The weekend closest to 2 December is time for National Day celebrations in Dubai, when residents celebrate the joining together of the seven emirates to form the modern day United Arab Emirates. There are fireworks (cue Rex, the world's most neurotic dog, to have a meltdown), car rallies and plenty of traditional arabic dancing. And there's often at least one day of Public holidays too - even more reason to celebrate. For the expat community, it's also time to start opening your advent calendar (one Dairy Milk calendar and two of the Lindt variety in our house this year), time to put up your Christmas tree (tick) and time to make the annual pilgrimage to the Rugby Sevens - a weekend of rugby, fancy dress and beer ... not necessarily in that order.
For Hella and me, this is our weekend to send the boys off to do all things rugby style, leaving us to enjoy a girl's weekend. And so we did ... And the highlight? - our first ever attempt at making a Gingerbread House. Here's how it went and what we learned along the way ...
What did we do?
Being novices, we took advice from some experts and went for a recipe and instructions from Delicious magazine. There are templates too and a photo of the finished article, so at least you know what you're aiming for.
What did we learn?
- Read the instructions - Do this before you start, all the way through to the end ... twice ... possibly three times. I was guilty of this and ended up with a dash to put right the chimney stage that I'd missed. That will explain why it looks like a Health and Safety hazard.
- Allow plenty of time - We ended up completing the house over 2 days. Three might have been even better. You can't rush the icing going hard.
- Rolling out the dough on baking paper is a great tip - As is baking it on the paper.
- We made mini gingerbread men with the leftover dough - This could well have been Hella's favourite part. Particularly eating them.
- The stained glass windows were a triumph - The instructions were unclear as to how many sweets to put in each window gap. We used Fox's Glacier Fruits and used 2 sweets per window.
- At the start it's more about engineering than art - there was a jar of olives propping up one side of the roof until it dried and then a can of beans (+ a wodge of kitchen roll) to secure the other side. Without these little additions, I fear that gravity would have kicked in.
- Having a second pair of (steady) hands to help in construction is a bonus.
- Buy plenty of sweets for decoration - Use one. Eat one. Use one. Eat one ...
- Appeal to the creative within - As this was our first one, we decided to stay true to the design in the recipe. But let loose ... do your own thing - it's part of the festive fun!
- Glitter is a must - Ours was the edible variety but if you have no plans to eat the house, regular glitter would be fine.
- Royal icing is the ONLY way to go - It's the only icing that sets rock hard. We can't buy it ready-made here so I made it using a very easy recipe - it's basically just 3 egg whites and about 500g (1lb) icing sugar and not at all intimidating. I missed out the cream of tartar - mostly because I didn't have any, but also because it's just there to help prevent the sugar from crystallising ... and that wouldn't be a problem.
- Make double the quantity of icing that is in the Gingerbread House recipe - Especially if you want to surround your house with a snow covered garden.
- Don't use organic icing sugar - I had to make a second batch of icing when I ran out and the supermarket only had an organic icing sugar. Unfortunately, the resulting icing sugar had a definite golden glow to it which was reminiscent of yellow snow. And you know what they say about yellow snow ...Dessicated coconut can hide a multitude of sins though, so all was recovered.
- There's an art to keeping the unused icing soft if you don't use it all at once - Scrape it all to the bottom of the bowl and put a folded, damp tea cloth on top of the icing (so that it's covered and touching the icing), then cover the bowl with a lid or cling film and keep in a cool place (not the fridge). I also had a piping bag filled with royal icing that I wanted to use the next day - putting that on top of the leftover icing and under the tea cloth worked fine.
And what was the verdict?
It was definitely lots of fun, although I would say that I enjoyed making this Gingerbread House much more than Hella. She found the engineering aspects dull - they appealed to the geek in me. There's no denying that the house smelt sensationally festive for the next couple of days and it really did put us in the Christmas spirit. Next time, I would have more faith that the house would stay standing - it really could withstand a lot of manhandling - and we'd do our own thing in terms of creative decorations. And there'll certainly be a next time.
#2 teenage son was quick to tell me that our Gingerbread House wouldn't have won the Bake Off. Harsh I thought ... what do you think? Will you be giving it a go?