Crocheting stockings ground to a halt almost as soon as it began. Holiday travel and a lot of eating threw a wrench into my plans to work on my handmade Christmas projects.
By the time I got around to picking up my hook and yarn, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with either. What Sarah Radow at Kanawha City Yarn Co. had shown me had gone in one ear and then left out the other.
I’d brought a couple books from the Kanawha County Public Library to my sister Laura’s house in Tennessee in hopes of getting back on track, but “Teach Yourself Visually Crocheting” and “The Happy Hooker: Stitch ’n Bitch Crochet” only helped me to remember how to tie a slip knot and create a basic chain.
I was going to have to get back to Sarah’s store, have her show me the basics all over and then actually do the work.
I couldn’t afford to let time get away from me. Christmas would be here before I knew it.
Bake to basics
In the meantime, I began work on my submission for the United Way of Central West Virginia and the Kanawha Valley Collective’s “More Than a Home for the Holidays” gingerbread house competition, coming up Dec. 11 at their building at 1 United Way Square.
Once again, I had a book: “Christmas Cookies,” published by Better Homes and Gardens.
This was where I’d come up with a recipe for gingerbread, which seemed relatively simple. The cookbook even provided a couple of architectural options for the aspiring gingerbread builder.
I could make a grand Victorian mansion, dusted with sugar and bejeweled with peppermints and ruby red Life Savers — the sort of place Willy Wonka might call home.
The other was a woodsy gingerbread cabin, fashioned with sturdy cookie logs stacked on thick layers of frosting and covered by a savory cracker roof. It looked like a sweet, rustic getaway, a hunting cabin for Keebler elves or the perfect lair for wicked fairytale witches with a taste for fat kids named Hansel.
Both were impressive, but my experience with baking cookies was limited to basic chocolate chip (always a crowd pleaser, but not necessarily the most structurally sound of confections, at least with how I make them. I tend to double the gooey chocolate chips) and tubes of sugar cookie dough, which might make a nice, but bland building material.
I’d never made gingerbread before, and thought I should ease into building even a tiny house.
My expectations for what I would eventually come up with were modest. Somebody else was going to win the “More Than a Home for the Holidays” contest, but I could still have a good showing as an amateur baker and architect.
Turning in a burned-out husk of a house for the contest would just look bad.
My plan was to start small — with gingerbread men. I even had a whole box full of seldom-used cookie cutters.
One of them sort of looked like it might be a man.
I could test the recipe in the book, see if the cookie dough turned out like it was supposed to, then take a shot at decorating the cookies. If that all worked out, I could move on to more complicated shapes, maybe try to bake up a cute little bungalow or a split-level ranch before embarking on a McMansion.
All of this was pretty ambitious for a guy who has never built so much as a bird house.
But I followed the recipe as directed, and it more or less delivered what was promised. The recipe used quite a bit of shortening and called for the mix to be refrigerated for three hours before it was rolled out into a sheet and cut.
Maybe because my refrigerator dates back to when Jimmy Carter was president, I don’t think that three hours of chilling was quite enough or maybe I should have cut back a hair on the Crisco.
The dough should have been firmer. Instead, when I tried to transfer the soft, unbaked gingerbread shapes to the baking sheets, they tended to warp and stretch a little.
Maybe they would turn out OK when they were baked, I thought. The dough would surely expand and rise a bit in the oven. Maybe they would just sort of bake into the proper shape, I thought.
I was clearly delusional.
There was no reason at all that they would. Baking doesn’t work that way.
The baking might have gone better if I hadn’t allowed myself to get distracted.
Ready player two
A few weeks ago, a publicist from the Sega video game company sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in trying out the new Sega Genesis Mini flashback console. Would I like to play “Sonic the Hedgehog” for the holidays?
So, they sent me the game, which has like 40 different old-school games jammed into the device. Half of them I care nothing about, but the other half includes “Golden Axe,” which was an arcade game that devoured an embarrassing portion of the money I made washing dishes when I was teenager.
So, while I was goofing around with the box for this thing, looking up the game titles on my phone and admiring the controllers while trying to figure out how to hook it up to my television, I let a batch of the cookies bake a little longer than it should have.
Some of them were slightly singed and the kitchen smelled of burnt cloves.
I was a little more vigilant for the next couple of batches, although only about half of them looked kind of man-like. The rest were shaped like post-apocalyptic mutants — edible mutants, but still kind of ugly.
I posted a picture of the results on Instagram. A friend fired back, “Baby Sharks, my favorite.”
At least the cookies seemed sturdy enough to build with. I felt confident that when I tried to make a house out of the stuff, that would probably be OK.
Harder than it looks
After the gingerbread men cooled, I set about decorating. Again, I looked at this as a kind of practice and nothing elaborate was planned.
All I needed to do was paint a few smiley faces on the head-like appendages of the cookies and add a couple of buttons down the front of the cookie torso — nothing fancy and nothing requiring a lot of artistic ability.
Anybody can make a smiley face.
Because of some past trouble with making cake icing, I bought a couple of bags of Betty Crocker cookie icing at the grocery store for three bucks each.
Along with not requiring me to get another recipe right, the pre-filled decorating bags came with a small nozzle, which looked like just the right size for dotting eyes and drawing fine lines.
After I got a few faces drawn, I thought I could go back and add clothes to the naked cookie men.
I had high hopes, but the icing came out like toothpaste squeezed from the tube. The application wasn’t neat or precise and I couldn’t seem to get the icing to make a thin, neat line. Strands of frosting trailed at the end of each attempt.
It was messy. My gingerbread men didn’t look cheery. They looked deranged.
I painted almost a dozen before I stopped, disappointed, and decided I needed to rethink this or at least get some help.