...when they came nearer they saw that the house was built of bread, and roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar. “We will have some of this,” said Hansel, “and make a fine meal. I will eat a piece of the roof, Gretel, and you can have some of the window - that will taste sweet.” So Hansel reached up and broke off a bit of the roof, just to see how it tasted, and Gretel stood by the window and gnawed at it.
Hansel and Gretel, Grimm's Fairy Tales
I’ve discussed previously that I’m a little ambivalent towards sweets (chocolate, of course, is another story...). As such, gingerbread houses aren’t really for me - the gingerbread itself is the bit I'm more like to enjoy, and it often suffers because of the need for structural stability. To be honest, I’d much rather have a good gingerbread biscuit. They’re one of my favourite things to give as Christmas gifts. A jar of homemade biscuits never goes begging on the Boxing Day comedown, and these deliciously spiced ones are perfect with a mid-afternoon cuppa.
That said, Christmas (in my life at least) does regularly include a gingerbread house. And, to be honest, it's become one of my favourite Christmas traditions. The wonderful Jacob family, who I spend my Christmases in England with, have a tradition I have been welcomed into: the creation of a tremendously detailed gingerbread house each year. As well as being generally brilliant human beings, my honorary siblings Anna, Tom and Mia are the most wonderfully irreverent bunch I know - so we end up making the least Christmassy gingerbread houses known to man. This year it was a toss-up between a Serial house and a Scottish referendum house - the Scots won.
2009. My first year in the UK - the Greek Taverna.
With Socrates, and Nana Mouskouri, on the roof.
2010. The Australian Outback house - with Hugh Jackman (as a koala on the roof),
Jonah from Summer Heights High and Toadie from Neighbours.
2012. The London (20)12 Days of Christmas House
If you love sweets, do go the whole hog and make a traditional (or non-traditional) gingerbread house yourself - I’m not denying they can be truly spectacular. Our house will continue to come from Ikea, and will be decorated with something suitably ridiculous. And I'll make these gingerbread biscuits, unadorned with sweets and icing, to enjoy with tea.
Makes around 35
50ml maple syrup
1/2tsp ground ginger
1tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
1/2tsp ground cardamom
100ml single cream
100g golden caster sugar
100g softened butter
250g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
Icing sugar, to decorate
1. Put the maple syrup and spices in the small saucepan over a low heat, stirring until the spices are dissolved. Remove the saucepan from the heat and, once cooled enough to put your hand against, stir in the cream and mix well to combine.
2. Beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the egg. Sieve the baking powder and flour together and then add to the butter mixture in stages, alternating with the maple syrup mix. Beat until the mixture is very smooth. It will be a bit sticky; this is absolutely fine. Cover the bowl with cling film and place in the fridge or on a cold windowsill for at least a couple of hours, or overnight if you're getting organised ahead of time.
3. Heat the oven to 190C and line two trays with baking paper. Bring the dough out of the fridge and take a large handful. Place the remainder back in the fridge to keep it cool. Lightly flour your bench, your hands and your rolling pin and, working quite quickly, roll the biscuit dough out until it is about 7mm thick. Using a floured biscuit cutter, cut the dough into shapes and transfer them to the baking tray, leaving a small amount of space for them to puff up. Squidge any leftover dough back into a ball and roll out again.
4. Transfer the tray to the oven and bake for around 8 minutes, until the very tips of any corners are starting to brown. You can leave them for longer (up to 15 minutes), but I like them quite crumbly and soft. They will continue to harden once out of the oven. So, once cool enough to handle, transfer them to a cooling rack until stone cold. Continue to bake in batches until the dough is used up.
5. Once cooled, sprinkle with icing sugar and transfer to an airtight box. The biscuits will keep for about ten days in here, so you can prepare them a good couple of days before giving them as a gift.
This recipe is from Tessa Kiros' lovely Apples for Jam - and is one she attributes to a Finnish friend.