I have confessed my love for gingerbread many times, but I am not sure if you know about my obsession with gingerbread construction. It is problematic at best.
It started when I was a pastry chef, making centerpieces for the restaurants I worked in. Now our projects represent our summer vacation. Guess where we went this year …
Don’t feel compelled to go crazy like me. (I once did the Taj Mahal.) Simple houses are fine, too.
The best gingerbread for construction is made with cheap but fragrant materials. I use shortening instead of butter because I don’t plan to eat it. But if you use this recipe for edible gingerbread men, substitute butter for the shortening, and cut the spice quantity in half. Here I have added more spice than I would want to eat (for its room-freshening ability).
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3-1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 TB. cinnamon
1 TB. ginger
1 tsp. clove
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup water
- Beat together shortening and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add molasses and mix to incorporate.
- Sift together dry ingredients and add them alternately with the water to the molasses mixture .
- Divide the dough evenly into thirds, then press each piece between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll with a rolling pin to create an even sheet of dough about 1/4-inch thick. Chill sheets in the fridge or freezer until firm, at least 30 minutes or overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350˚F. Place one parchment-packaged sheet of dough on a baking sheet and carefully peel off the top piece of parchment. Cut out the pattern pieces for your structure. To keep them in shape, remove the excess dough around them rather than moving the pieces themselves. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet. Repeat until you have all the pieces you need. Excess dough can be re-rolled, chilled, and cut as needed.
- Bake pieces until slightly puffed and firm, about 15 minutes. Cool completely. Meanwhile, make the Royal Icing ‘glue’.
2 egg whites
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1-1/2 to 2 lb. powdered sugar, sifted
In an electric mixer, beat egg whites and cream of tartar to medium peaks. Slowly add in sifted powdered sugar until the icing is thick and holds its shape. (The amount needed will vary with sugar brands, and the moisture content of the egg whites.) Icing can be thinned (if necessary) with a few drops of water.
- Assemble the structure on a serving platter or stiff board. Fit a piping bag with a plain tip and fill the bag halfway with royal icing. Pipe a fat strip along the wrong side of the vertical edges of the front of the house. The two side pieces are then butted up against these strips of icing and held in place for 30-60 seconds. Re-enforce the inside joint with a bit more icing. Pipe similar strips on the wrong side of the back of the house, and press the back wall up against the two side pieces. Allow to set and harden for at least 1 hour.
- Pipe icing along one side of the roof line, and set one roof piece on top. Allow to set 30-60 minutes. Repeat on the other side of the roof. Again, allow to set 30-60 minutes.
- Use remaining icing to decorate your house as you see fit. Glue on candies, make icing icicles, pipe architectural features, or leave it simple and just give it a light dusting of powdered sugar snow.
Let me just say that I have no Irish ancestry, and I therefore have no particular affinity for Saint Patrick’s Day. My Swedish grandmother used to send me St Patrick’s Day cards, and I wore green as a kid (purely self-preservation), but I am a Viking from top to bottom. If you thought I was Irish, you probably knew me in college when I’d use anything as an excuse to party.
I try not to get caught up in the hoopla, but I cannot help making Corned Beef and Soda Bread this week. For one thing, it is expected of me. For another, they’re pretty good foods which, I am sad to say, are all but forgotten the rest of the year.
I hate to be among the pack of food writers offering Soda Bread recipes this week, but I actually love this recipe. I used to teach this during the cut-in lesson when I worked at the big schools. It is an often forgotten member of that family, overshadowed by stuck-up scones and primadonna pie dough.
I like this classic version with caraway and raisins, but it’s also fun to create your own. The salty crumb is offset nicely by a hint of sweetness. Try some other dried fruits such as dates, Armagnac soaked prunes, or chunks of ripe banana. I also love to add fresh herbs, which are currently plentiful in the backyard. Try rosemary and raisin, thyme and lemon zest, or sage with some candied ginger. Better yet, come up with your own flavor combination. (Looking for ideas? The Complete Idiots Guide to Spices and Herbs … by me … has a list of great flavor pairs.)
1/4 cup good Irish whiskey
1 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons caraway seeds, toasted, cooled and ground
3-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cold, and diced into small cubes
1-3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons milk
- In a small bowl combine whiskey and raisins. Add hot water until raisins are submerged. Let stand overnight, or at least 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, toast caraway in a dry skillet until just fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Remove immediately from pan and cool, then grind and set aside.
- In a large bowl combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and whisk together to aerate. Add butter and cut-in until the mixture resembles a course meal. Mix in drained raisins and caraway.
- Whisk together buttermilk and honey. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in buttermilk. Stir to moisten, then turn dough out onto a well floured work surface. Using a plastic scraper or rubber spatula, fold the dough over onto itself 6-8 times. (This is NOT kneading, but more like gently compacting the ingredients.)
- Preheat oven to 350˚F. Form dough into one round loaf and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush generously with milk, then cut an “x” in the top of the dough to facilitate the dough’s expansion. Let the dough stand for 10 minutes before baking. (This gives the dry ingredients a chance to absorb all the moisture, which lets the leavening work to full potential, in turn making the bread a little lighter.) Bake for 35-45 minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown, and the loaf sounds hollow inside when thumped. Cool a little, then lob off a piece and slather it with butter.
I am ready for Easter. I have the Peeps, the Cadbury Eggs, and the Star Wars Egg Dying Kit. Seriously, if you happen to pass by a Star Wars Egg Dying Kit how can you NOT buy it?
Next on the list is the Kulich. No one in the family is Russian, but my boss at Zola’s in SF asked me to make it once 20 years ago and I fell in love with it. Who could resist bread with saffron, rum, dried fruits, nuts, and citrus zest? Not me.
Bread is a symbolic, holy food in many cultures, and it is not uncommon to see the addition of eggs both in the dough, or baked into the loaves still in their shell. We see eggs at Easter (not usually decorated with Star Wars stickers) because the egg is an ancient symbol of re-birth and spring. Eggs are also a food traditionally forbidden during Lent. Even today, orthodox communities abstain from all animal products during this holy time of year, then let loose on Easter and make up for lack of these foods in one fell swoop.
This Russian Easter bread is tall and regal, and is commonly served with Pashka, a molded sweet cheese studded with still more fruits. If you are short on #10 cans, bake this dough in two traditional loaf pans.
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup dark rum
1 cup milk, warmed
2-3 threads saffron
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
3-1/2 teaspoons (2 packages) active dry yeast
4 egg yolks
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 vanilla bean, scraped
1/4 cup skin-on almonds, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup candied citrus zest
Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
4-6 cups bread flour
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- Combine raisins and rum and set aside to plump overnight.
- Combine warmed milk and saffron, and set aside for 10 minutes. Add sugar, yeast, stir to dissolve, and let stand 10 minutes, until foamy.
- Add soaked raisins and liquid, egg yolks, butter, salt, vanilla bean, almonds, candied zest, grated zest (reserve juice), and enough bread flour to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead 8-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Add flour only as needed to reduce stickiness. Return to bowl, dust with flour, cover with plastic, and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in volume, about 1-1/2 hours.
- Use a church key can opener to make three holes in the bottom of a #10 can. Coat the can with pan spray, and line the sides with a cylinder of parchment paper. Turn risen dough out onto a floured surface and shape into an oblong loaf. Place end-first into prepared can, cover loosely with plastic, and set aside to proof for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
- Bake until golden brown and hollow sounding, about 45-60 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, remove loaf from the can, and cool completely on a rack.
- Combine powdered sugar with lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and beat until smooth and creamy. Add more sugar or a touch of water as needed. Drizzle icing onto the top of the cooling loaf, and let it drip down the sides. Decorate the top of the iced loaf as they do in the Baltics, with candied fruits.