I was led astray by some bright shiny ideas. ’Tis the season, I know, but my focus wavered, and I was beguiled and bewitched by a fantastic notion that I could bake something fancy and pretty. I should have learned my lesson with flourless chocolate cake – it rises like a soufflé and then collapses on itself like a black hole, and yet it is delicious. I should have learned from years of baking brownies that dark brown confections are perfectly fine dug out of a pan, accompanied by a glass of milk, and one should not ask for the moon.
But it is coming on Christmas, and one day as I flipped idly through a King Arthur’s flour catalogue, the envy genie tempted me with a glamorous, silvered and multi-rooflined vision of a gingerbread Bundt cake loaf pan. Oh, the peaks, the gables, and the mullioned windows! The cunning little trees and the shingled roof! The chimney down which our favorite fat man could climb! I was smitten.
You have to understand that every year a friend shares photos of her traditional Yule log cake. It is perfect in every way. She creates frosting that mimics tree bark, you can see age rings on the cut tree, with its chopped branches, drifts of fallen snow, and magnificent marzipan holly leaves and berries. It is wholly beautiful. I yearn for her sugar skills.
I tried going by the traditional gingerbread house route for years when my children were growing up. I probably scarred them for life. First we baked sheets of sturdy gingerbread, and using paper patterns, would trim out the various construction elements. Then we would pipe bowls of royal icing to cement walls to roofs, and doors onto walls, and carefully mount wobbly chimneys. Then the royal icing would start to slip. (Have I mentioned this is when we lived in Florida? Florida is not a kind place. Especially when it is hot and humid. Which is practically all year long. Things tend to ooze and slide, or not gel.) Once the royal icing gave way we tried toothpicks for supports. And then popsicle sticks. And then hot glue. I kid you not. Eventually we got one inedible gingerbread house to stand upright and look decent.
Martha makes all this look easy, I wretchedly complain to anyone who will listen. Martha has staff. Luckily children aren’t too judgmental. They had fun messing around in the kitchen, sampling all the decorations. There are few disasters that gumdrops, pretzels, peppermint sticks. Necco wafers and licking bowls clean of batter and icing can’t cure. Still, it might be nice now to pause and reflect on the countless years we rolled out lovely, photo-worthy gingerbread houses that could stand proudly beside someone else’s annually beauteous Yule log cake. Sigh. These are the things of dreams.
I was proud that we never succumbed to gingerbread house kits – those pre-fab, pre-baked gingerbread walls and roofs that you can find sold in boxes in the grocery store. One year we tried substituting graham crackers for gingerbread, and all we got were tiny little school-milk-carton-sized houses that looked pathetic. Which was why the gleaming silver gingerbread house Bundt cake pan looked so appealing. How hard could it be to mix up some batter, pour it into a Bundt pan, bake it and then triumphantly pull the pan off of a perfect gingerbread house? It was devilishly hard.
It might have helped if I hadn’t followed the fanciest damn recipe for gingerbread. Food52, we might be parting ways after all these years together. This recipe, which called for all manner of fancy ingredients, was delicious. I tasted some as I dumped it into the trash can. It was moist and spicy and redolent of a household where the baking is done to perfection, and even though their seasonal speciality might be Yule Log cakes, they can whip up a perfect gingerbread house without breaking a sweat, anytime they want.
The Gingeriest Gingerbread:https://food52.com/recipes/78431-the-gingeriest-gingerbread . The first item on the list of ingredients should have given me an inkling of the imminent disaster: 1 cup strong ginger beer. I was lucky that my grocery store (the fancy grocery store, not my everyday shopping haunt) had 2 kinds of ginger beer: 1 with 4 tiny bottles cost $4.99. The other, also with 4 tiny bottles, cost $10.99. I guess the recipe failed because I opted for the less expensive brand.
Farther down the ingredient list were 2 tablespoons Microplaned peeled fresh ginger. This is a hideously huge amount of ginger to grate. The microplane also did a number on my fingerprints. Oh, and then I had to go back to the store for a lime, because I needed to zest it. More Microplaning, more finger erosion.
After boiling the ginger beer and molasses, stirring in the fizzing agent of baking soda, I buttered and floured my adorable Bundt cake pan, and then followed all the instructions with rigor and due diligence. I tempered the eggs. I whisked until smooth. Then I baked for an hour and 10 minutes. The long skewer I inserted into the gingerbread came out sticky and raw. And so I baked, and baked, and baked.
Finally, it seemed as if the gingerbread was done. I cooled it for a while, and finally turned it over onto a baking rack. And nothing came out. I cooled it longer. I tried shaking. I tried running a sharp knife around the edges. Google suggested that reluctant Bundt cakes might be coaxed from their shells after a period in the freezer. Might I suggest that this time, this once, that Google was wrong?
I scraped the goo out of the Bundt cake pan, and scuppered my dreams of a perfect Christmas gingerbread house. The next time we went to the grocery store, not the fancy one, Mr. Friday pulled a box of Betty Crocker gingerbread mix off the shelf, and discretely tucked it in with the week’s shopping. That night I used our perfectly serviceable dull aluminum, 9-inch brownie pan, lined it with a sheet of parchment paper, and mixed up a bowl of gingerbread. We won’t have a gingerbread house this year, yet again, but we did have a nice dessert, topped with a heavenly cloud of whipped cream. Ho-ho-ho.
Simple is better.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
― William Shakespeare