Gingerbread City Under Glass

FullSizeRenderMost gingerbread houses can put you into a sugar coma just by glimpsing the confections, dripping with achingly sweet icing, and loaded with candy canes, gumdrops, and peppermint discs. I’ve made my share of gingerbread structures with my kids—either making the dough from scratch and assembling the houses, or using graham crackers for the house, and getting right to the decorating fun. But the cost for all that candy really adds up! And then it seems like a waste to buy all those tasty treats, and then never actually eat them, right? So when I saw this gingerbread city featured in Better Homes and Garden magazine in December 2013, I was intrigued. No messy, sticky frosting? No bulk candy to buy? I’m in!

While I got my templates from the magazine, there is a simple template for the building dimensions online (to download it, you may be required to sign up for receiving emails from BH&G). The template is just the basic shapes—how you define the buildings will require you to call on your own creative juices. Scoring the windows, doors, and rooftops is what gives the 2-D houses their character, and gives the powdered sugar a place to settle and create the frosty outlines on the buildings. It was the easiest, neatest gingerbread project ever! My college-age son helped me, and we were both pleased with the process as well as the end result. And the gingerbread tasted great, too. 

You will need a 2-gallon glass canister, like the Anchor Hocking one pictured here. (I got mine at Walmart.) And you will need to pour a couple inches of granulated sugar into the bottom of the container to anchor the houses, which seems like a waste of sugar again. Not so, Santa’s little helper! If you keep the lid on your “city,” you can re-use the sugar for baking after the holidays are over. And the added benefit is that the sugar smells heavenly from having had gingerbread nestled in it, and it actually enhances your baked goods. So if you’re done with all your shopping, wrapping, and baking, and are just sitting around twiddling your thumbs until Christmas comes (ha!), take some time to create memories with this gorgeous centerpiece.

Makes about 6 buildings, and extra dough for trees, etc. About 72 servings.

5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
Powdered sugar for decorating
Granulated sugar for decorating

In a large bowl combine the flour, ginger, baking powder, salt, white pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl beat together the butter, brown sugar, and molasses on high speed until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat until smooth. Add half the flour mixture; beat until just combined. Add milk; beat until just combined. Add remaining flour mixture; beat until just combined. Using your hands, knead dough until smooth then divide in half. Wrap each dough half with plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Roll each dough half on parchment paper into about a 15×10-inch rectangle. Using a sharp knife, score free-form building and rooftop shapes (or use templates) on each sheet of dough without cutting through dough. Using a cookie cutter, cut out trees. Transfer each parchment sheet of dough to a 15×10-inch baking pan. Remove excess dough scraps. Using a straight edge or knife, add brick and window scores without cutting completely through dough.

Bake 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Carefully cut along scored lines of building and roof shapes. Bake 10 minutes more or until firm. Remove from oven. Cook completely on a wire rack. Separate gingerbread pieces.

Sprinkle powdered sugar over cookies and gently rub in. Cover with waxed paper and let stand for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours. Arrange cookies in 2-gallon glass container filled with 2 to 3 inches of granulated sugar to help stabilize cookies.

Cranberry Conserve

FullSizeRenderDon’t bother with canned cranberry sauce, the stuff that “schluuuuuuurps” out of the can on it’s way to the serving bowl, maintaining it’s telltale ridges. This fresh and tangy relish is the perfect accompaniment to turkey or ham, and has a variety of other uses too. What can of cranberry sauce can make that claim? This recipe came from a Better Homes & Garden magazine sometime in the 90’s, and I’ve been making it every year since I stumbled on this gem. I can’t wait for cranberries to appear in the store so I’ll have jars of this on hand for our family, or to give as hostess gifts over the holidays. (This year I was lucky enough to get a beautiful bag of marble-sized berries from my friend Monique, who got them at a cranberry festival in Wisconsin. Thanks, Mo!)

FullSizeRenderIf a dollop of this relish on your roasted bird isn’t your thing, then try spreading it on some sour dough bread or gluten-free 100% rye bread (pictured here on Trader Joe’s bread), top it with slices of that leftover turkey or some deli ham, Swiss or provolone cheese, and finish with thin slices of Granny Smith green apples. Best sandwich EVER!!! This also makes a nice addition to a wine and cheese tray. The sweet and tangy pairing perfectly compliments aged cheeses and red or white wine. (Or so I’ve been told—I don’t do alcohol…) Or make a quick appetizer with some hearty crackers or earthy flatbread topped with warmed brie or cold cream cheese, and then some cranberry conserve. Give this recipe a whirl, and tell me how YOU liked it best!

IMG_1222IMG_1226Have to tell you this is the first recipe I’ve posted that warranted a trip to the after-hours clinic. My wonderful son, Mitchell, had kindly sharped my knives this week, and then I was commenting on how great it was to work with these super sharp knives while chopping the onions, and WHOOOSH! Off goes a chunk of my thumb, nail and all. My husband layered on the Band-Aids, and I finished the conserve. (Because I’m just that dedicated to my food preparation.) Then I went to the clinic to get a tetanus shot and properly bandage my wound. So all those jars of cranberry conserve lined up like little soldiers on my kitchen counter are extra special this year!

Makes 12-13 half-pint jars

Ease rating: medium (My sister Judy would never make this, so I’ll bring her a jar.)

2/3 cups packed dark brown sugar
2/3 cups butter
4 teaspoons white vinegar
3-4 large yellow (milder flavor) or red onions (stronger flavor), chopped
8 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup raisins
½ cup apple cider or apple juice
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
7 cups granulated sugar
2 cups toasted pecans, chopped

Wash 12-14 half-pint glass jars in hot soapy water, or in dishwasher. Set upside down on clean towel to dry. Fill medium sauce pan with water and bring to a boil. Turn off heat, and drop in 12-14 Ball or Kerr canning lids. Let sit until ready to use.

In a large skillet, cook and stir brown sugar, butter, and vinegar over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add onions and cook uncovered over low heat for 10-12 minutes, or until onions are glazed and tender. Stir often. Set aside.

In 8-quart kettle or Dutch oven, combine cranberries, raisins, cider or juice, allspice, and cloves. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Continue to cook, uncovered, on medium heat for 5 minutes. Stir in cooked onion mixture and granulated sugar. Return to boil and cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes more. As mixture thickens, stir frequently to prevent sticking. Remove from heat and stir in nuts. (May seem thin after cooking for the 10-15 minutes, but it will thicken up significantly as it cools, so do not over cook.)

Pour conserve into prepared glass jars, filling to 1/4-inch from top. Wipe rim of jar with clean towel to ensure there is nothing on rim, then pull a lid from sauce pan, and place rubber side down on top of jar. Add screw top band and tighten. Place jar upside down on counter. Repeat with remaining jars until all are filled. Let jars sit upside down for 5 minutes, then turn over to cool completely. As jars “plink” you will know they are sealed. If any do not seal, place in freezer. Will keep for up to a year.

Cranberry Pecan Bars

IMG_1157A pop of rich red makes these cranberry bars look special enough for company, yet these sweet-tart treats are easy enough to make any old day. With cranberries showing up in grocery stores soon, I thought I’d share this delicious recipe I found on, sent in by Wisconsinite and cranberry-lover Bonnie Young. They use mostly kitchen staples, and mix up in just a few minutes. I found they work better with frozen cranberries, as the fresh tend to mush and bleed into the batter and that makes them not so pretty. But the frozen berries make the batter very stiff, so you have to pat (or smash, if that’s more your mood) it into the pan with a spatula. Worth the effort though—the result is a deliciously chewy cake-like bar with just enough tang to keep you wanting more.

Makes 12-15 bars

½ cup butter, softened
2 eggs
1½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped pecans
2 cups frozen cranberries
Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Butter a 9″x13″ baking dish and set aside. In large mixing bowl, cream butter. Add eggs and cream again. Add sugar, and beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat again. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add to creamed butter and sugar mixture. Stir in nuts with large wooden spoon until combined. Fold in cranberries. Press batter into prepared baking dish and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until top of bars are light golden brown. (Bars may not appear to be cooked all the way through when removed from oven, but they will set up as they cool.) Sprinkle with powdered sugar and let cool to room temp before cutting with very sharp knife.

(Shout out to Monique Kleinhuizen, who brought me a huge bag of fresh cranberries—the size of grapes—from a cranberry festival her family attended in Wisconsin. Used them in the batch of bars pictures here. Awesome berries!!!)