I teach first and second grade choir at a large Episcopal church (I have swooned over this group more than once on here). My little cherubs wear red vestments and sing Mendelssohn and Handel like it's the coolest thing in the universe. They never cease to bring a smile to my face and an extra skip of joy in my heart. For our annual Christmas pageant, we sing The Friendly Beasts. I love teaching the songs of the animals and the message they hold: each animal gives what he and she can. The dove sings a lullaby; the cow gives up her hay. The camel carries the wise men safely to Jesus and the donkey transports Mary to Bethlehem. And the sheep with curly horn (Ramses, to these kids) spreads his warmth with a coat of wool. I love this lesson because it teaches us to give of what we have and of who we are - no more, no less. And it's all enough. In Advent, we are all friendly beasts, giving of our small talents here and there to prepare for Christ's birth.
Seeing those beautiful faces on Christmas pageant morning made my heart tight. They are the faces that we work to protect, that we would protect with our lives if we had to. Thinking of the lost angels of last Friday only made me love my singing wiggle-worms even more. I was so thankful for the gifts that these little beasts gave to me and to so many others. We needed them desperately that day. We needed those tiny children dressed as shepherds, angels, and sheep. We needed those small, clear voices to soothe our spirits. Our pageant ended with the beloved lullaby so familiar to children and their parents (the alternative Kirkpatrick tune, of course): "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed." There were few dry eyes in the house with the last verse:
Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.
So, trying to be the friendliest beast myself, and knowing that one of the sweetest ways of showing your students you love them is by giving them sugary treats, I made old-fashioned gingerbread men. My sour attitude quickly came back as I finished these cookies at 5:00 on a cold weekday morning. Icing everywhere. Buttercream not the right consistency. Food coloring all over my hands and dish towels. Two pastry bags, torn Ziplocks, not nearly enough decorating tips. Vows that I would buy the store-bought plastic icing from now on - or, more realistically, ready-made gingerbread men from Whole Foods.
But I finished them. And they really did turn out fairly adorably. My one and only piece of advice for gingerbread men is to be realistic about your pastry bag stash and the number of colors you want to use. Putting your red and blue royal icing into Ziplock bags will result in blobs of purple all over your hands, counter, and floor - at 5 in the morning, no less. Start this project with at least 10 bags fit with tubes - maybe 20, just to be safe, and in the event of the obligatory accident. Even if you just use four colors, at least your heart will feel better. And whatever icing avenue you decide to go - whether it's the Betty Crocker tubes of globby plastic (my judgment cuts this one like a knife) or fluffy homemade buttercream - it's all okay. The most important thing is to get through gingerbread decorating with all your mental faculties in check, with minimal damage to your kitchen and pajamas, and with a finished tray of decorated ginger kids that you can be proud of.
Old-Fahioned Gingerbread Men
Adapted from Southern Living
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup hot water
1 cup molasses
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon allspice
5-6 tablespoons milk
1 stick butter, room temperature
16-ounce box confectioner's sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Food coloring of choice
Other decorating items:
Or nothing at all (perhaps the best way to go)
In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar for about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides to incorporate butter.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine baking soda and hot water and wait until soda is completely dissolved, about one minute. Add molasses and combine until smooth.
Sift flour, ginger, cinnamon, salt, and allspice in a large bowl. Alternating with molasses mixture, combine with butter and sugar until completely incorporated. (I roughly divided each portion into fourths.)
The dough should be a bit crumbly at this point. Turn out onto a big piece of plastic wrap and squeeze into a large ball. Cover with plastic and chill in refrigerator for about an hour.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll gingerbread to 1/4-inch thickness and cut with cookie cutters, rolling scraps together until all the dough has been cut. Bake for 15 minutes and cool completely.
Decorate with icings as needed. My non-professional take on this? Christmas trees and snowflakes are a heck of a lot easier than ginger kids. However, I would do it all over again any day for the tiny people in my life. I'll just make sure next time that I have a veritable army of pastry bags and decorating tips.