Thanksgiving is behind us, and Christmas is just around the corner! I don't even want to know how many shopping days we have left – as usual, I haven't started mine yet.


Would you like to enjoy a centuries-old tradition while taking a break from the hustle and bustle that so often consume the month of December?


Pick up a kit or use the recipe below to create your own gingerbread house. It's a fun tradition, and the entire family can participate. Or let everyone create their own gingerbread house and display them all!


And now for a little more about the centuries-old tradition of gingerbread making ...


A Brief History of Gingerbread

Ginger was a plant native to China and India where its medicinal properties were appreciated for aiding digestion, preventing colds and restoring one's appetite. The ancient Romans used ginger as a remedy for the plague and enjoyed its spicy flavor for cooking.


The English fashioned medicinal ginger candies in the 13th century, later adding bread crumbs to the candy and it became known as “gingerbrede.”


By the 14th century the Germans really began to take gingerbread seriously and formed special guilds of gingerbread artisans. With their specialized skills, they created fanciful and elaborate creations stamped from carved molds, decorated with real leaves, painted with gold leaf and studded with cloves dipped in gold leaf. When complete, they sometimes weighed as much as 150 pounds!


The 17th century saw the addition of eggs, flour and honey and later molasses to the gingerbread recipe. In the next century the Grimm brothers wrote their tale about Hansel and Gretel which described a house “made of bread, with a roof of cake and windows of barley.” The gingerbread house was born and has been with us ever since.


Gingerbread Houses

I first learned to make gingerbread houses from Joan LaBone, who was affectionately known as the gingerbread lady at St. Mary's school. Every year Joan would bake hundreds of gingerbread houses and take them to the school for the kids to decorate. I learned a lot of great tips and tricks for working with gingerbread from Joan when we had a Girl Scout troop together. Here is her recipe for the dough which I still use today:


3 cups all-purpose flour


3/4 cup sugar


1/3 cup shortening


2 tsp. ground cinnamon


1 tsp. ground ginger


1 tsp. baking powder


1/2 tsp. salt


1/2 tsp. baking soda


1/2 tsp. vanilla extract


1/2 cup sour cream


1 egg


To prepare dough: In a large bowl, measure 1½ cups flour and remaining ingredients. With mixer at low speed, beat until well blended, scraping bowl constantly. By hand, mix and knead in remaining flour to make a soft dough. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate two hours or until dough is not sticky.


To roll dough: Keep refrigerated until ready to use. Place dough onto lightly floured surface and with lightly floured hands, knead dough until smooth. Transfer dough to a greased and floured cookie sheet and roll dough to approximately one-eighth of an inch in thickness.


To cut and bake: Cut by laying pattern piece on dough and tracing outline with a knife. Remove excess dough. Bake at 350 until golden brown and very firm to the touch (10-15 minutes).


Cool sheet on wire rack 5 minutes, then carefully remove pieces from cookie sheet.


Icing (the mortar that holds the house together): You're going to want to purchase Wilton meringue powder for this (check Walmart or Hobby Lobby). Prepare royal icing per package directions.


Place royal icing into a zip top bag and seal zipper. Cut a small piece off one corner, and you've got a decorating bag to pipe icing along edges of house pieces for assembly.


IMPORTANT NOTE: Buttercream frosting (including the stuff in the can) will not work for gingerbread assembly and decorating. While royal icing quickly hardens, buttercream remains soft and will eventually soften the gingerbread, causing the house to fall apart and/or the decorations to fall off.


Decorating: Add any small candy, cookies, cereal or crackers to finish house. Use your imagination and have fun!


Some ideas: Green gum drops make great bushes, Chiclets gum becomes Christmas lights, pretzel sticks make great fences, small snack crackers become roofing shingles, gummy bears, animal crackers, or Teddy Grahams are fun to add.


Do you have a topic you'd like reading about? Would you like to share your gingerbread stories or pictures? Email chef Karen at karen@letkarencook.com or comment at Everyday Gourmet Aiken on Facebook and your suggestion may be featured in her next article.


Karen Tempel, an aspiring chef since she could reach the countertops, has been delighting friends and family with tempting treats for most of her life. She is the owner of Everyday Gourmet, a custom caterer in the Aiken area. Visit her website at www.LetKarenCook.com or email her at Karen@LetKarenCook.com.


Ginger trivia

• Queen Elizabeth I of England is credited with first presenting gingerbread likenesses to her guests (the first gingerbread men).


• George Washington's mother was famous for her spicy gingerbread.


• Ginger was included in the rations of Revolutionary War soldiers, both for its medicinal value and to add flavor to otherwise simple and sparse meals.


• After ginger was first introduced in Europe (about 800 AD) it ranked second to pepper as a spice for centuries.


• Ginger grows in southern China, Japan, West Africa and many other tropical countries, including the Caribbean islands. Jamaican ginger is considered to be the best of all.