Sometimes the deck is stacked against you; the stars are misaligned; the recipe is just wrong. So it was for me the Christmas that I decided to build a gingerbread house. Note, I did not write “decorate.” The important word here is “build.” I was above buying one of the already put together gingerbread houses. I, avid cook and all-around-kitchen guru that I believed myself to be, was going to create one from scratch.
Using instructions and templates I’d ordered from a certain maven of the domestic arts whose name rhymes with Lartha Blewart, I mixed up gingerbread dough, rolled it out and carefully formed it into walls to bake and cool, concocted thick and creamy royal icing for the glue to keep my cookie-construction together, even slowly and precisely cooked sugar into a syrup, poured it into gingerbread voids, and waited for it to harden into “glass” windows.
Hours and much labor later, my project neared completion. The hour was late and the kitchen hot as I secured the chimney in its place. I was knee-deep in flour, and a smear of icing was holding my bangs off my sweaty brow. I squealed as I took in my masterpiece, wishing someone else was around to praise me and pat me on the back. I started gathering all my candy embellishments to add the finishing touches.
With visions of ole Martha (oops, I mean Lartha) herself congratulating me still dancing in my head, I noticed a small crack in one wall. It started to grow before my eyes and quickly became a full-on crumble. The windows on the back were melting and running down into the marshmallow snow below. Then, with a pitiful thump (that has since come to represent the actual sound of failure to me), the entire roof caved in.
I screamed. It was a shriek that would shame the loudest, highest-pitched horror-film heroine into hiding. Blood (I cut my pinky on the template for the front door), sweat, and now tears (they flowed freely as I stood helplessly among the ruins) had gone into my gingerbread house, and it was all for naught.
I’d been doing all this in my parents’ kitchen, and my dad arrived home (from a day of actual hard work) moments after the fall of the house of Jennifer, and since he can’t stand to see me upset even as an adult, he quickly devised a solution.
We picked up the pieces of wall and roof and instead of mending them with what I now know was faulty royal icing and the main culprit of the collapse, stuck them back together with white caulk (which looks just like royal icing but does not taste nearly as sweet). We lifted up the downed walls that had not broken, and affixed them to our repaired ones with tiny finishing nails and then covered the joints with caulk. We decided our gingerbread house didn’t need windows. It had an open-air aesthetic, and we were in Alabama; the temps in December are often around comfortable air conditioner levels anyway.
I spent the next few hours finally doing the fun part, placing peppermints, redhots, a rainbow of gumdrops, and more icing (and caulk) on every square inch of the structure, ensuring it could win the “house beautiful” title even on Candyland Lane.
My dad and I laughed then, and my entire family laughs even harder now when we talk about that gingerbread house. But this is more than a silly family memory. The moral of the story is this: The holidays are about coming together with family and friends, not stressing about finding the perfect present, getting the decorations done just right, preparing the most delicious holiday feast, or building a gingerbread mansion.
If spending hours on a holiday project makes you happy, go for it. If not, forget it. And forget what I used to think about those already constructed gingerbread houses. They are gifts straight from heaven. Grab one at the grocery store and spend your time doing the easy—and fun—part with the ones you love.
Oh, and after Dad and I got that gingerbread house looking pretty near perfect, I had a real blast expressing my frustration about the recipe mistakes that had threatened to ruin my day. A real, actual blast. We took the house outside to the woods by our home, my dad took aim with a 20-gauge Remington Special Field shotgun, squeezed the trigger, and blew the darn thing into a hundred pieces. (Did I mention we live in Alabama?)