Friday, October 8, 2010

Holiday Baking: A Cautionary Tale

When my three children were in grade school my friend and I (who had three boys) were feeling very creative around the holidays. Inspired by professional looking gingerbread houses in Good Housekeeping magazine, we got together at her house on a half-day of school to make a cookie confection that would rival any of the homes in the magazine's December issue.  We were full of ambition and we thought, talent,  and we decided it would be a great activity for the kids. They thought otherwise.

As I recall, we were aiming for a grand mansion, not unlike the one Little Orphan Annie lived in with Daddy Warbucks. Or perhaps we were really fantasizing about the kind of home we'd prefer to be living in.....victorian, perhaps, with a wrap-around-porch, turrets and gargoyles, shutters on all of the detail would be spared.

We gathered around her large kitchen table and the mixing began but when the boys decided that the wooden spoons and brown batter made great catapults similiar to those used by the Ewoks to launch primitive rock projectiles at the occupying Imperial force during the Battle of Endor, we knew we were lost. Our only hope were the girls, but they liked the Ewoks too, and...well....good mothers that we were we sent them into the living room to watch a video while we did the baking. 

It didn't get any better. Pieces broke, everything was uneven, nothing fit like we'd planned. The only thing that worked was the Royal Icing. As it approached the dinner hour and it was time to go home, we once again gathered the kids around the table to view our creation: a two sided tent! But it was a beautiful tent loaded with candy canes, mints and mini-marshmallows attached by the glorious Royal Icing. If Santa's North Pole had a campsite, this would have been a five-star accommodation.

I never attempted another gingerbread house and I'm not sure if my friend did either but with Halloween  approaching I found some spooky cookie cutters and a bag of Pillsbury cookie mix (yes, cheating is allowed when a resurrecting a trauma is at stake) and I made a batch in anticipation of a weekend trip to Massachusetts for my grandson's third birthday. Royal icing is involved.

What follows are two recipes for the icing. I'm using the first one (the easier one) and you can see by the photos that it didn't disappoint. Perhaps I'll tackle gingerbread in December!

Royal Icing Using Egg Whites
  • 2 large (60 grams) egg whites
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3 cups (330 grams) confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar, sifted

In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the egg whites with the lemon juice until combined. Add the sifted powdered sugar and beat on low speed until combined and smooth. The icing needs to be used immediately or transferred to an airtight container as royal icing hardens when exposed to air. Cover with plastic wrap when not in use.

Royal Icing Using Meringue Powder
  • 4 cups (440 grams) confectioners' (powdered or icing) sugar
  • 3 tablespoons (30 grams) meringue powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon extract (vanilla, lemon, almond)
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup (120 - 180 ml) warm water
In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the confectioners' sugar and meringue powder until combined. Add the water and beat on medium to high speed until very glossy and stiff peaks form (5 to 7 minutes). If necessary, to get the right consistency, add more powdered sugar or water. To cover or 'flood' the entire surface of the cookie with icing, the proper consistency is when you lift the beater, the ribbon of icing that falls back into the bowl remains on the surface of the icing for a few seconds before disappearing.

The icing needs to be used immediately or transferred to an airtight container as royal icing hardens when exposed to air. Cover with plastic wrap when not in use.

Makes about 3 cups

Use food coloring and sprinkles to decorate. 

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