You know Christmas is imminent when you check your e-mail and find a message bearing the subject "Martha's To Do List." Click it open, and there's a parody of the infamous calendar found in each issue of Martha Stewart LIVING: "December 17— Child-proof the Christmas tree with a garland of razor wire," "December 23—Seed clouds for a white Christmas."
Before you forward this jibe at the homemaker we love to hate along to your friends, take heed. Martha Stewart is more powerful than you realize. I don't mean her escalating presence on the stock market. We're talking about witchcraft. I'm living—albeit temporarily invalid—proof that mocking Martha leads only to misery.
My original theme for this column was "Enemies of Christmas," a diatribe blasting parties who tarnish my tinsel. I'd singled out Martha because I resent how all her festive activities are so time- and labor-intensive that they only compound holiday stress, no matter how artfully they're executed. Come December 23, there's nothing like a fruitless quest for 24 matching ramekins to hold individual peppermint cr譥 brl饠to make you jump into the Puget Sound.
The plan was simple. I'd devote my week to constructing the Gingerbread Mansion from Stewart's 1982 opus Entertaining. I figured that after making five batches of dough, cutting and baking the pieces, gluing them together, and decorating this monstrosity—right down to making "glass" windows from melted sugar—there'd be laughs aplenty.
I don't know how she found out. I thought I was being crafty, shopping for ingredients on Saturday night. While the rest of the Emerald City was out getting soused, I was hunting for unsulfured molasses—now that's holiday. Perhaps one of Martha's spies overheard me pitching a hissy fit because I couldn't purchase a pastry tube at QFC and, detecting a note of insincerity, ratted me out.
Monday afternoon, my plan was to take a nap, then commence baking. Instead, I awoke with a nasty flu. Somewhere in Connecticut, Martha had peered into her vintage crystal ball and put the whammy on me. I haven't gotten out of bed for more than a few minutes since.
But I couldn't get gingerbread out of my head. And so, after brewing some ginger tea (a very effective treatment for fever—simmer four or five slices of fresh ginger in a cup of water, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes), I hauled my favorite cookbooks under the covers with me and set to learning about the heritage of this holiday staple.
According to the editors of Saveur, gingerbread dates back to medieval times, when monks made it from rye or dark wheat flour, buckwheat honey, and a variety of spices. In the 1600s, folks began adding eggs and shortening, and cutting the dough into festive shapes or baking it in molds portraying religious scenes. English colonists first brought it to our shores, but other nationalities—Germans, Swedes—soon introduced their own popular variations.
Gingerbread has inspired all sorts of music, too: the jazz standard "Gingerbread Boy," the Residents' creepy concept album Gingerbread Man, Frankie Avalon's 1958 Top-10 hit "Ginger Bread." My favorite is the sappy "Sweet Gingerbread Man," as performed by Sarah Vaughn on her '70s LP A Time in My Life. And long before the Runaways, in 1965 Goldie and the Gingerbreads, four New York lasses who played their own instruments, scored a UK hit with "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat?"
Just because I'm laid up sick doesn't mean the rest of you shouldn't partake of gingerbread. So here's a tested-and-true recipe from my other favorite crazed homemaker, my mom. She might get a little carried away at Christmas, too, but there's nothing in this recipe you won't find in the aisles of any ordinary grocery, and you won't spend all day baking.
THE BEST GINGERBREAD COOKIES
1 cup butter
3 cups sifted flour
cup brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
cup white sugar
1 tsp. ginger
tsp. ground cloves
2 tbsp. dark corn syrup
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. warm water
1. Cream butter. Add sugars and cream until light. Beat in egg and syrup. Dissolve baking soda in warm water and add to the mixture. 2. Sift together flour and spices and stir into butter mixture. Mix well. Cover bowl and chill thoroughly. 3. Roll to desired thickness (I like mine very thin). Cut into shapes. 4. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 400 degrees for five to 10 minutes. Watch closely, for if they are very thin they will bake very quickly. Makes 75 to 80 cookies. (If you don't want to roll out the dough and use cookie cutters, you can make it into rolls like for refrigerator cookies, chill thoroughly, and slice thinly, then top with a slivered almond before baking.)