Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Fennyman: So, what do we do?

Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Shakespeare in Love

For “theater” substitute “gingerbread”, and you have in a nutshell what it’s like to make gingerbread with my family. Our tradition is one that starts with mild interest and an apparent inability to agree about anything, includes many mistakes and unpleasant surprises, and yet it somehow leads to a finished, candy-coated project.

Because our efforts are semi-annual at best, we often relearn the same lessons over and over. We experiment with new designs and materials, opening the door to disaster. Even the notes we make for ourselves are of little help. What was crystal clear when we wrote it down is horribly incomplete when we look at it again in later years. And yet, when all is said and done, our projects are basically a success. They look nothing like the gingerbread creations of professional chefs, but we are so amazed that the crooked pieces we slapped together are standing and resemble anything, we are quite proud of the results.

In honor of my nephew Liam, this year’s gingerbread project was trains, and it took us three chaotic days to make them. The dough was made in advance so it would have time to chill. After Christmas dinner, we drafted patterns and baked all the pieces. The following day, we set up shop in my sister’s dining room and spent the afternoon constructing and decorating our trains.

We are not nearly as organized as this picture makes us look.

We are not nearly as organized as this picture makes us look.

Even though we had made trains before, we had to start from scratch. We don’t keep our patterns, and five years later we had a hard time remembering how we had built the first trains, let alone which design ideas had worked best. Undaunted, we decided to make two engines, an old-fashioned steam engine and Diesel 10 from the Thomas the Tank Engine show, along with some train cars for them to pull.

Some of our cars did not go together as planned. We had odd gaps because our roof patterns didn’t allow for the thickness of the wall pieces, a common problem we only remember after we’ve started sticking the pieces together. Also, some pieces spread more while baking than others. The result was wonky looking train cars.

The gaps in these train cars were unintentional.

The gaps in these train cars were unintentional.

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Once the pieces were together, we were dismayed by the size of our train. The cars were huge with acres of gingerbread to cover.

Jane, Cleo, and Liam tackle Diesel 10.

Jane, Cleo, and Liam tackle Diesel 10.

Don and Kit decorating the steam engine and coal car.

Don and Kit decorating the steam engine and coal car.

Fortunately, when it comes to decorating gingerbread, more is definitely more. You just keep slapping stuff on until there’s no space left. The key to our success this year was determination. We just kept at it until we were done.

Despite the chaos, we wound up with pretty trains.

Despite the chaos, we wound up with pretty trains.

How do we go from “let’s make gingerbread” to a finished product? Like most creative processes, it is a mystery. How glad I am to have a little mystery in my life.

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