Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Getting into the Xmas spirit

When I was a child, my mum kept all her recipes in a small black binder. They were hand written on checkered paper, or clippings from magazines and journals. That black binder probably existed in our house for at least 20 years. One of the recipes in that binder was our family's traditional gingerbread recipe. I remember how we baked gingerbread every Christmas. My mum would make the dough in a big red bucket. Ok, I probably don't remember the red bucket, I must have seen it in a photo. Anyways, I remember my mum making a really big batch of gingerbread dough, and taking it down to the cellar to rest over night.

We made a gingerbread house every year. We even had a traditional design for the house and used the same grease-stained cardboard cutout pattern year after year. We had an old cast iron skillet we used to make the caramel to glue the house together. It used to be my dad's job to assemble the house. And we then made a winter wonderland in our open fireplace, with elfs and candles, and the gingerbread house as a centrepiece (and I had to look up the plural of elf on google... how embarrassing!). There was one more Christmas tradition that related to the gingerbread house. It wasn't supposed to be eaten until the official end of Christmas, which in Finland is 20 days after Christmas, on January 13th. But when we got around to eating it, the whole back side of the house had already been eaten away piece by piece, and all the candy decorations had been picked off the house, one by one. Sometimes pieces of candy were glued on using so much sugar icing that a piece of the house would break off when you tried to peel off the piece of candy. 

I used to make a lot of gingerbread houses back when I was still living in Finland. Well, they were more like cottages than elegant mansions, but it was one of my Christmas traditions. Back home you could buy frozen gingerbread dough. So I never bothered to make it myself. It was great for making houses, as you need a really good dough that is easy to roll and bakes evenly. And it was really tasty too. Below are some old pictures of a few gingerbread houses from Christmases past. Sorry about the crappy quality of the photos as they were never meant to be displayed in public.

This year I was looking at amazing gingerbread house pictures online, and got a sudden craving for making traditional Finnish gingerbread. So I called my mum, and asked her if she still had the traditional gingerbread recipe. Well, shock and horror, she didn't!! So I was heartbroken, thinking I would never again taste the traditional gingerbread of my childhood. But surprise, when I was complaining about it to my sister, she said that she had copied the recipe from the black binder. So in the end, I got the one and only right gingerbread recipe. 

I brought a bag of gingerbread spice with me from Finland, thinking it should contain everything I needed for the recipe. However, when I had a closer look at it, it turns out it only had cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves. My traditional gingerbread also contains dried bitter orange peel (Seville orange peel). That seems to be a spice completely unknown to the UK, and hard to find online, so I just had to admit defeat and leave it out this time. Another problem I encountered was that the only syrup you can get in British supermarkets is golden syrup. The Finnish syrup is much darker, so I bought golden syrup and treacle, and made my own mix. Despite these slight problems, the gingerbread turned out great. And as usual, not quite 100% of the dough made it to the next day, I had to do some quality control every now and then to assure that the flavours were developing properly while the dough was resting.
My family's traditional gingerbread (makes a lot):
250 g butter
200 g sugar
150 ml syrup (I used 1 tbsp treacle and the rest golden syrup)
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ginger
2 tsp bitter orange peel (if you can find any)
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
about 900 ml (3 2/3 cups) plain flour

The howto:
Put the butter, sugar, syrup and spices in a pan and heat until the butter and sugar has melted to forma a smooth mixture (don't boil). Let cool for 5-10 minutes, until no longer hot. Keep stirring every now and then. Meanwhile, mix salt, soda and flour in another bowl. Add eggs to the butter and spice mixture. Sift the dry ingredients into the butter, syrup and egg mixture. Mix until combined. Let the dough rest in the fridge over night (or two nights if it turns out you end up going for drinks the night you were meant to bake your gingerbread). 

The next day, pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Roll out the dough thinly, and use cookie cutters to make patterns. Add some flour onto your working surface if the dough sticks. I like to roll out the dough directly on the parchment paper, so you don't have to move the cookies around, as that tends to distort them, especially if you roll your dough really thin so that it will bake really crispy. Bake for about 5 minutes. The gingerbread will still be soft when you take it out of the oven but will go crispy when it cools off. Make icing in all the colours of the rainbow, and get a lot of colourful candy and sprinkles for decorating the gingerbread. Make yourself a cup (or two, or three...) of mulled wine, and watch the quality of the decorations become better for every mug of mulled wine.
The verdict:
The gingerbread turned out pretty damn good despite the lack of bitter orange peel and the syrup approximation. It made the apartment smell like Christmas, and gave me that traditional pinch in my stomach you get after eating too much cookie dough. Me and best friend got together to have a pre-Christmas gossip and baking evening. We made Glögg (Finnish mulled wine, which by the way is much better than the UK one...), baked Finnish prune jelly puff Christmas pastries (coming soon), listened to Christmas songs on Spotify and baked and decorated gingerbread. I finally got to try out a good fraction of my selection of almost 50 cookie cutters. Hence a few less than Christmas-y gingerbreads, but I think Xmas dinosaurs could be the next big thing!


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