In December 2015 I sent out a celebratory email about the gingerbread houses I’d made with my nieces and cousins:
Subject: Gingerbread House-a-Palooza!
Message: What does it take to make three gingerbread houses?
21 cups flour
2 1/4 cups butter
7 eggs + 16 egg whites
5 1/4 cups brown sugar
16 cups icing sugar
3 1/2 cups molasses
20 (T-W-E-N-T-Y) bags of candy
miniature Christmas Village trees, Santas, snowmen, reindeer, Victorian carollers
a few sleepless nights
3 whole chickens (The junior LoDicos have healthy appetites!)
The photos featured Hansel and Gretel concoctions adorned with candy canes and swirling pinwheels, jelly raspberries and spearmint leaves, Twizzlers, Smarties, sour peach rings and gummi watermelon slices. Captions read:
“Lots of little hands digging in!”
“Icing guns loaded!”
“Ta-da! Elyana and Gabriella put the finishing touches to Casa di Nonna Francesca.”
“Siena, Maya and Alessia work on Casa di Nonna Maria—aka Reindeer Ranch.”
“Three-way collaboration between Angelina, Sylvia and Ava on Casa di Nonna Angela—aka Owl Creek House.”
After the email, I wrote myself a note that tells a very different story:
ARE YOU CRAZY? THREE—THREE!!!—HOUSES. AND COOKIES?
IF YOU DO THIS AGAIN—IF!—DELEGATE! ABSOLUTELY NO CHICKEN // ORDER PIZZA!!!
LAY DOWN MORE DROP-CLOTHS SO NOT DESTROY FLOORS!
DO NOT PREPARE DOUGH AND BAKE SAME DAY!!!
USE ISLAND FOR CUTTING SO NOT DAMAGE COUNTER!!!
The rosemary chicken, which I hacked into pieces, marinated with lemon juice, and broiled, was a hit but I’d had to get up at 4:00 AM and by the time I was prying loose a fifth wing I was in tears; icing glue took repeated effort to remove from the floor; it had taken days to organize, shop, bake and prep—and days to clean up.
The following year I hosted another Gingerbread House-a-Palooza…and I ignored my notes. Again I found myself broiling chicken—“Back by popular demand!”—in the wee hours of December 23.
Never again, I vowed.
Gingerbread is exotic to my large Sicilian-Québécois family. My zii (aunties) and nonne (grandmothers) spend each December in Montreal baking panettone, cucidati (fig-stuffed cookies), biscotti, lemon twists, ricotta-filled ciarduna, pizzelle.
But gingerbread cookies are a novelty associated with our “Canadian” neighbours. And gingerbread houses? Ready-to-assemble kits with pre-baked parts were easily available. Indeed, ginger and molasses were nowhere to be found in the pantries of the zii and nonne.
When I decided to take on this “Canadian” tradition, I carefully followed the Gingerbread House recipe in my 1997 Joy of Cooking. I diligently cut out the pattern. My personal touch was adding stained glass windows and a shimmering “Crystal Lake” made with leftover dough and crushed candies dyed royal blue.
I made one gingerbread house in 2011 with my three nieces who were pre-schoolers; by 2016 I was making three houses with a squadron of 5-to-12 year-old relatives. I’m single with no kids of my own. And I live in the city whereas most of my family is suburban. As an auntie and godmother I love bringing the little ones on “city” adventures and being a bridge between Italian and Canadian customs.
When I told Sylvia and Angelina, my nine-year-old twin nieces, that I wasn’t going to do it this year, they cried in unison, “But it’s tradition!”
I suggested to their older sister, 11-year-old Ava, that we make a Graham Cracker Hogwarts instead. “They’re totally different things, Zia!” she said, horrified. “A gingerbread house is a gingerbread house!”
The note I’d written myself in 2015 was tucked into the pages of my dog-eared Joy of Cooking with the stained pattern cut-outs. I contemplated the angry edict, but then noticed bullet points that were not in caps:
– stained glass windows: hammering candy messy and tiny bit dangerous but so much fun (Angelina love)
– kids loved making cookies, from rollout to cut-out to deco ** Sylvia loved, loved, loved cutting out shapes
– yummy, lemon nice touch
– use smaller brushes for delicate control of sugar toppings, etc (Ava loved)
So…it’s December 2017 and I have tweaked my Ta Do list considerably for this year’s House-a-Palooza: I just picked up 10.5 kg of gingerbread dough from Pasticceria San Marco, family friends; my entire living room floor will be lined with drop-cloths; I have delegated; for lunch, I am ordering pizza for the littler ones, sushi for the more sophisticated tweens…and on December 23 I will make three gingerbread houses with 13 of my family members.
Francesca M. Lodico is a Montreal writer. She is currently working on a novel based on her childhood in Sicily.