generally very busy for me at work but luckily the baking can be broken up into parts that I can handle in the evenings after a full day. Here's how it went down last year.

gingerbread spices
{gingerbread spices}

We needed 12 houses so I planned on making 15. I always have a little wiggle room in the numbers. That way if you break a piece or have a house that comes together wonky you don't need to stress. If they all turn out perfectly, well, a decorated house can be a sweet surprise for a coworker, neighbor, etc.

Tuesday morning I measured four sets of the spice mixture, the baking soda + baking powder and the brown sugar. I set out the butter and the eggs. Three batches of dough will make the 15 houses I planned for and the extra one is for cookies, of course. Here is the dough recipe I use, which I love. The only issue with it is that the scraps of raw dough are so good that Dustin and I basically live on them all week and feel mildly disgusted with ourselves.

Tuesday evening when I got home from work I made all four batches of dough assembly line style so I didn't have to clean out the mixing bowl between. The recipe lists the flour in cups so for the first batch I weighed the flour I measured out (1 lb 13.5 oz) and then for the remaining batches I didn't have to bother with the measuring. Much faster. Each batch gets bundled in plastic wrap and refrigerated.

Wednesday - Friday I baked in the evenings. I always make a list and keep a tally so I know how many of each piece I have (for 15 houses it is: 30 roofs, 30 walls, 15 fronts, 15 backs, 15 doors). Once the pieces have cooled completely I put them in large ziploc bags. If you aren't putting the houses together very soon, you should do this. The gingerbread will pick up moisture from the air quickly and you end up with soft pieces that, while perfect for eating, are structurally unsound. This is also why you can't put the houses together too far ahead. Even a couple days of damp weather and everything falls apart. Once you get enough royal frosting on, the houses will usually hold up really well. We've had a few years where it was so damp that the roofs slid off, but that's rare.

You also want to prepare the cardboard bases for the houses ahead of time. The house footprint is fairly small but I aim for nothing smaller than 9x12", to give people some yard space to play with. Wrap each piece of cardboard in aluminum foil, secured on the bottom with packing tape.

The day of the party we cover the old table with aluminum foil and then lay all the pieces with windows out. Do this on a surface you aren't worried about. I've never noticed that it damages the finish of the table, but we use our giant holiday table that's already scarred.

I make the sugar syrup as described here and pour all the windows (note - on top of everything else last year my thermometer was reading too hot and as a result, my windows never set up. Sadness. I've edited that post to remind myself not to blindly trust the thermometer in the future - it takes less than 5 minutes to double check that the syrup is hot enough). Having two people pouring can be useful here, but it isn't necessary. You just want to do it quickly, to minimize the number of times you have to reheat the sugar.

The windows (should) set up quickly and in the meantime I get the kitchen ready for the gingerbread house assembly, as described here. Having a small island or table next to the stove makes this much easier. Pick one you aren't worried about or cover it well. Have your aluminum covered cardboard pieces handy.

gb 2010 blank house
{gb 2010 blank house}

Once the houses are ready we set them all out on the long table. If you have guests who take the house selection seriously, it helps to put out name tags so that people can claim their houses on a first come first serve basis and then your guests don't feel like they have to hover next to their chosen house the whole time.

I make a giant vat of royal frosting, mixing several batches and then combining them. I don't have a recipe on hand so I always end up doing a quick internet search when it comes time to make the frosting (should change that!). I use meringue powder + powdered sugar + warm water in whatever proportion you are supposed to use. I fill several pastry bags (aim for one per person, use couplers and put out extra tips so people can change it up easily) and set them in tall glasses with a bit of damp paper towel at the bottom. This keeps the frosting in the tip from drying out and clogging. When filling pastry bags, only fill 1/2 - 3/4. Keep it closer to 1/2 if you have small kids because it's hard for inexperienced people or tiny hands to handle overly full bags. It's also good to have a medium size bowl full on the table with a spatula.

We ask our guests to bring some candy with them and so we put out a bunch of empty bowls on the table. It's much neater than having bags of candy everywhere and it lets people see what's available. Some years there is a moderate level of candy hoarding going on, but now that we're adults we'll usually share if you ask nicely (actually, kids are way more willing to share because they don't understand how important it is that their houses look neat and symmetrical so they will just slap random candy everywhere if necessary. Amateurs).

Popular decorations:
Spice drops
Dots - my personal fave because I also love eating them
Holiday M&Ms
Peppermint candy in all forms - red and white themes are usually a hit, so having plenty of candy in that color range helps
Chiclets - surprise contender from a couple years ago, makes nice tiles
Shredded coconut is good for snow

I make cookies as well and usually set aside a batch to bake right before guests arrive, so that the house is completely filled with the smell of gingerbread. Having some little bags ready so that guests can take a small pile of cookies home is a nice touch and will sometimes prevent people from eating their gingerbread houses immediately. Technically, you are supposed to wait until Christmas Day to eat your house. I can't guarantee that all our guests obey.

You want food to balance all that sugar, so we have everyone bring an appetizer and set everything out on a table in the living room. We use the crock pot to make mulled cider. Spiking is optional, but highly encouraged now that almost all of our guests are way above the age at which you would expect gingerbread house decorating to be popular.

Please note - playing John Denver and The Muppets at least once is MANDATORY. Saying you are "sick of the album" or "don't like Miss Piggy's voice" is not an excuse and I'm not buying it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My very favorite gingerbread recipe

A sweet reader emailed me about my gingerbread house recipe the other day and I realized that I've never posted about it, which is a shame, because I found a keeper several years ago and I'd never even consider swaying.

gingerbread cookies
{gingerbread cookies}

I use the gingerbread house recipe from Martha Stewart and while I love her, I have issues with her site. The links change, recipes are edited or deleted and the site is hard to search and slooow. I can't be the only one who notices this, right?

I'm going to type out the recipe right here, in case the links disappear again. This recipe makes the very best gingerbread, for houses or cookies. It's spicy, easy to work with and quick to mix up. One batch will make enough dough for 5 small houses, using their template (really hoping that link never dies...) Our family used to make these enormous, absolutely gorgeous custom gingerbread houses and I cried a bit the first year I had to scale back to the small template. But as it turns out, most people find the smaller houses more approachable and kids are less likely to lose interest and run off halfway through the decorating. Serendipity?
Best Gingerbread Cookies (recipe from here, makes a ton of cookies, or 5 small houses) 
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 teaspoons ground ginger
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unsulfured molasses
6 cups all purpose flour (1 lb 13.5 oz)
:: In a large bowl, shift or whisk together flour, baking soda and baking powder, set aside.  
:: In an electric mixer, cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then beat in eggs and molasses.  
:: Add flour mixture in 2 - 3 parts, mixing on low speed until combined. To avoid a flour explosion, I wrap a dishtowel around the mixer to cover the opening of the bowl. If you're using a standard Kitchenaid, it will be pretty full here. Divide dough in thirds, shape into disks or rectangles and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least one hour, or up to a few days.  
:: Heat oven to 350 degrees. On a well floured surface, roll out dough to 1/8" thick. Cut out cookies (or house pieces). Place dough on ungreased baking sheets (I always use my Silpats, though). Pop the tray back in the refrigerator and chill for at least 15 minutes. This helps your cookies hold their shape better. Bake 15 minutes, until gingerbread is firm in the center but not dark around the edges. I bake a little longer for house pieces, because sturdiness is a high priority. I like my cookies chewier, so I bake them a little bit less. 

If you're making gingerbread cookies, you can leave them out at room temperature uncovered and they'll still be great for weeks* and the flavor is definitely improved if you can let them sit for at least a couple days.

If you're making gingerbread houses, let the pieces cool completely and then put them in ziploc bags until you are ready to assemble. You don't want them picking up any moisture from the air because it will make your houses less stable.

Last year I keep a draft post running while I prepped for the gingerbread house party, so that I could share it with you all because I sometimes get inquiries about GB house party logistics, which I take seriously. But then, for reasons mostly unrelated to gingerbread and entirely related to some family medical issues, the party ended up being very stressful for me and I just felt like I'd be a fraud posting about how awesome I am at throwing parties. Now that a year has passed I'm realizing that the post might actually be useful, so I think I'll dust it off and pop it up for you shortly. I'll make sure that it links to the various gingerbread tips I've given over the years, since they're currently scattered all over the blog.

* This will probably horrify everyone, but we almost always give out extra large gingerbread cookies on Christmas, cutely wrapped. A couple years ago I was getting out the wrapping supplies and found a cookie from the previous year in a gift bag. It still looked perfectly normal, so I ate a corner of it only as a test, for science. It tasted fine, and I didn't die. But I did throw out the rest of the cookie because I thought eating a year old cookie just seemed too desperate. I have a sweet tooth, but it hasn't come that yet, thank god.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

You can't take it with you (or at least not all of it)

I would like to say that I'm above material concerns but I have to tell you that downsizing has been giving me some major headaches. Our new place is smaller, for reasons that I'll explain when I have more time, but basically, $$ + location - actually, that explains it fairly well.

I have to convince myself to give up some things and while the excess furniture is heading straight to Craigslist and the more random bits and pieces are going to the thrift store, there are some things that give me bigger pangs.

dyed napkins
{dyed napkins}

I've been hoarding our wedding napkins because I can't quite bear to give them up. Not so much because they are from our wedding but because they are really nice cotton napkins and they're pretty and we hand dyed those suckers and what if I needed to throw a really, really big party? Yes, that means I have had over 100 lovingly washed and pressed napkins in my closet for the last two years. Several dozen have made it into circulation in our house, but try as I might, I can't justify holding onto the rest of them anymore.

pink napkin
{pink napkin pocket folded - photo from our wonderful wedding photog, melissa of happy confetti}

UPDATE - All the napkins are sold, thanks guys! So if you happen to be in the napkin market, I'm letting these go. I'm selling them in sets of four (choose between blue sorry, all gone!, pink or yellow sorry, all gone!) for $20, domestic shipping* is included. These are not fine linen napkins! They are heavy duty, thick cotton that absorbs really well and will hold up over time, even with daily use. No two napkins are exactly the same, since we hand dyed them. You can see the tutorial on how we made them along with some pictures of them in action right here, if you're curious.

wedding napkins
{wedding napkins}

Because they are dyed in a stripey pattern, they will look completely different if you fold them differently. You can play around with them to see where you like the stripes.

napkins hanging
{napkins hanging}

Nothing fussy as far as care instructions go. I just wash ours with the rest of our laundry, which means warm water and tumble dry on high. I don't like to iron everyday napkins so I give them a good snap to shake them out as I transfer them from the laundry to the dryer and then fold them while they're still hot to minimize wrinkling. I'll tuck a little card with care instructions in each set, in case you'd like to give them as gifts.

If you're interested, send me an email at and let me know what color you'd like so I can set it up. I have these all wrapped up and tucked aside in their own box and I'll be keeping them close and shipping them out as I get requests, so they'll arrive quickly. I just want them to go to good homes.

Let's not even talk about my cake stands. Or my enormous supply of stationary. Or the Gocco + assorted inks. I have decision fatigue.

* International readers, you know I love you! It's just that with the craziness of the move I don't have time to jump through the customs declaration hoops at the post office. I'm so sorry! If you'd really love a set and you're willing to wait another week, email me and we'll work something out.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

The morning of Thanksgiving D and I woke up early and started talking leisurely and then suddenly realized that December 7th was not, in fact, two weeks away, it was one week away. Which meant we needed to get our apartment ready for 14 dinner guests and then immediately start breaking everything down so we could move. Oh, and we should probably reserve a moving truck or something. And maybe figure out what the actual address is at our new apartment? 

dough rising, tea waiting
{dough rising, tea waiting}

pile of veggies
{pile of veggies}

sweet potatoes
{sweet potatoes}

mushrooms, pile of
{mushrooms, pile of}

bread cubes
{bread cubes}

setting the table
{setting the table}

pre guest drinks
{pre guest drinks}


desserts, thanksgiving 2013
{desserts, thanksgiving 2013}

food, thanksgiving 2013
{food, thanksgiving 2013}

Yes, this is the least well thought out move we've ever made, but I'm about 95% certain we'll survive. And we were able to let it go and just enjoy the holiday.

I find Thanksgiving cooking therapeutic and this year I even attempted to make notes for some of our non-recipes. I worked in the kitchen and D and his brother rearranged the apartment and figured out lighting and then all of a sudden our families were there and we had the usual last minute craziness as we tried to figure out how to get everything to the table more or less warm. (Note - this never actually happens, but it's a valiant fight.)

It was the largest Thanksgiving we've had yet (by a smidge) and we had to reverse the layout of our apartment in order to accommodate a table long enough for everyone. We moved our living room furniture to the dining room area, which meant our guests had to edge past the table in order to get in the front door, but no one complained. Rather than having card tables, we have a couple of inexpensive Ikea tabletops that are the same width as our dining room table and legs that we store disassembled and bring out for large dinners. As I type that I realize that card tables would probably be more convenient, but this works.

It was a really, really good one, and I feel lucky. We have the usual family quirks and annoyances and stressors but I'm truly grateful that everyone loves each other and that when we get together like this we are truly happy to be with each other. That makes up for a lot.