There are a few holiday traditions where kids are more than happy to help out—sure, trimming a Christmas tree is special and will likely create sweet memories, but when it comes to little hands, let’s face it—they like to get a little dirty—or, rather… sticky—with delicious frosting. Not to mention bags of colorful candies and layers upon layers of gingerbread sheets. If it’s not obvious where this is headed, here’s a special treat: Today, December 12, is National Gingerbread House Day. What better way to celebrate it than with New Jersey’s own highly talented pastry chef and master gingerbread house architect, Cassandra Carlstrom, of Red Knot Restaurant at Galloping Hill in Kenilworth.
Hand picked by Red Knot’s owners, 22-year-old Carlstrom is the sole pastry chef for the country club’s restaurant and banquet hall. “Since I was a little girl, I’ve watched my mom bake, and in fact, we just sent out our Christmas card, and it was a picture of when I was three, making a pumpkin pie,” Carlstrom said. “I’m very creative, and I always have to be hands-on. That’s why I didn’t go to college—I couldn’t sit in a classroom. I’m always making and creating things. It’s like edible art. It’s beautiful, but it’s also something you can enjoy and it’ll make your stomach full (laughs).” Her Facebook page features a bevy of beautiful handmade work that help show off the recent Institute of Culinary Education graduate’s pastry-making skills.
Last weekend, Carlstrom was on hand to highlight her frosty gingerbread houses at Red Knot during their brunch with Santa. Not only were there three spectacular houses bedazzled with gobs of white frosting and loads of peppermint swirls, but her hilarious and bittersweet melted snowmen cookies framed Santa while he was on the job. With the smell of sugar and marshmallows filling the air, it didn’t even matter to the nearby children if Saint Nick saw whether they were naughty or nice—they just grabbed as many cookies as they could with their small hands.
“Details are my thing,” Carlstrom said, right after we met. If ever there were a perfect greeting from a skilled and budding pastry chef, then that would be it. Her work is simple and warm, and not over the top. It’s impossible to just walk by her cozy gingerbread houses—one has to stare, point, and ask, “How does she do that?”
Fortunately for the rest of us, Christmas has come early and Carlstrom shared the secrets behind her talents for kids of all ages. Here is the recipe she uses for gingerbread (from everyday-cookies.blogspot.com), and a few super-handy gingerbread-house-making tips.
1 cube margarine or butter
½ cup brown sugar (dark or light, but dark will make the dough darker)
½ cup molasses
3 ½ cup sifted flour
½ tsp. of salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. of ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. of cloves
1/3 cup warm water
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Mix up the margarine or butter, brown sugar, and molasses. Add all the remaining dry ingredients, alternating with the water until nicely mixed into a dough that sticks together. You may need to add a little more water, or possibly, a little more flour. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for about 20 minutes. If you chill longer, the dough gets too stiff.
Lightly flour work surface, rolling one half of dough at a time. Cut out house shapes and leftover dough pieces. (There are special, oversized cookie cutters made especially for constructing gingerbread houses. Foxrunbrands.com has a lot of fun ones.) Dust flour off the pieces as you place on cookie sheet. Using parchment paper, a Silpat baking mat, or greased cookie sheets, place cut-out pieces on mat.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. It’s important not to under bake, as you need the pieces to be solid enough to hold the shape of the house. Remove and cool slightly, then re-cut the shapes to the original size, as the dough sometimes expands while baking.
Royal Icing (meringue method)
4 cups powdered sugar
3 tbsp. Wilton meringue powder
6 to 8 tbsp. warm water
Note: Keep all utensils completely grease-free for proper icing consistency.
For stiffer icing, use 1 tbsp. less water.
Using a handheld or stand mixer, mix and beat all ingredients for 6 to 8 minutes. Put tips in disposable decorating bags and follow directions on the package for sealing the cap and filling the bags.
It’s helpful to set the filled decorating bags in tall cups with a damp napkin on the bottom to keep the tip moist.
To build the house, it helps to have some extra hands to help hold it up. At this point, pick a solid base for the house, perhaps some wax paper.
Take one of the shorter ends of the side pieces and pipe a long, thick icing alongside another piece. Press the piece against the edge of either the front or the back, and hold in place for a few minutes.
Repeat this with the rest of the pieces, minus the roof-that is last.
When the side pieces are finished and semi-dry, pipe inside and outside the house and fill in any gaps to add extra stability.
After about an hour, it will be time to put the roof pieces together.
After the roof is set, use the leftover royal icing to use as glue to decorate the house with various candies.
Lisa Panzariello is thrilled to be part of the Jersey Bites crew, and as a fellow Jersey foodie, she lives and breathes all things delicious. Born and raised in Essex County, she now resides with her boyfriend, James, in Union County. Her writing career has stemmed over 14 years, starting with Metal Edge Magazine, then later as an editor for Penthouse, where tasting many an ethnic cuisine in The City made her realize her true passion: Mixing food with writing. Now focusing solely on freelance writing, her flexibility is giving her more freedom to cook and bake, sometimes for 24 hours straight. Given her Irish and Italian heritage, Lisa travels for an impressive beer list and loves anything relating to her Celtic roots; and just like her Nona before her, she wants everyone to feel the love and warmth in her cooking—while splitting it with those around her—especially her two dogs.