Thursday, January 21, 2021

Reducing waste and trying new things


Fun delivery this week!

2 cucumbers, 6 pears, 2 rutabagas, 1 large turnip, 1 tiny turnip (hidden behind the big one), 2 mangoes, a ton of ginger, 2 big bunches of cilantro, 7 limes, 4 Anaheim peppers, 6 kiwis, 3 buttnernut squashes, 2 bunches of broccoli greens, 4 small sweet potatoes

One of the Christmas gifts we received this year was a gift card to Misfits Market. If you haven't heard of them, their taglines sum it up like this:

    Always affordable, occasionally funny-looking. 
    Always delicious, sometimes normal.

They're describing the organic fruits and vegetables they sell in subscription boxes. It's much like a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box you'd get from a local farm, but the produce is not all local. Gasp! 

Yes, I'd argue the extra shipping is the downside. The produce first came from somewhere and arrived at wherever else before it then traveled again to my house. It has a variable carbon footprint that cannot compete with the farmers market. But, a lot of people are having groceries shipped to their houses these days. You think that case of soda wasn't on three or four different trucks criss-crossing the country before arriving at your doorstep? 

OK. So, if you're having groceries delivered anyway, there are a couple of distinct upsides to a service like Misfits.

  1. The main upside is Misfits Market's main mission -- reducing food waste. These fruits and veggies are called misfits because they're the perfectly good ones that just don't look perfect. They would normally be thrown out just because they don't fit some shape and/or size norm for general grocery display. You're saving good, valuable food from the garbage.
  2. It's certified organic produce at -- I think -- not-necessarily-organic prices. I got their "Madness" box, which they say is a week's worth of produce for 3-5 people. It's 14 types of produce (I actually received 13 in this box), with 2-4 portions per type (not sure if "portions" and "servings" are the same thing, as I received more squash and way more ginger than I expected). With shipping and tax, it cost $41 and some change. I'm just eyeballing here (I didn't think of weighing everything until it was all already separated and put away), but that seems like a reasonable spend for that much produce. 
  3. I'm also pleased that the packaging was primarily all brown paper product -- recyled and recyclable.
The other upsides are not unique to Misfits. It's conveniently delivered. There's an element of surprise. You get to try a variety of foods. It challenges you to more purposefully work fruits and vegetables into your weekly menu. It's fun to get a big box of fruits and vegetables in the mail.

I almost ended this post here, feeling the importance of reducing food waste goes without saying. Then, I thought it about. And thought about it some more. And, I thought, someone may very well read my saying the main upside is reducing food waste, and react with a big, fat—
So, what?

So, according to the USDA, our nation's "food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply." What!?

There's food lost at every link in the food supply chain, whether crops are damaged by insects out in the field or yogurt expires in the back of your fridge. Besides spoilage, market demand is another reason usable food becomes uselessly trashed. Remember the stories in early 2020 about dairy farmers having to dump milk because they couldn't sell it? How about when there's a report of contaminated lettuce? Suddenly, no wants any salad for awhile.

Consumer expectations practically demand waste. If your grocer's produce section isn't burgeoning with gleaming fruits and vegetables, you perceive some lack in quality. Guess what? No one will actually buy all those apples on the bottom of the pile, because they'll have bruised under the weight of their picture-perfect buddies on top. However, I've noticed more grocery displays that are just a single layer of fruit on a slanted or tiered surface to evoke that image of a mountain of food without actually burying any of the product. It's a good trick.

The store will also have received only produce of perfect shape, size, color, because that's what you want to see. Not all of the "irregular" fruits and vegetables are just thrown away. Many of them are made into something else -- chopped and frozen, dehydrated for a soup mix, made into dog food, or cooked into a prepared dish that's sold ready-to-eat (but a lot of that deli potato salad gets tossed, unpurchased and uneaten, at the end of the day, too). This is where services like Misfits Market come in. They're taking the cosmetically imperfect -- but otherwise perfectly safe and delicious -- products and finding a good home (ideally, your stomach) for them. 

As individual consumers, we know we can plan our grocery lists more effectively and actually eat all of our leftovers to help minimize food waste at our end of the chain. But, there's a much bigger picture. I'll leave you with a few resources -- not just on how food is wasted, but what we as an entire population can do about it:

A 2012 report (dated, but thorough and still relevant!) from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #5 - TV and Movie Cakes, Part 3


Did you know? Little kids are into cartoon characters. So, I am again continuing the collection of TV- and movie-themed cakes I've created in recent history... (Parts 1 and 2 here and here, respectively.)

Paw Patrol Cupcakes

We've experienced a variety of birthday celebrations (and non-celebrations) during the pandemic, including this "walk by," front-yard party in May. Everyone got their own individually packaged Paw Patrol cupcake.

The adventure here was more in finding the packaging than it was making the cupcakes. Cake mix, white icing, and two Paw Patrol cupcake decorating kits, (bone-shaped sprinkles!) and... an online order of cupcake boxes that disappeared.

Other searches online brought up containers that didn't seem the right size, or seemed awfully expensive for just a single clamshell, or wouldn't arrive in time, or came in a pack of, like, a thousand.

Ultimately, we went to GFS and bought plastic cups with lids. A little on the tall side, but otherwise perfect cupcake packages. 

Important consideration: Use the lid as the "plate" for the cupcake, and the cup itself as a lid. So, it's upside down, got it? Otherwise, if you drop the cupcake into the cup and use the lid as a lid, the cupcake recipient will have to reach their fingers way down into the cup to pull out the cupcake or otherwise dump it out into their hand frosting-first. 

Another Ninja Turtle Cake

This one was a simple round cake with the face of the birthday boy's favorite turtle, Raphael.

Nothing to it!

Superman-Secret-Batman Cake

You've seen the Batman-Spiderman cake. This was a Superman cake, with a hidden secret Batman symbol inside!

For the Superman icing, I piped a simple outline and then filled everything in using a star tip.

The secret Batman on the inside required much more work behind the scenes. Here's a rundown:

First, bake a chocolate, single-layer sheet cake. I added black food coloring to the chocolate to make it even darker. When the chocolate cake is cool, use a bat cookie cutter to cut out a whole bunch of bats. 

A note: Check the size of your cookie cutter against the pan for the outer cake. For this particular cake, you're going to stand the bats up inside of a round cake pan, so they need to be shorter than sides of the pan, or else you'll have bat ears--if not entire bat heads--sticking up out of the top of your yellow cake.

And, a lesson learned: I mistakenly thought a super-moist chocolate cake would be important for this step, because this chocolate cake will be baked again, and I didn't want it to dry out. However, the moisture that makes a decadent chocolate cake also makes the cake fall apart--not ideal for trying to hold an intricate shape. I had a rough time cutting out the bats and then keeping their bat-shape. A genoise sponge might work better. And, it won't dry out during the second bake, because it's surrounded by more cake batter.

Next, make a "wreath" of bat cut-outs in a circular cake pan. Stand each bat upright, standing on his wingtips, place another one next to him, and so on, making a line of bats that circles back on itself. 

Note: I then did a little extra cutting and smushing to fill in gaps, because, unless your cut-outs are already wedge-shaped so you can put the skinny side toward the center of the circle, there will be a space between each bat around the outer edge of your circle. Gaps are not the end of the world, but the luck of your cake-cutting may reveal a small break in the bat pattern.

Last, pour the yellow cake batter over and around the wreath of bats to fill in the rest of the cake pan. Bake slightly less time then the directions for the size of the pan you're using, because about half of the actual volume of the pan is already baked.

And then, you'll just have to wait until your start cutting it open at the party to see how the secret bats inside turned out!

Another Frozen (movie) Cake

While an ice-cream cake would have rounded out the theme in the best way, this is just an ordinary round cake sitting on top of an ordinary square cake. There were two fun new (to me) cake decorations, though.

We found pre-printed sugar sheets at a party store (the image of the movie characters as well as the snowflakes on the bottom tier). It's a lot like prepared fondant. Smooth some buttercream on your cake and place the sugar sheet on top. Fold, wrap, smooth, trim it however you need. It's an excellent shortcut to mimic the cake-printing a bakery can do for you.

And, sugar glass. Rock candy in sheet form. You can find many recipes and instructions out there, and they typically involve white sugar plus corn syrup, water, cream of tartar, and, of course, food coloring if you want. We made some blue and some clear.

After boiling your ingredients, pour the molten sugar into a lightly greased sheet pan and let it cool and harden. Then, pick up the pan and drop it on the counter to shatter. Fun.

Note: Humidity is the enemy of your sugar glass. A hot and humid kitchen will cause the candy to sweat. If you're sticking the shards of sugar glass into the cake like we did in reference to Elsa's castle, do it as near to presentation/serving time as you can, because the moisture from the cake itself will begin to soften the glass. 

Multi-Hero Cake

Six superheroes are represented on this rectangular cake, thanks to some card-stock stencils my sister made on her Cricut.

Maybe you don't need stencils. Maybe you can draw these superhero icons freehand. I didn't trust my own precision. If I remember right, I piped only the spiderweb and the lightning bolt freehand.

We applied the icing as though we were screen-printing, one layer of color at a time, letting it "dry" before applying the next layer so the colors wouldn't bleed together. First, we made the six solid-color squares and then chilled the cake in the fridge for a few minutes or more, however long needed so the buttercream "crusted," or solidified a bit. Do a touch test. Can you gently poke a dent in the buttercream without it sticking to your finger?

Using Iron Man as an example, we lay the stencil of Iron Man's helmet on the yellow square and gently dabbed and spread in the red portions. Then, we carefully lifted the stencil straight up off of the cake and put the cake back in the fridge so the red icing can harden. The next step was laying the stencil back on, lining it up with the red sections already in place, and then dabbing and spreading in the white piece. Ta-da! 

We did something to each square each time the cake came out of the fridge. It was not necessarily the same color being applied to every square, but rather working in whatever layers made sense for that particular image. Example: At the same stage we stenciled in Iron Man's red outline, we made the outer red ring of Captain America's shield and the red portions of Superman's S. But, we also made the yellow oval for Batman's symbol, the white circle for the Flash, and the black spiderweb for Spiderman.

Then, to finish and cover up the borders between each square, I piped a flat gray ribbon and added rivets for a cool, welded metal thing.

Oh! I almost forgot. And a red fruit roll-up cascading off the corner for Superman's cape. Now, ta-da!


Thursday, January 7, 2021

Homegrown, home-roasted sunflower seeds


 One of my favorite things to do in our 2020 summer garden was to stand face to face with our sunflowers and watch the bees work on them. There were frequently large bumble bees but also several smaller types of bees, all of them busily focused on their tasks, not minding if I leaned in close to get a better look at the packs of pollen bulking up their little bee hips.

And now, we are enjoying the fruits of those bees' labor. Sunflower seeds!

With daily vigilance this past fall, I checked the drooping sunflower heads for signs the seeds were mature. For example, on the mammoth sunflowers, the seeds start out white, but then the telltale gray stripes appear as they ripen. Another sign that the seeds are ready? The squirrels and birds start going after them. 

The critters got most of our sunflower seeds (in fact, I watched a squirrel drag a whole sunflower stalk up a tree), but I did manage to save three of the mammoth sunflower heads and a couple from the smaller varieties, whose seeds I'm saving to replant next year. So, when the flower heads had drooped, the outer petals had wilted and fallen off, the calyx (the back of the flower) had begun to dry out, and the seeds looked ripe, I cut off the flower heads along with a handful's length of stem.

The next step was to rub away the remaining tiny petals that covered the seeds. This is easily done with your thumbs, and your hands will smell like flowers afterward. But, careful! There are also some prickly parts of the sunflower -- especially along the stem. I had a few spiny splinter-things to pull from my fingers later.

Then, I put my flower heads in a large paper grocery bag, which I hung from the basement ceiling, where they could finish drying out in a cool, dry, dark place away from dust and (eek!) mice. And there, I let them dry out for... a couple of months! Because I just left them there until we finally got around to dealing with them.

In late December, I finally harvested the seeds. That meant more thumb-rubbing to loosen the seeds from the flower head. I'm saving some seeds for planting next spring. Those went straight from the flower into an envelope. Most of the mammoth seeds we roasted to eat.

This is my first time harvesting and roasting homegrown sunflower seeds, so I Googled around. The method I tried called for soaking the seeds in salted water overnight, letting them air dry, and then roasting them at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Easy. Except... 

What do I do with all this extra chaff that came out with the seeds? Is there an easier way to get rid of this stuff than hand-picking every little speck? 

First, I tried putting the seeds 'n' stuff through a salad spinner. No go. Only the smallest bits of chaff came out, and so did some of the seeds. There is, however, a simple, easy way to separate the seeds from the chaff, and it's been done since the begining of humans' harvesting things.

You spread the seeds and junk out on a cookie sheet, shake it around, and blow on it. Lightly, now. It's easy enough to blow the seeds right off of the tray, too, so the trick is to whiff away the chaff but make sure the slightly heavier seeds stay put. You can also set up a fan to blow the air for you. You'll have to give the tray a few more shakes, blow again, shake again, blow again. Ever so lightly.

It works pretty well. Oh, and makes a giant mess. Do this outside or over a really big sink.

The end result? Tasty.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

The 11-dollar hundred-dollar space heater


Another man's treasure. That's what this is.

The electric heater, not the cat.

You're looking at the discontinued Kozy World Shilo Electric Stove Fireplace, which online goes for anywhere from $60 used, to $144 (but out of stock), to as much as $377.16 at a site called Discount Cleaning Products... Similar heaters at big-box stores range $80–$150.

We got it for free, because someone was throwing it out. A house down the street was being renovated and sold. As the sale closing date approached, a lot of stuff appeared on the curb each week on trash day. Among the stuff was this heater. Len carried it home to see if it still worked. 

It sort of worked. 

It needed a fresh light bulb and had a familiar rattle Len knew how to fix from working on other electric space heaters. So, Len opened it up, cleaned it up, replaced the light bulb and voilĂ ! It works. 

After using it a few times, the flame generator stopped spinning. (That's the reflective, uh, wand, that catches light like a disco ball to generate the look of dancing flames against the back wall of the heater.) Len opened it up again to work on the timing motor. Ultimately, he made a trip to American Science and Surplus and bought two new timing motors, each a different RPM, because we weren't sure exactly how fast the original had been spinning.

This errand, not counting the nominal gas to the get there, cost a grand total of $11.

Now we have the cat's new favorite napping spot and an extra timing motor for some future project.

The moral of the story, kids, is that a broken hundred-dollar appliance often just needs a new five-dollar part.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Waste, waste, to bring Him laud


Tips for an eco-friendly holiday abound. In November, the Popular Science e-newsletter told me how to plan a waste-free Thanksgiving. Next will be a Green New Year. I'm thinking of Christmas right now, because that's what I'm celebrating, but it could be any holiday, any time of year. Our practices could be more sustainable.

How many single-use decorations and wrappings will be in your trash bin? Or how about the outdoor decorations that abandon your yard with one big gust of wind? Will you retrieve them from the neighbor's bushes down the block or shrug it off as litter you couldn't help? How much packaging are you throwing out with each daily Amazon delivery? How much uneaten food?

There's a sound argument that the little things, like reusing a paper gift bag, won't save the planet. I'd posit instead that, while those little things on their own don't make a big enough dent, our subtle changes in habits do start to change our attitudes. And, a change in attitude will change our approach to both little and big things. 

It works in both positive and negative ways. Consider the age-old advice that you can set yourself on the path to success throughout the rest of the day with just the small sense of accomplishment you get from making your bed in the morning. The implied opposite is that when you stop caring about little maintenance things, you'll stop caring about big ones, too, and eventually reach the "it's already a huge mess, so what's the point?" point. 

Bleh! Choose to care about some small things! Make the effort!

Let's clarify -- I'm not telling you to sweat the small stuff and suffer great anxiety worrying about little things. I'm asking you to care about some little things. Worry and care do not go hand in hand. Caring is a positive energy that you can use to take action, however small. Worry is a fear-based, negative energy that often stands in the way of productivity. Example: Worrying about an elderly relative and calling her five times a day will not necessarily prevent her from slipping and falling at home and may only slightly relieve your anxiety about that. Stopping by to drop off a meal and help her get some things from a high shelf is a productive act of care.

But I'm not an anxiety counselor, so let's get back to having a green holiday with a quick digest of the little ways we can take care to minimize our celebrations' environmental impact. 

There are so many considerations to sustainability. Food waste, energy waste, air pollution, water pollution, adding to landfills, contaminating recycling batches... Many of which come with the tacit waste of time and money -- either your own or that of whoever's cleaning up after you. 

Planning is the key word in avoiding almost any kind of waste. Plan your route to save gas. Plan your list to save time (and money) in the store. Plan your online shopping to get as many items in as few shipments as possible, to minimize your delivery transit and packaging footprint. Plan your meals to avoid wasting any food.

Reusable is another key consideration. It's obvious that sturdy, reusable decorations are better than the flimsy, one-use kind that you'll just throw away and buy again. Reusable packaging is another no-brainer, such as the everlasting and ever-trendy mason jar, or something as simple as a rectangle of fabric, like beeswax-soaked food wraps or colorfully patterned furoshiki. Look them up.

Another major holiday item that's reusable? Your food. Actually eat your leftovers!

There is one single-use decoration that is more sustainable than its reusable counterpart. Real Christmas trees. They're grown for the purpose of being cut, are continually replenished, and handily convert carbon dioxide into oxygen in the meantime. That is, if your tree was farmed locally. If you're trucking in a specialty fir from across the country, you missed the point.

But, say you have pine allergies or just prefer a fake Christmas tree. Several sources estimate you'd need to keep it for at least 10 years before its carbon footprint equals that of one real tree. We have indeed used our big artificial tree for more than a decade, and I'm fairly certain my grandma's tree is at least twice that old. Take care of your fake tree!

You may have noticed the recurring theme of waste management. It's as important big-picture (i.e. national environmental policy) as it is in your own home. So here's the point I really want to drive home.

You do not have to eschew a wonderfully extravagant holiday for austere minimilism in order to celebrate sustainably. (Minimilists may argue with me, but I'm for diversity of lifestyle within environmental reason.)

You can still serve an expensive roast, a beautiful platter of vegetables and decadent desserts, but think quality over quantity. How much food do you really need for the number of people you're hosting? Maybe locally, sustainably sourced meat becomes more affordable when you realize you only need half as many pounds of it as you're inclined to buy. Alternatively, if you make a huge turkey because you like plenty of leftovers, evaluate how many days' of those leftovers you're truly willing to endure before you automatically buy the biggest one you can find.

Decorate your house with a million lights if that brightens your holiday, but use the ones you already own first. Yes, spend just a little time to find and replace the two bulbs that are causing the whole strand to go out. If you "need" to buy more, go for the new LED lights, which draw less energy. 

Bake a bunch of cookies if you like, but again, first consider how many you (and your family, friends, dog walkers, mail carriers, passersby) will really eat, and make that many instead of a zillion just because. And, try to do it efficiently, so your oven is not left heating for unnecessarily long (or frequent) periods.

Reduce what you buy and use, whenever you can. Reuse what you already have, even repairing or repurposing as needed. And, when you must throw it out, take care to separate and recycle what you can.

It comes back to those key words. Plan to reduce your waste. Manage the waste you cannot avoid generating. 


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Square knot dog toy


Somehow we got on a square kick. Anyway. 

Like my easy arm-warmers, this a no-sew project.

There's an artisan fair we like to visit every November (except this November) at Heritage Prairie Farm. One year there, I saw a woman selling -- and making, as she sat in her booth -- these cool dog rope toys. She was tying strips of fabric in knots, resulting in a nicely solid but also kinda stretchy tug toy. 

Just like this writer, my first thought was, "I could make that." And, for the next 24 months I thought about what a great Christmas gift it would be for the dogs in my life. Finally, this year, I did it. I made the square rope described on Create Laugh Grow (the writer referenced above), which turns out skinnier than the dog toys I saw at the artisan fair, but I think the basic concept is the same, with variables like fabric type and width giving you different sizes and textures of rope.

I found Create Laugh Grow's instructions very helpful, but I still didn't make the square rope correctly the first time. A closer read revealed that the instructions were perfect; I just didn't read far enough down the page to get the crucial clarification. because I misunderstood the important trick of keeping each of the four strands always on its own side.  

Using four different colors is one way to keep track (and results in neat stripes). So, let's pretend you have red, lavender, teal, and brown strips of fabric. For the two vertical strips, being folded top down or bottom up, let's say the red strip is always on the right, and the lavender strip is always on the left (top down, bottom up), and for the two horizontal strips you're weaving left and right, teal always on top and brown always on bottom. 

Now, if you want a round rope, with your different colored strips making a spiral pattern, just do what I mistakenly did the first time: No matter what strip is on top, fold it down to the right, always from the top down to the right. Whenver folding a strip up from the bottom, to the left. Weaving from right to left, always on the bottom. From left to right, on top. 

So here are those instructions, with my notes.

  1. Cut 4 lengths of fleece fabric. About 2" wide and 45" long is ideal for a medium-sized dog. NOTE: 45 inches seems long, but all the knot-tying compresses the fabric significantly. My 35 inches of fleece made a rope about 8 inches long with barely enough leftover to tie the end knot. I also tried this with old jeans, which make a nice, solid rope but lose more length because they don't have the stretchiness of fleece. Already making the rope shorter is the limit of the jeans themselves -- unless you're very tall, you won't get 45 inches from your old pants legs.
  2. Tie a regular overhand knot at one end, leaving a few inches of fabric as a tail. Pull the knot tight.
  3. Tie your square knots:
    1. Open your 4 strips into a plus sign shape.
    2. Fold the top strip towards the bottom, a little to one side, always the same side as you progress. NOTE: I misunderstood this step to mean whenever folding the top strip down, it should always go down to the right. Not so! It means this particular strip, whether folding it down from the top or up from the bottom, should always stay on the right. The other vertical strip, whether folding up or down, always stays on the left. 
    3. Fold the bottom strip towards the top, a little to the other side, always the same side as you progress. NOTE: Same as the vertical strips.
    4. Fold the right strip towards the left. Pass over the first strip, then under the second.
    5. Fold the left strip toward the right. Pass over the first strip, then under the second.
  4. Pull all of the strips nice and tight.
  5. When you've got about 5 inches left, tie off the end with another overhand knot and pull tightly. NOTE: If you're using old jeans or other scap fabric that does not stretch like fleece, you need more than 5 inches to tie this end knot. At least, I did.
  6. Trim off tails to make them even. Snip the tails into a fringe if you like.
Two last notes on using jeans instead of fleece:
  1. If your old jeans are too ratty and wearing thin, they might tear when you pull the strip tight to knot. Obviously, such fabric will not work so well for a semi-sturdy dog toy.
  2. The jeans made a thicker rope (larger in diameter) than the fleece. That same lack of stretchiness also equals less ability to compress into a small knot.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Gingerbread Foursquare: Completed



There she is.

Yes, there is a small electric light bulb inside, along with melted gummies over the window holes for that warm, aged-glass glow.

Len gets the majority of the construction credit. We worked together to get the main four walls up, but he assembled almost every other piece that didn't require more than two hands and even, somehow, some sections that did require more than two hands. And he glazed all the windows, built the chocolate block foundation, mixed the cookie-crumb concrete for the driveway and back patio. I sculpted the dinky, not-to-scale car out of fruit Tootsie Rolls and added frills such as peppermint patio furniture and our sunflower garden.

What would we do differently next  year?

Let's start with the roof. Most gingerbread house kits follow the standard pattern of two rectangular walls and two walls with triangular peaks -- why? So the two pieces of roof can easily sit atop them. The two triangular walls support the peak of the roof where the two pieces meet.

Notice, however, the roof of a foursquare-style house... The roof is nearly a pyramid four pieces that peak in the very center and slope down toward all four sides. The walls themselves do not follow -- nor support -- the slant of the roof. If you want the roof to have the traditional overhang (i.e., stick out past the walls a little), it has to be self-supporting. 

We found it impossible to assemble the roof on the house and instead assembled it separately, allowed the icing to harden, and then lifted it onto the house... where it would separate under its own weight. So the roof needs a platform. Imagine a gingerbread frame -- a rectangle just slightly larger than the footprint of the house's four walls, with a rectangle cut-out in its center, just slightly smaller than the footprint of the house's four walls. (I'd show you a picture of what we did, but we cobbled it together with the last scraps of our cookie dough, and it looks like a lump attic floor with a gaping collapsed hole in the center. Next year, I will measure and cut out and nice, neat rectuangular frame to support the roof.) You assemble the roof on the frame and then the frame sits evenly atop the four walls.

Why a frame with a cut-out center and not just a solid rectangular piece? Why, so it doesn't obstruct the light inside from shining through all of the house's windows, of course.

So that's another thing we'd do differently to the roof next year. I'd cut out rectangles over which the dormers will be built, just like I did in the wall for the bay window -- so the light can shine through them.

Next, some general gingerbread tips I really did know but didn't heed -- and will next time. 

Bake the large pieces together and the small pieces togther and never a mix of the two on the same pan. Why? They bake at different paces. We have some rather crispy small pieces with some lighter-colored large pieces because we put them together on the same pan -- and no, you can't just remove the smaller pieces early and let the larger pieces continue baking. The cookies must cool (and therefore, harden) on the pan before you can move them.

Pay attention to how thick/thin you roll out your dough before cutting the shapes, and try to roll every batch to the same thickness every time. We have some rather thick pieces that are quite sturdy but probably unnecessarily so, and some rather thin, delicate pieces that I was terrified of snapping during assembly.

If your cut-out gingerbread pieces spread in unexpected directions as they bake or for any other reason need a trim or to be cut apart, do it immediately upon taking them out of the oven! While it's still warm, the gingerbread is just soft enough to cut. As it cools, it hardens (because it's construction gingerbread!), and trimming, while not impossible, becomes a more tedious and risky task.

Have some items on hand for structural support as needed. This is mostly for larger, heavier pieces during the beginning construction stages when the house is not yet self-supporting and/or the royal icing hasn't hardened enough to hold a piece in place. In my last post, you saw some plastic cups (candy packaging) acting as a column under a section of wall to hold it level while the icing dried. Boxed cake mix also makes a sturdy, straight, and tall support to stand against a wall and hold it plumb. It's good to have these random supports within reach, or else one of you is left holding the piece in place while the other one scrambles around the kitchen looking for something to use as a support (and that's assuming there are more than one of you working on the gingerbread creation).

Carefully consider the order of assembly and decoration. Or else you may find yourself squeezing precariously into awkward nooks just to add one little (but important!) detail.

And then, some lessons specific to this gingerbread house, most of which can be summed up by the adage, "Measure twice, cut once." In this case, it would be measure twice, stop and think about how the pieces fit together, measure again, cut once, bake once, avoid having to trim the cookie after it's baked.

There are pieces I'd make smaller next time, and others I'd make larger. The are some angles I'd adjust, either because I really just guessed this time or because baking affected the geometry enough to matter. Above, I mentioned several roof lessons learned.

But all in all, we're very happy with this gingerbread recipe from Serious Eats and this royal icing recipe from Spend With Pennies (which I chose because it uses egg whites instead of meringue powder, not because I have anything against meringue powder but rather just didn't have it and didn't want to go out). Our templates worked fairly well, so I have saved them for next year, with notes on adjusting measurments.

Merry Christmas!