Getting Ready for the Season with a Holiday Spice List & More
Spice it Up
By Carol Ritchie
Holiday spice … and everything nice … for the 2016 holiday season! It’s time to dust off the spice rack and fill the pantry with sweet-smelling goodness. Soon, the kitchen will be overwhelmed with aromas of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg, so let’s make sure your holiday spice checklist is ready.
Spices are aromatic seasonings (sometimes quite pungent) that come from various plants and trees. Stems, bark, seeds, fruit, buds and roots offer distinct flavors for culinary uses. Spices are often sold “whole” for fresh grinding or grating; this is recommended for the best flavor. Ground spices are available, but quickly lose their flavor intensity and aroma, so buy ground spices in small quantities and be prepared to replace often. It is a good idea to start each holiday baking season with a fresh selection of spices. Here’s a great basic selection for your holiday sweet spice needs:
Allspice – a
small, dried berry of the pimento tree; a combination flavor of cinnamon,
nutmeg and cloves.
Anise – a small seed of the parsley family with a sweet licorice flavor.
Cardamom – small seeds of the ginger family; a distinctive flavor used in many holiday breads.
Cinnamon – the dried inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree; sold in sticks, or ground into powder.
Cloves – the unopened flower bud of the tropical evergreen clove tree; sold whole and ground.
Coriander – related to parsley, the seed of the cilantro (fresh coriander) plant; a citrus-like flavor.
Ginger (dried ground ginger) – the dried and ground root of the tropical ginger plant; a peppery, sweet flavor.
Ginger (crystallized or candied ginger) – fresh ginger root cooked in sugar syrup and coated with sugar.
Nutmeg – the seed of the tropical evergreen nutmeg tree; sold whole and ground.
Let’s put several of these spices to the ultimate test of housewarming aroma in one of the holiday’s most favorite treats: gingerbread. And the pièce de résistance of holiday baking, kitchen creations: a homemade Gingerbread House!
Gingerbread House Construction Checklist
· Medium-thin cardboard
· Mixing bowls for gingerbread dough
· Electric hand mixer or stand mixer
· Rubber spatula
· Flour shaker
· Parchment paper
· Rolling pin
· Pastry board/pastry cloth
· Sharp knife
· Cookie cutters
· Thin plastic spatula or blunt knife
· Cookie sheets
· Cooling rack
· Corrugated cardboard
· Plywood or sturdy plastic cutting board
· Aluminum foil
· Straight pins
· Mixing bowl for royal icing
· Pastry (icing) bag and round tip (small & large)
· Bowls for candies and decorations
Design & Layout
The plan is the most important step for your gingerbread house. Decide the size and style you want to build. Jot down notes and rough sketches of what you envision your gingerbread house will look like. Usually, a gingerbread house will be less than 1 cubic foot (no more than 12 inches in any direction). A house that is 7 by 7-inch square at the base and 10 inches in height is a nice manageable size. Use graph paper and a ruler to layout your unique design - each square can represent 1 square inch for accurate proportions and easy scaling. Transfer the measurements to cardboard and cut out all of the pieces (actual size, of course). Using tape to help hold it together, construct the cardboard model of your gingerbread house to make sure every piece fits together nicely, looks good and meets your expectations. If you are happy with the design, use the cardboard pieces to trace each section onto the gingerbread dough. (See attached PDF to view full-page preview.)
Gingerbread Cookie Dough
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons dried ground ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup dark molasses
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
In a large bowl, combine flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt; set aside.
In another large bowl, using a heavy spoon or electric mixer, mix the butter and sugar. Beat in the molasses, egg and vinegar. Add the dry ingredients gradually into the moist ingredients until well blended. Chill the dough for at least 6 hours, or overnight. Roll out the chilled dough to 1/4-inch thickness on lightly greased parchment paper and transfer (paper and dough) to a large, flat cookie sheet. With the gingerbread house cardboard templates as guides, and using a thin plastic spatula or blunt knife, cut the dough into the required shapes. Use cookie cutters to easily cut windows in the wall sections. Remove excess dough and reserve for additional shapes (or cookies). Preheat oven to 375°F and bake the house sections for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove house sections from cookie sheet (and parchment), and cool thoroughly on a wire rack until ready to use. If necessary, use a sharp knife to cut apart any pieces that may have baked together - do this before the house shapes are cool. (Notes: If baking cookies to eat, bake for 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the size and thickness. This recipe will make about 3 dozen medium-size gingerbread cookies.)
- 4 cups powdered sugar
- 6 tablespoons warm water
- 3 tablespoons meringue powder
Using an electric stand mixer (with the whisk attachment) on low speed, beat all icing ingredients for about 1 to 2 minutes, until mixture is combined and moistened. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes. (Notes: If using an electric hand mixer, beat at high speed for about 10 minutes. Use 1 tablespoon less water for an icing that is more stiff, if desired. Find meringue powder with baking products. This Wilton icing is smooth, hard-drying and long lasting. It will hold your gingerbread house together, keep the decorations in place and make a perfect “snow covered” roof.)
Assembling the House
Use a heavy piece of corrugated cardboard, plywood or a sturdy plastic cutting board as the base for your gingerbread house. Cover the board with aluminum foil. Fill a 12-inch decorating/pastry bag - fitted with a small round tip - with royal icing. Start assembling the house (using pieces based on your design or the supplied template) by piping icing onto the backs of the wall supports. Attach these to the inside of the front and back house sections, running parallel to the vertical edges, about 1/4-inch in from the edge. These will support and help to attach the side walls. Allow to dry for up to 15 minutes. Connect the two chimney sections, back to back, in the same manner. (While these pieces are drying, you can use two scrap pieces of baked gingerbread to secure to the base, just inside the area where the side walls will sit, to keep the house in place and add extra construction support.)
When the icing has dried sufficiently, it is time to assemble the four walls. Begin with one side wall and the back section. Pipe a long strip of icing on the rear edge and bottom of the side section, as well as the bottom of the back section, and secure these pieces to the base. Pipe icing along the base, inside the house, as necessary to provide sufficient support. Repeat the assembly with the other side and front section. Attach the front door in the same manner. Attach the front entry roof, if desired (you may find it easiest to attach a small support ledge - another small baked gingerbread scrap - just above the doorway for the entry roof to rest on). You will need to supply a pair of creative candy posts to support the front of the entry roof. I suggest using candy canes - these will need to be secured with icing as well and may need to be held in position for several minutes to allow the icing to become firm.
When the icing has had sufficient time to dry on the assembly so far (usually up to 30 minutes), it is time to add the roof. One side at a time, pipe the icing generously along the edges of the top of all sides and carefully place the roof sections on top. You will need to hold each roof section in place for several minutes to allow the icing to start to set. If the roof begins to slide when you let go, you need to hold it longer! Be patient - it will stay in place very soon. Allow the roof to dry thoroughly (again, another 30 minutes), then attach the chimney on the top of the roof near the back (not too close to the edge, but preferably over the back wall for extra support). Allow the icing to dry thoroughly and check that the house construction is firm before decorating.
Other helpful hints: Use extra icing and added support pieces in any locations that seem to need it. You can use straight pins to hold sections together while the icing is drying; however, don’t insert the pins more than halfway - you want to be able to remove the pins when the icing has dried. A minimum of one hour drying time is suggested in these instructions; however, the longer that you are able to let the icing dry between assembling each section, the better.
Now for the really fun part! This is where you let your imagination and creativity take over. Just like the house design stage, you can make a drawing of your concept before putting it into action. Or just go for it! Select a wide variety of candies in various colors, shapes and sizes. Apply your choice of candies and other decorations with a small amount of icing. Use the icing or mini marshmallows to simulate snow on the rooftop, chimney and the area surrounding the house. Use gumdrops to form walkways to the front door. Use candies or draw shapes with icing to cover the roof. Use candies or nuts to brick the chimney, tile the roof or side the house. Use candy canes to create walkways. Stack gumdrops to simulate bushes and trees. Use licorice sticks or soft candy twists to outline the house. If you plan in advance (during the house construction, before the roof goes on), you can even insert battery operated LED lights inside the house to create a glow through the door and windows. Use your imagination and have fun!
Suggested items for decoration: gumdrops, hard candies, gummy bears, licorice sticks, candy canes, peppermint candies, M&Ms, nuts, marshmallows or breakfast cereals (Chex cereals are ideal for roof tiles). You can also incorporate your gingerbread cookies (gingerbread people, Christmas trees, snowmen, reindeer) into your design - after all, you’ve built a house for them to live in!
It’s a Party!
Baking, making and decorating a gingerbread house is more than just a fun project, it’s an event! When it’s time for creative construction, have a party! Get everyone involved. It has become an annual tradition for my family and friends. Kurt, my husband (and recipe photographer), shares a short story of these gingerbread occasions and sums up the experience quite nicely in his recent book, Sweet Girl: Heartbeats of a Special Life (available at amazon.com). Here’s a brief excerpt: “[Claim] a front row seat for the bedazzling, bungalow-building action…to witness daubs of albescent icing and a kaleidoscope of candies bedizening fragrant ginger-spice flats. As marshmallow snowdrifts and candy cane lanes crisscrossed our workspace, a hamlet of scrumptious chalets, garishly decked with ornaments of gem-like confections, teased our taste buds.” The gingerbread house experience is one to share; to celebrate good times with fun, love and care!
It’s a Celebration!
And speaking of celebrations, it’s the 10th Anniversary of Mansfield Magazine! Congratulations to Lisa and the staff for ten wonderful years of great articles and useful information, serving our local communities. As a perfect reflection of my recipe in my first article all those years ago (Pumpkin Crème Brulee), I’m including a bonus treat to satisfy that pumpkin spice craving - my original homemade holiday sweet treat that my mom adores! - Pumpkin Cheesecake (see recipe below). Here’s to a wonderful “holiday spice” season, to continued success and “everything nice” and many more entertaining seasons for Mansfield Magazine!
See her tasty Pumpkin Crème Brulee recipe for an additional and tasty holiday treat!
1/2 cup chopped pecans
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup sugar, divided use
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin purée
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon dried ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
For the crust, combine crushed gingersnap cookies, chopped pecans, and melted butter in a medium bowl. Lightly coat, with vegetable oil spray, the inside bottom surface of a 9-inch springform pan. Press the cookie crust mixture, firmly and evenly, into the bottom of the prepared pan. Refrigerate while preparing the filling.
Preheat oven to 325°F. For the filling, combine cream cheese, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Blend well for 1 to 2 minutes. (Use a whisk if mixing by hand, or the flat beater on medium speed if using an electric stand mixer.) Add eggs one at a time, stirring into the cream cheese mixture. Mix until just combined; do not over beat. Reserve 1 cup of the batter in a small bowl. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, pumpkin, and spices to the large bowl, mixing well with the cream cheese mixture. Spoon the batters (the pumpkin/cream cheese mixture and the reserved cream cheese mixture) alternately into the prepared springform pan. Draw a paring knife through the batter to form a light marbled effect. Bake at 325°F for 70 minutes, or until center of cheesecake is set.
Allow pumpkin cheesecake to cool for 1 hour. Run a knife or thin spatula around the edge of the cheesecake (between cheesecake and pan). Refrigerate until chilled, about 2 to 3 hours. Release sides of springform pan from bottom and cut cheesecake into 12 slices to serve.