Monday, December 26, 2016

Gingerbread House Tradition

I love sentimental traditions. This is a big time of year for such things...Baking holiday cookies to share, large family gatherings with recipes that have been passed down for generations, dishes that only come out for big events, special ornaments for Christmas trees. I've learned many lessons from having traditions, made many fond memories, and enjoy continuing them with my own children. Each Christmas season I think about my childhood neighbor, Mrs. Carpenter, who was part of several memorable traditions. She was a very tiny woman who had a very large white house, a perfectly manicured lawn, and quite a book collection. She was an influential person in my life. She took me to get my very first library card. We'd get new books regularly, walking to town together. She let me "help" her gather up her raked leaves in the fall, placing them in wire baskets to dump in the woods behind her home. She was a retired teacher, she was old school, she was so incredibly smart and kind in her own way. I admired her greatly. 

She started a Christmas tradition that I've carried on with my own children: the seasonal decorating of a gingerbread house. Each year Mrs. Carpenter would assemble the gingerbread house from a kit before I went over to decorate so it was ready to go when I got there. I loved it! The goal was to decorate it even better than the previous year. She would encourage and praise my efforts. The tradition lives on!!! Each year I purchase a gingerbread kit for my own children, similar to this one. I assemble it, my children decorate it, and they love it! There's always a lot of taste testing of the candies. You know, just to make sure they're good enough for our sure-to-be-amazing gingerbread house. A family favorite are SweeTarts mini chewy candies. We hide them from my husband until our decorating is complete, he can gobble up a bag of those in no time at all!

This year our family took turns battling the flu, so I didn't get out to purchase the traditional gingerbread kit. Ugh! At least it passed through before Christmas break! My daughter and I were home with fevers, on the mend from the worst of the flu storm (whew!), and she asked if we could try to make our own. Hmm? Yes, what a great idea! We had never made one from scratch before so we researched gingerbread houses for ideas. Clare liked a lot of things! We sketched, measured, cut, and planned together. She would be a great foreman and/or architect. It took longer than we thought it would, but we were excited! 

We looked up a gingerbread recipe online and set to work mixin' it up! Clare thought our molasses and brown sugar looked like a sandcastle with a moat. Ah, a beach sounds pretty nice right now...

Clare helped scoop dough from the bowl to roll it out on overturned cookie sheets covered in parchment paper. The lip around the rim of the cookie sheets would have been a problem while rolling out our dough, so we flipped them over. Worked like a charm!

We worked together to arrange our cut template pieces on the surface of our dough. We had to roll out a few slabs in order to have enough pieces for our house. After our template pieces were in place, we used a small knife dipped in flour to cut around them. The dough was a bit sticky, even after chilling, so the flour helped prevent the dough from sticking to the knife and gobbing up our cut lines. The recipe we used said to bake the pieces inside of the slab they were cut from, so into the oven they went!

When it came out of the oven the pieces were slightly distorted. Following the recipe directions, we replaced the template pieces and cut around them again, then let the pieces cool on the pan. 

We decided not to try cutting out the windows, as we'd originally planned to do. We would simply trace them with frosting later. 

Two of our pieces really cracked, a roof piece and a wall piece. The roof piece was waaaaaay beyond repair, crumbling to bits, but we were able to save the wall piece. To replace our roof piece we mixed up sugar cookie dough (a Mrs. Carpenter recipe), and set to work assembling the gingerbread house pieces that we did have while the dough chilled. 

The cracked wall piece was becoming a real problem. It became weaker and weaker as we assembled the house. It probably would have been helpful to have a cardboard foundation under the cookies pieces to stabilize them (like cereal box cardboard). We didn't do that, lesson learned. Since the frosting stiffens over time, we decided to use it as a cement or grout for the broken wall pieces. We smeared it on the side of the crack, pushed the pieces together, smoothed the oozing frosting, and we waiting for it to set. To cover the frosting line crack we decided to use graham crackers to build a chimney. We covered the chimney in frosting, sticking marshmallows to it for a "stone" look. We were very pleased, and had fun creatively problem solving through this process!

Back to the missing roof piece. By this point we were getting tired. I was baking birthday cake for my daughter while assembling this thing and wasn't excited about baking sugar cookies if I didn't have to (the dough could be chilled and saved for later). My husband suggested using the cover to an old book that he had laying around from scanning textures for another project. We giggled, but thought it was a neat-o idea! Nobody eats our gingerbread houses anyway, and it'd be a story. The cover really didn't want to stick to the house, so we propped it up with a Fiesta jar until the frosting had set really well. 

Our next problem was how to cover the roof to disguise our book cover without adding too much weight from frosting? RITZ CRACKERS! Having been so ill, we had plenty on hand! They worked PERFECTLY

After drying and setting overnight, the house was ready to decorate! I had mixed up frosting for birthday cake decorating, so while I worked on cake decorating, the kids piped frosting and decorated our gingerbread house. This was a lot of work, but we all agree that it was our best house ever! We are definitely going to attempt to improve our gingerbread house building skills next year! 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Paper Bag Gingerbread Houses!

I love gingerbread houses. Growing up I'd spend a few hours each Christmas season decorating one with my elderly neighbor, and I loved it. It's a tradition I've continued with my children. 

My daughter has a December birthday, pretty close to Christmas, and it's not always easy to find something to do. We don't always have snow for playing, and we live in a pretty rural area. For the last few years Clare has invited folks over to decorate real gingerbread houses, but this year she opted for an ice skating party. To tie into the old tradition she and I teamed together to make these super cute goody bags for party peeps! 

Not only is this a season full of sentimental traditions and birthday celebrations; nope. It's also germ season! Can I get a big "UGH!"?! As elementary art teachers my husband and I are exposed to germs all day, and so are our children. My daughter brought home the flu in the middle of this week, and she shared it with her brother, with me, and with our elf, Mr. Bo Jingles. 

My son felt better and went back to school, but Clare had a fever, and I was feeling pretty lousy, so we stayed home. Friday afternoon she got a little squirrelly, obviously needing an outlet for her restored energy, so I set her to work painting paper bags to look like gingerbread houses as I rested nearby. 

We turned her little couch "sick bed" into a mini studio space. 

While watching Christmas movies, she used my piano bench as a desk and got to work!

They're fast and simple to make, cost next to nothing, and are super adorable! To make one yourself, you'll need:
  • brown paper lunch bags
  • brown construction paper
  • scissors
  • a pencil/eraser
  • acrylic craft paints and a plate or bit of cardboard to squirt them on
  • paintbrushes
  • a water dish 
  • a folded paper towel (to wipe and dry your brush on)
  • something to stuff inside the bag (we used little prizes as gifts, but you could use balled up newspaper)
  • a stapler
  • tape (regular or masking, as long as it sticks it doesn't really matter!)
  • GLITTER (if you're feeling festive and brave)
Let's get started!

I held the lunch bag on top of my construction paper and cut up the paper, leaving exposed construction paper on both sides of the bag. I wanted a bit of an overhang for the roof, and this oughta do it. Sorry it's not exact. You can measure it if you really want to! I just really like wingin it when I'm figuring stuff out. 

That's way too much for a roof, so I folded it in half and had enough to make 2! 

Cut along the fold line (this would all be much faster and accurate with a paper cutter, but we were sick girls at home with nothing but scissors, so.....yeah, we did it the old fashioned way). 

Fold your roof paper in half and set it aside! You're ready for the next big step! My son wants to be a photographer and is learning about focusing. My apologies for the blurred images! Artist in training!

Use a pencil to draw your design. Pencils are great, especially mechanical ones. I love them. If you mess up you can erase it like it never happened, just draw lightly at first. 

I wanted the houses to be short, quaint, adorable, and none of the items that were going inside were large, so when drawing designs I made sure the top of the door stopped at the main fold along the bottom part of the bag. I added a few decorative doodly bits just above that for fancy whimsy. Keep it simple, especially if little ones are helping.

Paint it any way you like! We improvised a bunch! I gave my daughter mostly seasonal holiday colors, but she enjoyed mixing up her own, excitedly telling me all about each new color creation. She made each bag different for each of her pals. 

Before it dries, add some ultra fine glitter! It makes everything look sugary, like a real gingerbread house, and adds some magical whimsy. I'm all about whimsy. And glitter. Lots of glitter! 

Set it aside to dry. You don't want this paint on your clothes, it'll never come out. While you're waiting for the bag to dry you can paint another bag, go whip up a real gingerbread house, or play in the snow. Just don't do chores, it'll ruin your mood for happy holiday stuff. There'll be plenty of time for that kinda thing later. 

When it's finally dry, it's time to stuff it! If you're putting tiny gifts inside, have them ready to go. For this example we used newspaper. It wasn't as heavy as the tiny gifts for the goody bags so the shape wasn't as nice, but it'll do!

It doesn't really matter how many times you fold it down, just make sure the edges along the bottom "house" part of the bag are structurally sound. If they're squished or dented, tidy it up. 

This is folded down twice! Three times would work too! You're going to staple through it later, so don't go too crazy with the folding. 

Find your folded roof paper from earlier and place it over the fold of your bag. 

Hold it in place, making sure that the fold of your bag is tucked securely inside the fold of the roof. 

Staple the roof to your folded bag! Once on each side should do!

If the contents of the bag don't allow your roof to lay nicely just make a couple of tape donuts to hold it down. 

Almost finished! Just a little more painting and glitter to go!

Paint the roof! Make it fancy! I ran out of white paint so I opted for an icy light blue.  

We sprinkled the ultra fine glitter from earlier on the main part of the roof and added extra big glitter to the very top. Look at that shimmer and shine!

Let the roof dry and you're finished! It's really that easy! My husband is a font drawing master, so he wrote out the names of the party kids on the backs of the bags with a broad line crayola marker. Since the front is what you want folks to see I'm not worried about painting the back or doing anything more with it, but feel free to fancy it up! Share your ideas, I'm always looking for ways to change things up!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Clay Ornaments

A few years ago, when our ceramics program was just getting started, the mayor of our small town decided that the town should have a community tree for all to enjoy. He's always looking for ways to bring people together for the good of the town, to create a stronger sense of community, and to welcome those passing through. He asked that each student in our elementary school make an ornament for this community tree, and we set to work! 

Making something out of clay is pretty special, but to give away the very first thing you make is difficult. So students made TWO! One to keep and one to give. Making two ornaments with every student in the school was a huge task, lots of time, lots of prep, lots of sorting! Nowadays only kindergartners make ornaments to contribute to the tree, the new ornaments are added to the collection of previous ornaments, and everybody wins! Each year students of all ages enjoy searching the community tree for their ornament!

Until this year, each slab was rolled using a rolling pin. They're for pies. Imagine rolling slabs for a class of 18-22 kindergartners. Frazzled. Noodle arms. It felt like it took forever, and they weren't always even. This year we have a beautiful, efficient, shiny new slab roller to make the job of prepping clay a breeze! A dream even! Ok, it still takes time, but not nearly as much as it used to and I LOVE IT!

Before the kiddos arrive to art for ornament makin' I have the slabs ready to go on canvas boards (they keep the clay from sticking to the tabletops and makes projects like this a whole lot more tidy), tabletop containers with a variety of things in them to make textures (marker caps, Popsicle sticks, funky pasta noodles, and anything else that will leave neat-o looking dents in clay), plastic wrap over each slab (prevents the clay from sticking to the cookie cutters), and a box of miscellaneous cookie cutters to choose from. In years past I've had students choose a cookie cutter for their two ornaments, taking turns using popular ones like hearts and boots, but little hands really struggle pushing the cookie cutters through the clay. Making my rounds to help each child with the cookie cutters gets a little crazy, so this year I tried something new! That new slab roller inspired all kinds of new! I had art helpers punch out circular clay cookies from the slabs and skipped that part with the kindergartners. It was much more time efficient and way less frustrating for the kids (and me!).  

As students finished up, I visited their work area to write their names and class sections on the back. Then I used a plastic straw to poke a hole in the top so the ornaments could be strung or hooked. When the plastic straw gets too clogged, I simply cut that section off and keep poking along!

I left the labeled and poked ornaments on a canvas board in the middle of the table, out of the way of free art activities for finishers, and continued labeling and poking ornaments at each table until all were ready to dry!

I can usually finish labeling and poking the ornaments before their class ends. With just a few short minutes before my next class, I quickly removed the ornaments from the canvas boards at each table and place them in borrowed soda bottle trays. 

They stack well in the cabinets they're stored in, allow air all around them so the ornaments dry evenly, they have sturdy handles, and make it easy to sort them into classes when removed from the kiln!

When the ornaments are finally dry enough they're loaded into the kiln. They're fired (temps are incredibly HOT!), cooled (for at least a day), unloaded (carefully), and sorted to glaze. This part is confusing for kiddos. Glaze is like painting, but the colors are mostly pastel and sometimes kinda dull when poured straight from the jar. They get darker, brighter, richer, and change SO MUCH after being fired again! What looks like light purple in the glaze tray actually turns into a gorgeous dark blue! They don't think it makes any sense, but they're always delighted by the surprise colors!

I demo how to glaze before they try it out. There's a lot to know! We talk about putting frosting on cookies. Where does it go? Usually the top! That's where we need our glaze to be. We talked about filling in the nooks n crannies, how to create patterns, how to layer colors. They needed three coats of glaze (otherwise it's not shiny and bright) and could choose any colors they wanted, and they LOVE that part! They're focused, thoughtful, and enjoy telling you about their choices.

The first layer of glaze soaks in pretty quickly, the next takes a bit longer to dry, and the last can take awhile. 

Opening the kiln after they've been glaze fired is SO EXCITING! It's A-MAZING how much the colors change! The kids are always so excited, so proud, and so careful when they see their finished work!

They're truly lovely when finished! Some students need a few minutes to choose which ornament to keep and which to give, others know right away which one is going home with them that day. After they choose, they decorate a piece of sturdy rolled paper to wrap it up in.

I wrap them carefully, tape them, Sharpie their name to the tape and a paper bag, place it in the bag, and staple it shut! They're safer, and the stapled bag helps prevent them from sharing their treasure on the bus, avoiding sad accidental breaks. 

The donated ornaments are delivered to one of the mayors many volunteers. She makes sure they're cleaned, strung, and helps a group of folks decorate the community tree!

This year my family was asked to light the tree at their ceremony. FUN! We were early, so we went for a little walk up the street to visit shops and passed this super cool n happy door handle that I wish I had on a door of my own! 

We lit the tree! We danced to Christmas tunes, sang Christmas carols, and the mayor even read a story!

We are already looking forward to next year!