Monday, December 20, 2010

Maison en Pain d'Epices

It is simply wonderful to be Aunt Lucy to French children. They'd never even heard of or imagined a gingerbread house. Can you imagine such a thing? To get them in the mood, I told them the story of Hansel and Gretel, again which no one had ever told them, drawing out the delicious discovery of the candy house in the forest. You should have seen their eyes light up. We found an inspiration picture from Ian's favorite children's book, and the project began to take shape in their minds. I took a trip to the grocery store for an array of luscious puffy colorful common French candies and put it in the cupboard for just the right moment. In the afternoon before nap time, when the kitchen was quiet, we draped aprons on and mixed the honey spiced dough. While the children slept, the dough chilled.

This house has only 10 pieces, very easy to manage. After they went to bed, I put the house together with royal icing. I used this pattern for the house pieces. It is best to trace these pieces onto cardboard, and use each of the walls twice. Cutting grids of windows freehand into soft dough is not my thing, so I used cookie cutters for the windows and doors. Children prefer heart and flower shaped windows anyway. Since the pattern is missing the roof, I just estimated it based on the dimensions of the other pieces. It turned out fine, and even if it hadn't I don't think the children would have noticed!

Recipe: Maison en Pain d'Épices

This makes plenty of dough with some leftover. You can freeze this dough into a log and slice them off to make little biscuits to enjoy with tea.

3 cups (scoop and level) cake flour or type 45 French
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup butter (185 g.), room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar (100 grams)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground dried ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon Épice à pain d’épices
1 egg
1/2 cup honey (170 g miel d'acacia if you have any)
1-2 tablespoons of milk (if necessary)

- Measure out the flour, salt, powder, and spices into a one quart bowl or food storage container and mix them to combine well. Set aside.
- Cream the butter and add the sugar, egg, and honey, mix until well combined and homogeneous, no need to beat or whip for any length of time.
- Incorporate the dry ingredients by 1/2 cup (having a mixer with the paddle attachment comes in handy for this).
- Mix this batter until it comes together into a ball of dough. If the dough is not coming together, add a tablespoon or two of milk.
- Divide this dough into 3 or four parts, and roll each part out immediately about 1/4 of an inch thick onto baking parchment, topping each rolled out piece with another sheet of parchment. Stack these and chill them for minimum 1 hour, overnight, or a day or two.
- When you are ready to bake, heat the oven to 300C/170F, and remove the first batch of dough from the refrigerator. Let it warm up briefly to make it easier to remove the top sheet of parchment.
- Smooth the dough by rolling the pin over the surface, slightly thinning the layer of dough. Place the template pieces down, cutting along their edges with a knife. Remove the dough around the cut pieces, reserving the scraps to roll out again. Use cookie cutters to cut out the windows and doors as desired, and remove the insides.
- You can cut the paper around the cut out pieces in order to more economically arrange them on cookie sheets.
- Bake for 10 minutes, and transfer the pieces to trays to cool flat.
- Once cool, you can begin to assemble the house with royal icing.

Royal icing:

2 egg whites or 6 tablespoons prepared dried whites
1 pound confectioners sugar (500 grams)
2 teaspoons kirsch or lemon juice

Simply place the egg whites in a medium sized mixing bowl and whisk briefly with the kirsch or lemon juice. Add the sugar, not worrying too much about lumps, and stir it well, until all the lumps have been worked out and it is a smooth, homogeneous paste. Transfer 4-6 tablespoons into individual zip-lock type sandwich bags, zip closed, and reserve these in the refrigerator until it is time to use them. You can use this as glue for the house, to pipe decorative lines or polka dots on the house, or to glue candy all over the house and the house's garden by clipping off only a very small bit from the corner of the sack and using it like a pastry bag.

In my opinion, this was a lot more fun than doing cookies, because the children will stay interested much longer in this project than decorating cookies. Here are the children working on the house. They loved it. I think they will love it next year too.


Anonymous Sam said...

Okay, this is sooo charming and sweet it brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!!

2:55 PM, December 21, 2010  
Blogger Michel said...

What a cute house! I like windows made with hearts way better too.

3:37 PM, December 21, 2010  
Anonymous Amy said...

How sweet! I have wonderful memories of Christmas cookie and gingerbread house decorating parties when I was a child. Maybe I'll introduce this tradition to my French family to prevent too much holiday homesickness... Merry Christmas to you and yours, Lucy!

5:54 PM, December 21, 2010  
Anonymous clotilde said...

Wonderful! I also grew up without gingerbread houses, but we did have a horrifying book telling the story of Hansel and Gretel.

10:05 PM, December 21, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Yes, when I got to the horrifying part, things were much faster and more abbreviated in the telling, ending with "and everyone lived happily ever after".

10:15 PM, December 21, 2010  
Anonymous clotilde said...

Wise move, it's all in the editing. :) That said, it's amazing to me to realize now that most of the fairy tales we were read or told when we were children had some heartbreaking or terrifying element to them, from Cinderella to The Little Mermaid or, worst of all, The Little Match Girl!

11:25 AM, December 23, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

I was thinking about that too, and searching for memories of being afraid or sad in hearing these stories. I also remember acting them out with my friends, and finding a chicken bone for Hansel's trick, pretending we were orphans, evil stepmothers, etc... I think, in repeating these stories again and again, children can work through the emotions within the framework of the story, in complete security that things will end well. That doesn't mean that stories like these didn't feed my fear of the dark, however!

11:54 AM, December 23, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are creating such wonderful memories for those lovely children. The video is precious. Wouldn't it be nice to build a gingerbread sailboat? How many hearts would live on the spinnaker now?

1:59 PM, December 23, 2010  
Blogger Slippery Rock said...

Lucy - Merry Christmas! First one off of Circle Rd. since the 70's. How does that happen?! Dare I say Baby Ian is starting to look like his uncle Frodo? Amazing! Was that you and Luic putting on the finishing touches? Felt like I was right there in your kitchen. Miss you and love you, Your sister, Clare

7:46 PM, December 26, 2010  
Blogger Katie Zeller said...

What a wonderful memory for the children! I love introducing American traditions to the French. I took Cranberry Bread to my French class. They're so used the British influence it's nice to be 'different'.
It was not a 'kinder, gentler world' when those fairy tales were written....

10:47 AM, December 27, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Love to two of my sisters!

Isn't it nice to share these traditions. I have decided to make a Christmas book for my French nieces so they can do it even if I'm not there.

10:51 AM, December 27, 2010  
Anonymous Priscilla Martel said...

Lucy, How delightful! You can see the wonderment in the children's eyes as they try this new, sweet game. (A friend hopes that her new racehorse will be named Pain d'Epices. It's in the French jockey club's hands.)

Much love and happiness in the New Year. We're coming to Paris in March and may make it to Lyon. Details to follow. Priscilla

6:09 PM, December 29, 2010  
Anonymous Mr sky said...

I must say that you are a good writer:). And your recipe is very easily to understand:). And you take great picture also:).

3:20 PM, January 02, 2011  
Anonymous emiglia said...

It's so funny... I've been imagining the exact same scenario for if/when I have French children (Hansel and Gretel and all!) It must have been amazing to be able to bring that whole tradition into their lives... I'm sure they adore you!

9:10 AM, January 11, 2011  

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