The Gingerbread Contest

Wow. There are people who are much better at building things out of cookies than we are.


There is a model of the new library re-model, with some of the rectangular parts of the building designed to look like books, and the front windows represented by animals made out of fondant.

This is in the professional division, because the maker is an architect. This is his first time working with fondant.

There’s a lighthouse inhabited by mice. The builder had to make a special mold to create pieces for the rounded lighthouse. Holy moly.

No, the Girl is not biting off pieces of the house- she is having an authorized candy cane.

Here’s a close up of the mice who inhabit the lighthouse. Not sure what it is a reference to? Is there a story about the lighthouse mice? Maybe there should be.

Notice that the mice underground are watching a scary movie- it's about a cat.

There’s a model of District 13, from the book Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, as imagined by a teenage book club. Sorry, no picture.

There’s a model of The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, by an entire kindergarten class.

Can you imagine 24 kindergarteners with this much candy and icing. Sticky.

We have ideas for next year- like an ice fishing shack on a glass candy lake, with some goldfish crackers visible under the water. Also, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen’s moisture farm on Tatooine. Just give me time to forget the misery of this year.

Update- we actually placed! The Girl got 1st in the youth division, and the Boy got 2nd. I got 3rd in the adult amateur division, which considering the other entries, is no shame. Okay, there were only 3 in my category, but I’m still not ashamed.


edited to add- The Girl accidentally sat on her house. Maybe I should have said something when she put it on the chair? Yeah, it’s my fault. We knew we were going to compost them eventually, but she was still pretty upset.



Gingerbread House Madness

Every year, I think it would be fun to make gingerbread houses, and then we do, and I make it so it isn’t fun.

At all.

It takes a full 12 months for me to forget how terrible it is, and then I do it again.
This year we added the variable of a contest.  So we have a brand new way to make it not fun- competition. yea…..

I had a great idea- mine would be a greenhouse, using glass candy for the windows, and candy plants inside that you would be able to see through the windows. The Boy had a cool idea too, a house under construction, using candy canes as the studs of a house. The Girl wanted to stick with tradition, no theme, just a house, but also with windows, and a tree inside.

Okay- the 6 day process begins.

Monday- make dough, last minute trip to grocery for Crisco, not a pantry staple at our house, to make the “construction grade” dough. Chill dough overnight.
Tuesday- roll half the dough, cut out windows and doors, bake and then use every inch of counter space to cool foil sheets of house pieces, for three separate houses. After oven is off- I count up and realize I am 1 piece short…Deadline for entering contest passes, and I feel a little relieved.

1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, 1/3 cup water. Boil for-freaking-ever, or until thermometer reads 260.

  • Photo credit- The Girl
  • How cool is that? Candy you can see through!

Wednesday- Good news- they are extending the deadline…We boil the sugar syrup to the hard crack stage, 260 degrees, and pour it into the windows I cut into the gingerbread. Both kids are watching closely- thankfully no one gets burned. Roll out other half of dough to make more panels and windows. Recount- still not enough panels- resolve to fill in with graham crackers. As the sugar cools, I repeatedly caution the kids not to touch, Not to Touch, Not To Touch!!

Put myself into time out after 2 walls break due to touching…NOT TO TOUCH!!!!

Technically, a box of candy canes was dropped on it. I really lost it- you know it's bad when your throat hurts from yelling.

Thursday- I attempt some repair with sugar syrup- it is partially effective, if by partially we mean wobbly and sticky. (Also, the fruit flies are having a field day). We did have some fun playing with the decorating kit, including making trees out of ice cream cones.

The Girl tinted the icing, and piped it herself- I love this tree.

Friday- Okay, with enough royal icing, the Girl’s graham crackers attach to the sides and form a cohesive house.  The Boy creates a toilet out of a marshmallow and a life saver. Classy.  My greenhouse roof slips twice, then cracks, then finally sticks.

Contest Saturday.

I have second thoughts.

Both kids have nightmares of dropping their houses.

Why are we doing this?


Edited to add- if you do glass candy windows, make sure you get the temperature up to 260, or hard crack stage- my windows were not, and they have slumped over the past weeks.  Not quite a solid, they are a supercooled liquid. The Girl’s windows cooked longer, and are slightly amber colored, but much harder. This is easiest if you have a candy thermometer. We used an instant -read thermometer.

Gift bags

A pile of presents, wrapped and ready to go. Oops, one of the books is peeking out.

Last year at Christmas, I was appalled at how much wrapping paper got thrown away, as I have mentioned before, so I decided to make some bags, and use scarves to wrap other presents, Furoshiki style. I have been buying scarves every time I go to thrift stores, but I put off making bags until just a couple of days before Christmas.

I’m usually not so good at follow through, but this year, I did actually make some bags for gifts for my immediate family, and some extended family. I think there were only a few presents in paper that came from my house, and a couple of others that were packed in re-used paper gift bags. I was still appalled at how much paper got thrown away, but at least hardly any of it was mine.

I always give everyone at least one book, so I wanted adjustable bags with side gussets for thick or thin books, and an adjustable closure. I modeled these after a lunch bag pattern I found in a book.

I used a pattern for a lunch bag that I found in “Bend the Rules With Fabric” to make book bags for DH and the kids, and kind of pimped out some of those freebie drawstring backpacks with applique. Last spring, I was given a whole bunch of string backpacks from the Census Bureau. I was supposed to give them to my students, but none of them really wanted one. I couldn’t throw them away, but didn’t want to carry around a census backpack, either.  

 The homemade bag  I am proudest of, though, is for my great-niece- I looked at the construction of the freebie backpacks, said to myself, “That can’t be too hard” and whipped one up for her in red velvet. She’s going to be 4, she needs a red velvet backpack!
Now, next year, I will have the bags that already exist, and I’ll make a few more, and so on and so on. Never buying wrapping paper again…

I stitched a square of red silk onto this canvas backpack, then cut out a bluejay, freehand. It took me a couple of tries. I mostly wanted to cover up the logo on the bag.

The line must be drawn here…

This year, I haven’t made or given teacher gifts, I didn’t handknit anything for my secret Santa recipient, I haven’t made batch after batch of cookies. And I am okay with that, I think. 

In previous years, not only have I given presents to all the kids’ teachers, and aids, and speech therapists, I made the presents from scratch- one year I knit 7 mini stockings, and put Starbucks cards in them. It was good because I totally was able to internalize the structure of sock knitting, with all these mini socks. But I also remember staying up late the night before the last day of school, weaving in ends of yarn.   This year, I decided to cut the teacher presents, for lack of time and energy. 

A noro striped scarf I made for Secret Santa last year- if the recipient has worn it, I haven't seen it...

In previous years, I have made scarves or felted bags for the person I’ve drawn for secret santa at school, and this year I couldn’t bring myself to it.  Part of it was that my local yarn store has closed and I don’t have anything stashed away that would have worked. But I noticed that when I made the decision to skip knitting something for my colleague, a weight lifted off my shoulders.

Similarly, when I decided to skip the cookies, I felt so relieved. We’ve made tons and tons, and given some away, but eaten a lot myself, too. Not having to make several different recipes of cookies, and put together tins or plates for people was a relief.  There is the chance that I will be able to zip my ski pants, too, so there’s another benefit. Don’t get me wrong- we aren’t entirely Scroogey-  we have decorated, and hosted a party, and we have gifts, (some homemade) but having a slightly simpler Christmas has helped us with some peace on Earth.

Gingerbread houses- another project we didn't do this year.

Or at least peace in our own house. I don’t think my kids will look back, and say, “Hey, remember when we made gingerbread houses, and mom yelled at us for putting too much food coloring in the icing?”  This year, I am trying to draw the line at yelling.

What’s the opposite of rice pudding?

The boy’s first grade teacher asked me the other day to make up a batch of rice pudding for their “Christmas around the World” party on Friday.  I thought, “ooooh, I can blog it.” Little did I know that everyone else in the world has blogged it also- google has a ton of extremely “authentic”  Swedish rice pudding recipes. I threw out the ones that called for evaporated milk, and raisins (bleah! the texture!) and also decided I didn’t want to get into separating eggs and making a meringue to spread on the pudding, who cares whether that’s authentic or not?

So, first we weren't Jewish and making latkes, now we're not Swedish, and making rice pudding. I wonder what we aren't going to be next? Chinese, I hope, or Mexican...

            I wound up taking what I know about rice, and what I know about pudding, and making a leap. I can’t really say it’s authentically anything, though. Note- I used 1% milk, because that is what we always have. This would probably be better with whole milk. Also, I just got a brainstorm, what about steeping a Chai tea bag in the milk? Of course, then it would not only be not Swedish, it wouldn’t be great for first graders, either…

Beating the eggs with the sugar, and then adding the hot milk a little at a time prevents the eggs from scrambling.


First Grade Rice Pudding

2 cups cooked rice (you know how to cook rice, right?)

2 cups milk

2 eggs

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat the milk to almost boiling in a large, heavy saucepan. Meanwhile, beat sugar and vanilla into eggs. Temper the eggs by adding about half a cup of hot milk to the eggs and mixing, then add that mixture to the rest of the hot milk.  Now add the cooked rice to the egg and milk mixture. Add all of it to a casserole dish nested inside another dish.

This is a casserole nested inside a 9x13 lasagne pan. I poured an inch of hot water in once it was in the oven.

Sprinkle with the spices. Place the pans in the oven, and carefully add hot water to the outside pan. This forms a water bath, and helps the custard cook evenly. Cook for one hour at 350 degrees, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

            One of the traditional things Swedes do with this pudding on Christmas Eve is put an almond in it about 10 minutes before it is finished. Legend has it that whoever gets the almond in their serving will get married the next year.  That will go over well with the first graders…

So, as I see it, rice pudding is a blank slate- what would you do with it?

Hollow Book Safes

 Just moments ago, I got an idea to make book safes for my nieces and nephews- little books to hide important things in…then I realized I don’t have time to make them before Christmas, but maybe next year. I did come across this extremely complete tutorial for hollowing out a book, though.  Now that I think about it, giving everyone book safes at the same time is a bad idea, then little brothers and sisters know which book holds your secrets…I have great visions of lining vintage books with velvet, though…maybe I just need one for myself.

Angel costumes we have heard on high

My sister-in-law called me a week or so ago, wanting advice. “You’re so crafty,” she said, “and you have such great ideas, I wonder if you can come over and help me with ideas for these angel costumes for the kids’ Christmas play. It’s just that none of them match, and they’re too long…you’re just so creative…” I agreed to come over, and thought of what I’d say, things like, you know, “gold belts would look great… or why not try halos? or how about cutting holes in white sheets?”

It turned out that when I got there, she had about a dozen non-matching costumes for kindergarteners, all of them long enough for the kids to trip on as they walked up to the stage. We looked at what she had, and I said, “In a perfect world, what would you want?”

I traced this template from the best existing costume, then laid it out on rectangles folded in quarters. Zip zap with the rotary cutter...

All of the costumes looked like they had been put together at different times, by different people. Some with genuine sewing skills, and one of them was, no kidding, a sheet with holes cut in it. My SIL said that in a perfect world she would want the costumes all to match, and not be as long, and this one (she pointed to one of the several lying on the floor) had nice wingy sleeves. By the way, she also had a bolt of white muslin. Well.

We figured out that we could trace a pattern with the one with the sleeves she liked, and had enough muslin to cut out 8 at 18 inches long, which was just right on my nephew, who is one of the Angels in question. I took the bolt home, washed the fabric and ironed it, which is always the worst part. In fact, since my SIL agreed to iron all the bits and pieces as they came off the sewing machine, sewing them wasn’t so bad. I checked the internet to see if anyone in the blogosphere had any tips about angel costumes, but seriously, they were along the lines of: gold belts, halos, cut holes in sheets…

SIL brought the kids over to my house the next day and we set up an assembly line, cutting out the necks and sleeves from a symmetrical pattern, like a valentine heart. (The kids weren’t in the assembly line, by the way, they pretty much ran around, swordfighting with sticks, and breaking up the ice in the goldfish pond with a shovel.)  Then I stitched the sleeves and armpits, then the necks. We were going to try to get away without doing the necks, but then one angel ripped it when trying it on, so I zigzagged around each neck hole.

Artsy? or just underexposed? you decide...

All the angels were adorable at the Christmas play, although I didn’t get any pictures- we were late, as usual, to the performance, and they took off the costumes pretty quickly after the show was over.  It took an afternoon of work, but we’ll see the costumes for years as my nephews and nieces work their ways up from angels to census takers to shepherds year by year.

Sigh, in a perfect world, I would have had more time, to hand-bind the necks with silver ribbon, a simple detail that would be invisible from the audience, but I would know…

Organizing the Piano

In order to put out Christmas decorations, we have to clean. The girl wants to be in charge of the Christmas village, which consists of two newspaper offices and a spooky castle. As we start clearing off the piano, I am realizing that one of the reasons it hasn’t been cleaned before is because of some unfinished business. There is a big basket of sheet music that dates back to when the girl took piano lessons. I mean, it dates back to when the girl quit piano lessons.
So much clutter is psychological- I had wanted piano lessons as a kid, but never got them. The girl started out liking lessons, then hated practicing, hated lessons, hated me. There was a lot of yelling. We hosted her final recital, she did a beautiful job, then she quit, and I had (still have) a lot of mixed emotions. The basket of sheet music contains her Suzuki book 1, the Suzuki book 2 that I bought, hoping she would change her mind, notebooks that I took notes in about what she needed to practice, flash cards, envelopes with prizes she could win if she practiced 2 hours, 4 hours, 6 hours…
I am tempted to put the whole pile in a box to be dealt with at some later date. No. Must deal with now. Wish me luck.

OK. It is later, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I went through the basket while the girl dusted the piano. I got rid of some bad memories, and was able to pull some Christmas music to the front of the basket. We pulled out a vintage linen tablecloth to represent snow, and she set up the buildings, plus the spooky castle on the hill. Then she actually added to it, making some houses, and an ice skating pond. In a perfect world, she would then sit down, pull out some Christmas music, and start playing piano. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I guess I can dream.

No, there was no tornado...this is just how the living room looked before. It is much better now. At least the top of the piano is organized now...