Laura got a request for this from a chef “friend” on Twitter and because her old website doesn’t do links — don’t ask her why — she decided to bring the old post over here. Seems like a lot of work to give someone a link to read about your loser-attempt at baking a ridiculous thing, but in the end it’ll be useful to Laura because as disastrous as her experience was, oh, like five years ago, just yesterday she uttered the words to her son: “Let’s make a gingerbread house!”
As you read this, you’ll see why that’s such a demented and frightening thing to say.
Please note that this long unabridged version never ran in the New York Times Styles section the way it was supposed to — Laura wrote way too much and so they had to cut it, and then a year later they ran a very very short version on the Op-Ed page. But apparently the New York Times doesn’t do links either, so again, that’s why she’s reposting a Halloween-related piece long after Halloween…
The instant I see Martha Stewart’s Haunted Gingerbread Mansion in the pages of the MARTHA BY MAIL catalogue, something — a longing? temporary insanity? — comes over me:
I want that gingerbread house.
Unfortunately, though, that gingerbread house, as pictured, is not for sale. What is for sale, however, is the Haunted Gingerbread Mansion Project Kit ($32 plus shipping and handling) along with the candies needed to decorate it ($32). I roll my eyes, then take an even closer look at the color photo.
There is no way that I — someone whose first (and last) attempt years ago at knitting a long scarf yielded a small half moon — someone whose first (and last) attempt at sewing a skirt yielded one with the hem attached to the waistband and both pockets sewn shut — someone who has never quite gotten the hang of slice-and-bake cookies or mastered the fundamentals of using frosting from a can — would ever be able to bake, build, and decorate something as elaborate as this.
But the longing persists.
I want that fabulous Edward Gorey-esque mansard Victorian with the mock slate roof (imported licorice disks), bats hanging from the eaves (black royal icing), a warm glow emanating from amber glass windows (interior battery-operated light-source behind hard candy “panes”) on display in the foyer of my Victorian house.
I want to turn the little light on inside of it (wonderfully ambiguous: simultaneously cozy and spooky) and stare at it for hours, then brag to anyone who will listen that I made it myself, with my own two hands, from scratch.
I want to know, finally, the feeling of deep satisfaction that allegedly comes from completing a do-it-yourself project of such magnitude and complexity.
My husband, of course, tries his best to dissuade me.
I don’t have the temperament (patience), he says, or the inclination (natural ability). If I’m feeling such a rush of kitchen-oriented domesticity, maybe I could just cook dinner more than once a month instead.
He does have a point.
I’m certainly not the gingerbread-house-baking type.
Nor do I own a food processor, a standing mixer, or even a rolling pin. Still, I can’t help but wonder:
Could an average (or, in my case, below average) person — a person without access to a professional kitchen and a staff of prep people — complete on of Martha Stewart’s holiday craft projects?
The short answer to that question is yes.
The long answer is a qualified yes:
Yes, an average person can make one of these extravagantly complicated haunted gingerbread mansions if they have the time (33.5 hours over 6 days), and money ($203.85), the patience (13 shopping trips) access to expert emergency assistance (a parent; a highly-trained local Williams-Sonoma sales professional; a general contractor who makes house calls); and the good sense to know when to break down and buy a glue gun.
* * *
Step II: Preparation
From the moment my MARTHA BY MAIL package arrives, I know I am in trouble: there’s almost nothing inside! All the Haunted Gingerbread Mansion Project “kit” contains is a set of reusable plastic templates (like I’d ever do this again) and a 22-page full-color instruction booklet in an oversized Zip-loc bag. I paw frantically through the packing materials and find only the 4-pound package of assorted Haunted Mansion candy, but nothing else. Where is the gingerbread mix? The molds to bake the pieces of the house? Where are all the edible nails and brads and pins — or, failing that, the edible scotch tape and glue — to put the thing together?
Thinking, stupidly, that a quick read through the instruction booklet will calm my fears, a cursory glance at the shopping list alone only makes things worse: Sanding sugar…black and brown paste food coloring…five 13″ x 18″ baking sheets … candy thermometer. I blink wildly. I have never heard of sanding sugar or anything other than liquid food coloring; I only have two baking sheets; and the only heat measuring instruments I own are a meat thermometer and a rectal thermometer.
Step III: Shopping (Preliminary)
It takes almost a week before I feel ready to start my quest for “confections” and “tools” (Martha Stewart’s words, not mine) and when I finally do, I decide not to mess around. This is serious business — a Martha Stewart crafts project, for God’s sake! — a challenge that Williams-Sonoma at the nearby mall seems uniquely qualified to handle (Shopping trip #1). I make a bee-line for the lead sales associate working that Saturday morning and brief her on my situation.
“If you had a commercial kitchen, with all the counter space and baking sheets and oven space you’d need,” she says, flipping through the pages of the instruction booklet, “this project would take you two full days.”
I swallow. “At home? Without all that? What kind of time are we talking about?”
“Uhm, it will take you a lot longer.”
She advises me to bake an extra set of gingerbread house pieces in case they break during the assembling process, then suggests I try a nearby (i.e., cheaper) party store for the specialty baking supplies (Shopping trip #2 [sanding sugar, food coloring, parchment paper]: $11.81). Later that weekend i buy the bulk of the food supplies (Shopping trip #3 [flour, sugar, shortening, molasses, ground cloves, Nabisco Famous Wafers]: $26.57; Shopping trip #4 [ground ginger, ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon]: $10.76; Shopping trip #5 [more molasses; Betty Crocker EZ Flo black frosting]: $8.07). I’m tired, but relieved: had I not ordered all the candy needed to decorate the gingerbread house (black licorice coins; licorice twists; grape-flavored fruit rolls; eucalyptus drops; licorice diamonds) I’m sure I would be shopping for another week at least.
Step IV: Baking
Several more days of obsessive-compulsive list-checking and Art Carney arm-flailing goes by before I get the courage to start baking, but when the time comes, I feel ready. As directed, I mix two batches of gingerbread dough, roll out sections of it onto parchment paper, then lay the plastic templates over the dough and slice out two facade pieces (one front, one back); two tower pieces (one front, one back); two side walls; two door arches; and a bunch of assorted gravestones.
After the first wall of the house is cut, I feel a rush of excitement: my raw gingerbread dough facade looks just like the one in the pictures!But after six hours of rolling, slicing, juggling baking sheets, looking for refrigerator space to chill the sliced dough before putting them in the oven and counter space to cool them when they come out of the oven, my excitement cools. Only seven pages into the instruction booklet — not even one third of the way toward finishing the project — and I’m already exhausted.
Step V: Making the Windows
Since my favorite feature of the mansion is the amber-colored hard-candy windows, I decide to try to get them done before I call it a day. Making them seems easy enough: how hard could it be to melt sugar and water in a pan on the stove until the mixture reaches 320 degrees and turns to a syrupy pourable golden brown? But after one unsuccessful attempt (the mixture stays a clear liquid, then reverts back to dry sugar), I try a second time — another batch of liquidy sugar that doesn’t turn brown which I stupidly decide to pour into the windows. After three hours on the counter and another four hours in the refrigerator, the windows still haven’t hardened (the sugar is supposed to turn into an almost glass-like substance within ten minutes) — I decide to leave the pieces in the refrigerator overnight to see if the windows will harden by morning.
They don’t. Discouraged and despondent, I poke the puddles of sticky goo (think: chilled colorless corn syrup) with various objects (a thumb; a forefinger; a fork tine) and wonder if there’s some sort of chemical fixative (hair spray? nail polish?) that could harden the windows and turn them yellow. In the meantime, I proceed with the delicate process of defenstration (removing the facades and tower pieces and side-walls from their parchment paper; wiping away the glop; then laying them out on fresh parchment paper) and wait for my mother to arrive.
Step VI: Making the Windows (continued)
The third attempt yields another batch which, after the small amount of water evaporates, reverts to dry sugar. At wits end (and almost at the end of my five-pound bag of sugar), I place a frantic call to Williams-Sonoma. This time, an assistant manager takes my call and attempts to talk me down off the ledge.
“As sugar heats up it has different pliability,” he explains. “You have to get the sugar hot enough to reach the ‘hard crack’ stage, without letting it go beyond it.”
I nod, sucking the second-degree sugar burn on the middle finger of my left hand. I have no idea what he’s talking about.
The first form the sugar will reach, he continues, is the ’soft ball’ stage (bubbly); then ’soft crack’ (like Silly Putty); then ‘hard ball’ (very hard); then ‘hard crack’ (hardens like glass). Since I don’t have a candy thermometer (I forgot — and was too cheap — to buy one), he suggests I keep a glass of ice water near the stove and periodically dip a fork into the sugar mixture, then let a droplet form and fall into the ice water.
When batch four remains at the ’soft ball’ stage for a full twenty minutes before reverting yet again into dry sugar, my mother suggests I use yellow colored plastic wrap for the windows instead. After thirteen solid hours of work over the past two days, I’ve had enough with the stringent and impractical edible-ingredients-only rule and authorize the purchase (Shopping trip #6 [”Harvest Orange” Saran Wrap]: $2.79), but later that evening when I spend another two hours trying to adhere the folded and crumpled pieces of orange Saran Wrap to the back of the gingerbread pieces, I am foiled again: nothing — not tape (scotch, masking, electrical), not glue (Super, Elmer’s, rubber cement) — will make it stick.
Out of frustration I eat almost an entire box of Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers (to be used for the “dirt graveyard” in which the mansion will eventually come to rest, assuming I ever finish it) before going to sleep well after midnight. Fifteen hours of intensive kitchen work has produced only the walls of the house; without the windows I’m unable to move forward.
Completely desperate the following morning, I make another trip to Williams-Sonoma. Luckily, the sales associate on duty holds two degrees from Johnson and Wales Cooking School — an Associate’s Degree of Applied Science in Baking and Pastry Arts, and a B.S. in Baking and Pastry Arts — and is thus qualified to troubleshoot my laundry list of problems:
Don’t want to melt another batch of sugar for the windows?
“Get a bag of Jolly Rancher hard candies. Pick out the yellow ones. Smash them and fill the windows with the crushed candy. Bake in 350 degree oven for ten minutes.”
Baked gingerbread pieces don’t have straight edges?
“Get a wood file at the hardward store and gently sand them down.”
Want to try melting just one more batch of sugar but don’t want to ruin a perfectly good All-Clad sauce pot?
“After emptying it, fill the pot with water and boil for five to ten minutes. Repeat until all the sugar is melted away by the boiling water.”
Will royal icing really work as an adhesive for all the haunted house candy decorations?
“I doubt it. Get a glue gun.”
Step VII: More Shopping; More Windows
Feeling like a total loser for my ineptitude but buoyed by the expert tips I’ve received, I spend the next three hours picking up baking and frosting supplies (Shopping trip #7 [more parchment paper; candy thermometer; flour sifter; disposable icing bags and tips]: $37.75); hardware items (Shopping trip #8 [mini Stanley glue gun; glue cartridges; wood file]; $17.19); and replenishing stapes (Shopping trip #9 [another five-pound bag of sugar; another one-pound box of confectioner’s sugar]: $2.79), then return home re-committed to melting one last batch of sugar for the windows.
The fifth time proves to be the charm. Holding my new candy thermometer against the inside of the pot (thereby acquiring another burn on the same middle finger), I push the mixture past the dry-sugar stage toward the 320 degree mark and suddenly notice a rich amber color in the pan: The granules are melting! Liquefying! After transferring the syrup sugar into a Pyrex measuring cup, I pour it into my windows and watch, transfixed, as they harden in seconds. Teary-eyed with gratitude and fatigue (and pain from yet another finger burn), I’m tempted to drive back to Williams-Sonoma and tell them all the good news. But there isn’t time.
Step VIII: Construction
The following morning, still aglow from the previous day’s hard-won window-making victory, I am now more nervous than ever about beginning the actual construction: I have more to lose. What if I break one of the facades or chip one of the chimneys off the sanded-sugared tower pieces? What if, in my haste to paste (I’ve decided to forgo making a sixth batch of melted sugar for gluing the pieces together an opt instead — guiltlessly — to go with the glue gun), I connect the pieces incorrectly? Knowing my husband is not up to the task either (he is, after all, the one who put a crib, a changing table, and two sets of bookshelves together backwards), I realize it is now time to call in another professional.
I contact a general contractor (a friend of a friend) who agrees to come and help with this phase of the project. Standing in my kitchen, he assesses the situation (a nervous “homeowner”; a “construction site in progress”; a “punch list” of things yet to be done), then quickly and carefully familiarizes himself with the mansion’s instruction booklet and the mini glue gun’s instruction booklet. Explaining that he’s going to use the glue gun like a caulking gun because the edges of the gingerbread pieces are uneven (he advised against sanding them down with the wood file out of fear of “compromising the integrity of the walls”), he squeezes a thick layer of hot glue onto the edge of the front facade and connects it to the left side wall.
I close my eyes, hold my breath, then peek out from the corner of my left eye. Nothing broken. He glues the other side wall to the front facade, then glues the back facade and the two roof pieces on. Carefully inspecting the “ballooning” structure (when a building holds itself up by its exterior walls and roof), he notices that the two horizontal roof pieces are bowing slightly. He also notices that the roof is properly equipped with “ridge vents” (an overhang between the walls and roof for ventilation and fire-stopping purposes) and announces happily that the structure has been designed and built “almost to code.”
With the major construction phase now completed, I ask him to look at the remaining building plans from the color photos in the instruction booklet. While he is impressed by the realistic look of the layered rows of licorice-disks on the roof, he points out that it does not incorporate the proper “flashing” (a layer of copper right under the first row of slate or shingles that protects the overhang of the roof in most New England homes). In addition, the shutters appear to be bigger than the windows themselves which would make them uncloseable and thus non-functional to protect against typically harsh New England weather (my drafty foyer).
Had we the time — and money — we could have installed gutters, but after some quick “job costing” my contractor advises me to “scale back” on the “scope of the project” and focus only on essential materials necessary for the structure’s completion (Shopping trip #10 [confectioner’s sugar; two packages sun flower seeds in their shell]: $2.19; Shopping trip #11 [more Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers]: $7.80; Shopping trip #12 [back-up eggs and confectioner’s sugar]: $2.69).
Step IX: Decoration
It’s hard to believe that after almost twenty-seven hours of work over five days my gingerbread mansion still isn’t finished, but instead of being frustrated and angry (like a normal person), I’m ebullient. Just staring at the naked ballooning structure with its transluscent amber windows fills me with a profound sense of accomplishment. The finish line is in sight now, and I’m dying to cross it.
But I have to clear one more potentially disastrous hurdle: making the royal icing (the Betty Crocker black spray icing I’d bought as a potential time-saving substitute proved useless since it doesn’t harden when it dries). And while I had fully intended to use the glue gun during this phase too, I decide suddenly to return to the original goal of complete edibility. Beating the confectioner’s sugar and egg whites for almost twenty minutes on low speed to pump as much air into the frosting as possible (to ensure it will harden properly), I then start adding black food coloring.
But after using more than half of the little vial of black “gel” food coloring, the frosting is only a light gray. I add a little more. Slate gray. I add the rest of it. Gun metal gray. Completely annoyed, and, this late in the game, completely unwilling to jump in the car for yet another shopping trip, I decide to settle for this decidely non-black frosting and press on (literally and figuratively). Four hours later, I successfully complete the intricate final stage of decoration — the royal icing has hardened, as promised, like cement to hold the licorice disks to the roof, the sunflower seeds to the doorway arches, and the grape-flavored fruit roll-up shutters to the windows (it has also dried to a deep black). With the Nabisco Famous Wafer-cookie crumb dirt graveyard (minus the frosted headstones and royal icing bats and bones: I mean, life’s too short) sprinkled around the base of the mansion and the licorice-heavy roof looking like it could cave in at any moment, my haunted house is finally finished.
Well, almost finished (Shopping trip #13 [small string of Christmas lights for interior light source]: $1.49).
My 33.5 hour tally includes the time I spent shopping, baking, decorating, scrubbing pots and pans, applying Neosporin to injured fingers, eating Nabisco Famous Wafers in frustration, and searching Martha Stewart on-line bulletin boards for people who have actually made the Halloween gingerbread mansion before and lived to tell the tale (not many).
It does not include the time I spent paralyzed by fear, anxiety, and annoyance during the construction phase (hours), or the time I spent gloating after the construction phase (hours and hours).
In case you’re wondering what my plans are in the wake of such a sucess, I’ll lay them out here:
First, I will invite everyone I know over to see my magnificient accomplishment (deeply jealous, they will almost certainly grow to hate me).
Next, I will begin my search for a fixative spray to preserve my gingerbread house (I plan on keeping it, like Mrs. Havisham’s wedding cake, for a very long time).
Finally, I will place my order for the MARTHA BY MAIL Christmas Gingerbread House Kit (templates and instructions for four structures [log cabin; Colonial farmhouse; chicken coop; enchanted castle]: $68).
December, after all, is just around the corner.
[Benji in costume, October 2004]