Amidst the cookie baking, present making, ribbon curling, mulled wine drinking, friend and family embracing of Christmas is an immutable tradition in our household. It comes to us from a Swedish friend who has shared her family traditions with us for the past decade. Each year, she and I set aside a day with our children to make gingerbread houses.
Usually, Lena makes the gingerbread dough for the houses. This year, Ikea came to our aid with pre-baked walls, doors, roofs, and chimneys. We both found, with delight, that this didn’t detract from the magic; it added because the architectural part of the day was always fraught, as walls burned, roofs split, chimneys broke.
The glue for our houses is caramel. The gluey snow is egg whites mixed with confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice. The decor? Gum drops and honey balls, colored sugar and luminescent pearls. My favorite source for these is the Bon Marché in Paris; they always have things no one else does.
The kids cover pieces of cardboard with foil, for the base. Once the houses are built, the kids are on their own. But before they begin I feed them, this year with freshly roasted chicken and potatoes. With that in their stomachs, they’re less likely to make themselves sick on decor.
The houses change so much as the kids grow. This year, Camille, the eldest, is go through his Goth period, and his house turned out spikily red and black; Fiona still goes for creative fantasy, while Johanna insists on lineated perfection. Tom, the youngest, is all over the map, sticking reindeer here, squirting snowy glue there. The results are all, quite simply, delicious.
I recommend this as an activity and offer vague instructions for creating a gingerbread house, all you really need. To make the caramel, heat at least 3 cups of sugar in a skillet over medium high heat. Don’t stir the sugar – instead, shake the skillet occasionally. When it is melted and golden, stick the edges of the walls and roof pieces into it, then hold them together until the caramel hardens. When the houses are all assembled, set them on the bases.
For the sweet snowy glue, whisk 3 egg whites until foamy. Whisk in enough powdered sugar to make a thick mass, then whisk in enough lemon juice to thin it out to the consistency of Elmer’s glue. Divide the snowy glue into little plastic ziplock bags, snip off a corner, and let the kids go!
To glue accessories to the base, dip them first in caramel and hold them to the base until it hardens. Then, cover the caramel with sweet snowy glue.
I won’t offer you a recipe for the houses. For those, go to your nearest Ikea. I will, though, give you a recipe for Roast Chicken. It’s always good to have one of these on hand.
1 roasting chicken, with giblets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, halved
2 imported bay leaves
1. Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C).Pat the chicken dry all over with paper towels. Remove the giblets from the cavity of the chicken, generously salt and pepper the cavity, and return the giblets. Squeeze the lemon into the cavity, then add the lemon itself, pushing in each half gently.
2. Slip 1 bay leaf between the skin and the meat on each side of the breast, gradually working your fingers under the skin to gently loosen it so it doesn’t tear.
3. Truss the chicken and place it breast side up, on a rack if you like in a large baking pan. Roast in the center of the oven until the bird is golden on the outside and the leg joint moves easily when you rotate it, about 1 hour.
4. Remove the chicken from the oven, and salt and pepper it generously all over. Flip the bird onto the breast side and let it rest, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes and as long as 30.
5. Carve the chicken and arrange it on a warmed serving platter. Cut the giblets into thin slices and arrange them on the platter. If a substantial amount of cooking juices remain in the baking pan, place it over medium heat and bring to a boil. Scrape up any browned bits, add ½ cup (125 ml) water, scrape up the bits and pour the sauce over the chicken.
4 to 6 servings