‘Collect moments, not things’ was a quote I came across on Pinterest last week. It seems particularly poignant during the month of December when people tend to get caught up in the Christmas rush of commercial gift buying and forget the real meaning of the holidays. I’m not referring to the religious Christian meaning here, which I will admit does get overshadowed by Santa Claus. What I’m talking about is the opportunity to spend time with family and friends making memories. Those are the things that last a life time and are more precious than any tangible gift that you can get or give at Christmas time. Whether you celebrate Santa’s or Jesus’s arrival on Christmas day (or both), the common thread woven throughout this season is family and moments shared with one another.
So, with that in mind, I decided to have a lazy December Saturday with my little family at home, the cold wintry air outside and a roaring fire inside. Together we embarked on a little project that could become a yearly Christmas tradition if I feel brave enough to try it again next year. After reading a blog on gingerbread houses and then spotting a gingerbread making kit in Ikea, I decided why not try building our own. Yeah, I know. It was probably overly ambitious to take this on with a two-year old.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about fine and gross motor skills that toddlers are supposed to be developing at this stage and I’ve been trying to incorporate activities into my son’s day to support this development. Being a boy, he is very physically active and excels in the area of gross motor skills so I’ve been focussing on developing his fine motor skills. These are best developed through arts and crafts as well as building activities. So, a gingerbread house building project sounded perfect. But like any building project it had its snags.
First my building materials didn’t come with adequate instructions. Anyone who knows Ikea, knows that they sell products with graphics for instructions and you generally have to figure things out as you go along. This can generally result in assembling things backwards, upside down or ending up with too many parts left over. In my case, I ended up with parts that wouldn’t slot together as per the diagram so I had to improvise.
Above is a photo of the Ikea gingerbread house making kit. Do you see how the house pieces slot together in the diagram? Like all Ikea building projects, it looks deceptively simple. Included in the kit are plastic shapes for cutting out the house pieces as well as sheet for rolling and baking your dough. All you need to do is cut out 3 shapes, bake them and repeat so that you have four walls and two roof pieces that slot together. The shapes even come with grooves that make roof tiles, doors, windows and wood panelling on your gingerbread house. It all looked very promising that we would have an impressive gingerbread house built in no time.
What wasn’t included with the scant written instructions that accompany the diagram was a recipe for gingerbread. So, I turned to my cook books where I found one from Rachel Allen, which I altered slightly with regards to the spicing making my gingerbread similar to that of Speculaas (Dutch windmill cookies). I prefer these over plain gingerbread. They include lovely Christmas spices like nutmeg and cloves along with the cinnamon and ginger, which taste yummy together and make your house smell like Christmas while you are baking. The recipe was simple. It involved melting butter with three different types of sugar (caster, brown and golden syrup) then mixed with flour, baking soda and spices to form a dough that was chilled for 30 minutes. After the dough was ready, I got rolling and baking.
At the baking stage, we had a problem. The gingerbread dough spread out and I no longer had house pieces that would slot together. I tried to salvage things by cutting into the baked gingerbread dough while it was still warm but when the gingerbread hardened, the pieces still wouldn’t slot together. I’d come too far to give up or start over from scratch so instead I trimmed the gingerbread pieces and decided the Swedes didn’t know what they were doing when they made this kit. The result was a small gingerbread house with a massive roof that proved great for decorating but wasn’t the most structurally sound as soon after completion it slid off.
Thankfully I had done all of my gingerbread baking on Friday so all the drama didn’t take over our lazy Saturday which was left for constructing and decorating. Once again, I used a Rachel Allen recipe for royal icing (it’s essentially egg whites and powdered sugar). I supplemented powdered egg whites in place of fresh ones as I was going to have a toddler eating the icing. Royal icing is used for gingerbread houses because it dries like cement and holds everything together (until your oversized roof buckles under the weight of too many sweets). So, with my piping bag in hand and my husband alongside as my second pair of hands, we glued together the salvaged pieces of our gingerbread house.
My son’s look of delight at the house was enough to make all the hard work of baking and building worth it. (Until he tried to rip off a wall before we even started decorating). I’m hoping in years to come, he will play more of a part in the baking and building but for now he got to do the fun bit of decorating and eating, which both practice his fine motor skills. And we all had a lovely moment together as a family to remember and hopefully repeat next year (with a different template for the gingerbread house).