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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Gift giving and getting.

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, it can also be a pretty rough time of year. Stressed out shoppers turn town into a madhouse and the roads into death traps. Indicating becomes optional and giving way is strictly forbidden. Sadly, domestic violence rates always increase at this time of year and  women’s refuge is  under the greatest pressure over the holidays with thousands more women seeking refuge with their children. Depression is at an all time high over the silly season and I can see why! For a holiday that is supposed to make us joyful and thankful we sure do get a little bit grim!

For me Christmas is about balancing the excitement and joy of Christmas with the stress that can come with it. Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in the whole season whirlwind that we rarely take time (excuse the clich├ęs) to stop and smell the roses, or enjoy the simple things.

A few years ago I blogged about how I didn’t do any shopping for Christmas, and instead made all of the gifts I gave. This year I had a newborn and a toddler and simply didn’t have time. Sometimes you have to compromise on the ideals you have. Gift giving as a rule is never as simple as it seems, we all have the person who is impossible to shop for  and inevitably every once in a while you get given that gift that makes you raise your eyebrows and think ‘you really thought I’d like this? How well do you know me?’ Nevertheless it’s always important to remember that it’s the thought that counts and focus on the company rather than ‘what did I get?’

Gift giving has become a bit of a complex social ritual fuelled by rampant advertising that starts in October and carries on through the boxing day sales. Sorted dot org remind us that Christmas is not a time to get into debt and yet that’s exactly what a huge percentage of kiwis do, buying gifts that we can’t afford, that have usually been made in a 3rd world country by someone far less fortunate than us, with packaging that has the same cost environmentally and economically as the original gift and in many instances these gifts will sit in the cupboard un-used, unworn or broken. If someone wanted to write a song about the true spirit of Christmas it might go a little bit like this.

Gift giving and receiving becomes even more complex when you have children. As parents we generally have certain ideals or standards by which we raise our children and this will often apply to the toys we let them play with.  Some parents don’t allow guns or violent toys in the house, other parents worry about the toxins in plastics, some parents can’t afford to keep toys filled with batteries or have simply run out of space for more big toys, some parents prefer heuristic or natural toys or have households that have a ‘fair trade only’ policy, other parents object to toys that are highly gendered or are age inappropriate and some toys are in fact just plain inappropriate. It’s important to remember that even if you don’t agree with some peoples standards or ethics you should respect them. Isn’t that what nice people do?

Then there are people who have more specific toy requirements that relate to religion, culture or particular situations.  You don’t give Amish children dolls with faces, you wouldn’t want children who had just gone through a divorce to receive a story that ended in a ‘happily ever after’ romance, you wouldn’t give someone with a peanut allergy some homemade peanut brownies and you wouldn’t give a pregnant or breastfeeding mother a bottle of wine (or would you?) You certainly wouldn’t give wine to a recovering alcoholic.

And sometimes there is nothing specifically wrong with a toy except that it’s one of those toys that causes constant tantrums or fights, is always underfoot, breaks all the time and makes horrible noises designed to drill into a human brain and cause an auditory lobotomy. These toys are usually heavily advertised at Christmas time as the perfect gift, instead they should be relabeled as the perfect torture device designed to drive parents insane. Usually it’s the kind of toy your children will watch play rather than play with it  and after a brief honeymoon it tends to end up at the back of the cupboard with its cousins  or broken and at the dump. Or even worse, your child doesn’t like it, they open the present, have the facial expression of someone who just ate a cold crap pie and parrot the polite expectations before moving on to the next gift.

So what happens, when at Christmas a well meaning relative gives your child a gift that is inappropriate? Do you let your child keep it even though it contradicts your whole parenting ethos or do you get rid of it after a polite length of time? I was lucky enough to be involved in a heated debate about this on a parenting forum, which in the usual fashion devolved into a name calling contest a 12 yr old could be proud of.  The main difference in opinion seemed to centre around the parents who in some instances wanted to limit or control the gifts coming into their house and were labeled inconsiderate for doing so. The thought that unwanted gifts might be donated to charity or stored for later by the parents was met with howls of ingrate and uppity.

The only takeaway lesson I had from this debate was that gift giving and receiving is TOUGH, so tough there are even reasonably strict etiquette guidelines surrounding the whole process. Looking up ‘gift’ in the dictionary cleared it up a little bit,

 a gift or a present is ‘the transfer of something without the expectation of receiving something in return’

And that’s the problem isn’t it, too often gifts are given with expectations attached. Expectations of a similar valued gift in return, a certain level of gratitude or gift ‘brownie points’. I’m the first to admit that a well considered gift that elicits a great response of appreciation makes both the giver and the receiver happy and means warm fuzzies all around. I also agree that upon receiving a gift you should always be gracious and grateful because receiving a gift truly is a special thing. Do you past the gift giving and getting etiquette test?

But can gift etiquette get out of hand? Does gift etiquette mean you hang onto the sweater in size XXL even though it doesn’t fit and you never wear it? What happens when you tell Aunty Maude that the mauve leg warmers she knitted you were fabulous (while cringing inwardly) and she proceeds to knit you a new pair every year? What about the obligation gifts you receive from relatives who went and bought 10 x bottles of chateau du plonk or 10 x $2 shop toys for the cousins and nephews and nieces without any real thought of the recipient but more as a need to meet a gift requirement (I call them obligifts). Or the feeling of guilt or obligation you get when you realise you only spent $10 on Uncle bobs gift and he spent $100 on yours. Does Christmas gift etiquette justify teaching your children to lie when we spend the other 364 days telling them that lying is wrong?

More importantly what are we teaching children about gifts?  I would like to think I am teaching them that gifts come from the heart and it’s the thought that counts. I also shy away from the all out consumer fest that seems to dominate Christmas, there is so much more to the season than spend spend spend and I hope that I can show my children that the season is far less about the giving and getting of things and more about family and friends. In this spirit I have made up my own parent’s gift etiquette rules for ethical or conscious parenting.

Because if you're not good the Krampus will come and get you

To the giver:

Consider the parents as well as the children, while little Xavier would love a bucket full of lollipops, the parents who just took him for his first filling will be less pleased and more than likely will confiscate the candy causing upset all around.

If you are getting a big ticket item it pays to check with the family first to avoid double ups or even worse giving a gift that they cannot use. A trampoline for a family that will have to landscape their back yard so they can use it is a bit tricky to receive graciously even though it is a wonderful gift to receive.

Check the age ratings on toys, a toy that has to go into a cupboard for 3 years until little Margaret is old enough to use it is a challenge of patience and storage to everyone.

If parents tell you their child is unlikely to like or play with certain items, they will be telling you the truth. They are not making this up and surprisingly they tend to know their kids quite well.

Don’t factor price into it but do factor quality, a toy that falls apart within half an hour is a rotten gift to get and usually means tears. No one cares if it cost $1 or $100 but paying any money for a toy that will break is environmentally irresponsible. A potted seedling or sketch book made of recycled paper is just as exciting to a small child as the latest $20 wonder from the red shed.

Make conscious gift decisions, think about what the child would really like and rather than what would make you happy. Giving a little girl a ballerina dress because you love ballerinas when they love playing with the family tool box means the gift may go unused and unappreciated.

Children are sometimes brutally honest, if they don’t like something they will tell you. Don’t be offended, they haven’t yet been indoctrinated into the laws and tenets of gift getting - telling them to lie about a gift seems to be a bit hypocritical. If they tell you they don’t like something instead of telling them they are ungrateful and selfish offer something proactive they can do such as donate it to charity or exchange it.

Don’t be afraid to shop for second hand items, some of the best gifts we have received for our sons have been garage sale finds, hand me downs or upcycled. A gift that has been repurposed shows thought and is a great way to avoid unnecessary packaging and manufacture, great for the environment.

Don’t buy gifts just because, if you don’t want to get a gift or don’t know what to give then a nicely written card is just as good. Seriously.

Remember, with children books are ALWAYS welcome.

To the receiver:

Model gratitude to your children, be genuine with your response and receive gifts graciously.

If you have certain rules about toys then it’s polite to let family and friends know before Christmas so there are no upsets.

Before Christmas get your children to round up unused or grown out of toys and donate these to someone who could use them more than you and your family.

If a gift is unsuitable then consider the giver as well as the receiver. Sometimes it is worth a compromise, but sometimes it is not. If someone has gone to a lot of effort and the family rules can be smudged a bit then it is often worth it. However if a gift really is completely unsuitable then you may have to politely let the giver know or discreetly disappear the gift. This is not snobbery or ingratitude it is simply something we do as responsible parents from time to time.

Teach your children not to have gift expectations, letting them know that gifts are nice but not necessary can help them deal with the ups and downs of gift getting.

Get your children involved in gift making and gift giving even at a young age so they learn what goes into gifting and appreciate what they may or may not receive all the more.

Write thank you cards or notes with your children, it’s a nice way of acknowledging a gift and letting the gifter know they were appreciated without incurring gift debt.

It’s okay to tell people you are not doing gifts for Christmas or that you are only doing handmade, but make sure you don’t enforce guidelines on people who will be upset by this.

If your child receives too many gifts it is okay to stagger opening them over a few days and put them into a toy rotation so some toys spend time in a cupboard. If you are staggering their opening then make sure you check with the gifter first as some people are eager to see the children open the gift or will only be in town for a few days.

To everyone:

Christmas is a time to remember those who are less fortunate, womens refuge and other family charities always welcome gifts that can be given to children. is a great place to get and give unwanted gifts so they can be passed on to someone who will appreciate them more. An environmentally and socially conscious choice.

Agree on a spending or gift cap per person before Christmas

Consider agreeing to get eco gifts instead or only fair trade items.

One Christmas our family agreed to get only second hand or recycled gifts, it was one of my favourite Christmases.

If you have large extended families with loads of cousins, nephews and nieces consider making a ‘no gift’ agreement to lift stress and focus the enjoyment of gift getting.

Consider doing a secret santa where everyone only gets one gift each by secret ballot
If you love giving gifts and have lots of people to gift to then start buying or making well in advance of Christmas.

And remember – a present is not worth getting upset about. Christmas is a time to be with family or friends and turning what should be a lovely gesture into a source of anger or resentment isn’t worth it. Your children won’t thank you for it later.

Maybe the best gift you can give for Christmas is to be nice to someone you don’t know or give a gift without any expectation of reciprocation.

Perhaps the best thing is to take a leaf out of this kid's book.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Where have all the bees gone?

Good question really, when I was a kid I remembered in summer the thrum of bees hanging around the lavender bushes. Bees and summer were synonymous. My mum was a hobby apiarist and every rata season we would watch the forest like a hawk to see if this would be a rata blossom boom year, which happened in cycles of about every 4 years. Then mum would drive out with her hives and leave them where the bees could gorge on rata blossoms and make the most delicious honey ever. Honey would sit in 3 litre plastic oil bottles in the back porch like sticky black gold, it was mostly bush honey with manuka, kanuka, rata and whatever else was blooming in the Kahurangi National Park which was right on our doorstep.

A swarm of Top Bar Beehives

Being an apiarist had its challenges, like the time the bees moved into our bathroom and built a hive on the window, or when I kind heartedly decided to feed the bees when I was at school and a whole hive basically decamped to the playground. I’ll never forget the time we had a summer swarm and mum had us running around banging tin pots, blowing our recorders and otherwise rousing a din because the vibrations encourage bees to land and mum didn’t want to lose a hive. Mum eventually gave up beekeeping because the hives were getting too difficult to upkeep, but we had honey for years to come and because honey keeps indefinitely it was a good investment!

Nowadays I simply don’t see bees around anymore. We see bumblebees and plenty of wasps but very few bees. There are a number of theories for it but the truth is no one really knows, some factors are known such as varroa mite, American foul brood and colony collapse disorder – which is basically just a fancy term for we have no idea why the bees are dying.  There are a lot of theories on why bees are disappearing which range from the use of glyphosphate, seasonal changes to cellphone towers. None of these reasons are universally accepted by scientists or beekeepers as a whole but what IS agreed upon is that if bees continue to decline at the rate they are and if they are allowed to die out then our food supply is at risk on a global level. The best explanation I have heard is ‘nature deficit disorder’ which is explained in this video. Save Our Bees is a charitable trust in NZ dedicated to the preservation of bees, they run courses and workshops and accept donations. They have some great advice on how to promote bees passively by planting a bee friendly garden or setting up bee stations.

So how can we help? Because of the challenges that beekeeping has nowadays, fewer and fewer beekeepers are in business. This is because not only are regulations getting tougher and tougher to prevent the spread of American Foul Brood and the Varroa mite but also because the upkeep of commercial langstroth hives is intensive and losing half of your hives to colony collapse disorder a few years running is enough to wipe out any profit margin that there may have been.

Avoiding the use of pesticides including round up, in your garden and putting up a no spray notice which is obtainable from your local council is a good first step. Planting bee friendly plants such as phacelia, lavender and rosemary is another good step, as is making a bee station, bumblebee nest or bee hotel. One of the most proactive steps is to of course have your own backyard beehive. For a variety of reasons urban bees are healthier than bees in agricultural areas and this has prompted an upsurge in urban backyard beekeeping. There are some amazing urban designs tobe seen, but for ease of use, cost effectiveness and simplicity Top Bar Hives are one of the best home hive designs. They are not suitable for commercial beekeeping because their yield is slightly lower and they are less open to commercial pest treatments but they are perfect for the first time or hobbyist beekeeper. Last year I received some funding from Sustainable Dunedin and ran a series of top bar beehive making workshops. I had never made a hive before so it was a serious learning curve for me but well worth the effort.

Some things you should consider before making a hive for the back yard.

Your neighbours. Most neighbours won’t even notice that you have a hive but if you live in close quarters then you may want to okay it with them first.

Your council guidelines. Our council allows hives but if someone complains about it then you will be asked to dispose of it – which brings us back the the neighbours point.

MAF. all hives have to be registered with MAF including their GPS location (easier than you think there is a website that allows you to pinpoint your hive) this costs an annual fee of $35  for you to be registered with the AFB watch team.  Every so often a MAF representative will visit you and check for American Foul Brood. It's important to realise that if they discover signs of AFB in your hive then it may be destroyed.

Hive equipment. You don’t need much but a white onesie and a bee hood are ideal if not completely necessary. To maintain a top bar hive you need gloves, a spray bottle and a knife. Simple huh!

Forage. Bees can travel for several miles so it’s not a huge concern but it’s nice for them to have some forage closer to home in the form of flowers and blossoming trees.

Locale.  Bees need to have a hive that is well protected from wind and has a direct line of flight to get up and out of your section. There is some great advice on hive location here.

Maintenance. Beehives don’t need much maintenance but they do need to be checked for disease at least 2-5 times a year and you may need to apply some disease treatment. They may need to be fed during the winter and of course you will need to harvest the honey from time to time to stop them from swarming.

If top bar beekeeping sounds like you then it’s time to build one!  This is the pattern we used, which seems more complex than it is, I am working on simplifying it, once you get around all the measurements it is a relatively basic construction. It took a group of us from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon to complete a hive each and it would have been a lot shorter if it were just one person using the equipment. I found it was great to get together with a group of like minded individuals, that way we had support building them and could share tools and knowledge. No one had a suitable workshop so we ended up joining the blokes shed which is a non profit group that has popped up in schools nationwide. It cost $25 to join and it gives you a years use of the blokes shed plus the support and advice of two wonderful ‘blokes’ who showed us how to use the machinery including a drop saw and a table saw. These two items are not essential but they do make it a LOT easier. To build a top bar beehive at home you really only need a saw, a ruler, a pencil and a drill. A vice is handy but only essential if you can’t get the wood sized to full width. I am not a builder but even I found that building a top bar hive was a really simple project. 

Drilling end boards

The basic construction of a top bar hive is a long box with a roof and sometimes legs (though you can see them hanging from trees on chains or propped up on cinderblocks). There are two 'excluders' which allow you to control the size of the hive - too small and the bees will swarm and too big they won't be able to keep the space warm enough. The honey comb is built free form on a series of laths or 'top bars' placed across the hive. This design keeps it simple and easy to check the hive and harvest the honey. The top bar hive design originated in Africa where they build hives out of almost anything including old refrigerators, 40 gallon drums and chests of draws. In NZ there are far more restrictions but top bar hives and their close cousins Emile Warre hives are both allowed.

I feel I have run out of space on this post to address a step by step guide to making a Top Bar Beehive but I am putting one together, in the mean time here are some really handy links that will give you all the knowledge and information you need to get started!

Barefoot Beekeeper - best one stop shop. I highly recommend buying the book
NZ Guide to top bar beekeeping - a really handy overview
Beenatural - great info on top bar hives
National Beekeepers Association 

One of the best things about having a home hive is the opportunity to teach your children a real life skill. Bees are an amazing observational lesson on community and cooperation, in many ways they are more valuable than having a family pet. They are a wonderful introduction to biodiversity and a lesson on our place in the world, teaching children about how bees are key to our food growth and plant pollination is a strong life lesson. Showing your children to value nature as a co-mutual investment is one of the best life skills available it's also a hands on way of experiencing the value of food and sustainability.

Due to babies I haven’t had time to complete my hive and get it ready for use, so it is sitting forlornly in our garage waiting to be filled with bees. I am keen to get the final coat of oil and wax on so I too can have a hive of happy pollinators on the fly and bottles of liquid gold sitting in the pantry, but most importantly I will be doing my bit to prevent the decline of bees and protect our biodiversity.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Auld Lang Syne

It’s been a good two years since I last blogged, I never had the intention of stopping but somehow life just kept happening and I never quite put pen to paper… so to speak. In the time since my last post I have completed most of my Naturopathy degree (one more year to go) got knocked up, had another fabulous bout of hyperemesis gravidarum, birthed a beautiful little boy in the peace of our own house, did a number of other little things including starting a proper garden, run a beehive making workshop, enter the Queen O’ the Heather competition and developed a thriving pinterest addiction.

So why haven’t I been blogging? Well good question, I could argue that I didn’t have enough time and with a part time job, a lousy pregnancy, a toddler and then a newborn, as well as full time study no one would have argued with me. But the reality is that I did have time, I just chose to witter it away on other things.  I have an online breastfeeding support group that I admin and a Dunedin Locavore page that occasionally needs my attention as well as my facebook family of course, but I found the biggest diversion was online parenting forums and one in particular I enjoyed spending time on. I loved sharing ideas with the other mums as well as engaging in what I thought was healthy debate or simply being there to support other mamas. A breastfeeding support thread I started was one of the longest running threads and it helped countless mothers at all stages of breastfeeding.

The problem was that as with many forums it started to get toxic, there is only so much healthy debate that can go on before it reverts to name calling and the ubiquitous final common denominator of ‘who is the better mum’ and ‘You’re Doing It Wrong’. All of which goes right against my parenting ideals, as one wise woman said ‘there are many different ways of being a good parent’ Too often when I’d spend time defending personal choices and decisions I would get into a pointless no win situation where you’re trying to convince someone who will never be convinced of your perspective.  At some point the conversation is bound to end up in the realm of godwins law and then it’s all over red rover.

After a particularly toxic stoush I decided enough was enough and deactivated my account, it was a rough decision to make because of all of the wonderful women I met on that site and the great debates I had with some interesting thinkers who I shall miss. It also meant killing my breastfeeding support thread but it was 100% the right decision to make as the second I did it I felt a huge weight lift and I realised I didn’t need mothers (and fathers) I don’t know and will never meet to be nice or even polite to me. And that’s the lesson right there. Parenting forums are a great place to share information and support but don’t expect everyone to agree with you or to even respect your opinions, they are not a place for affirmation and they certainly aren’t the best place to meet like minded mothers, after all in most instances the only thing you will have in common with 90% of the people is the fact that at some stage in your life you bred. Much better to find a specific parenting group that have ideals in common with you and better still, a group of people who can share differing opinions without losing the plot.

The result of losing the toxic forum has been to reinvigorate me and allow me to divert my energy into blogging again. Looking back on some of my posts I realise how much I have grown since my first few shaky words. Being able to talk to other like minded mothers and spend time reading and absorbing other parenting blogs and pages has helped me refine my ideas and find a place on the parenting spectrum that I am comfortable with. I have been so lucky to have the collective wisdom of so many mums and dads which has allowed me to build on those first few blocks of knowledge.  It’s so true that the preconceived ideas we have change the minute our children are born – and keep changing! So with that in mind I’d like to thank the bloggers and mums who helped me get so far.

A big thanks to Peaceful Parenting, PhD in Parenting,  Analytical Armadillo, The Feminist Breeder, Parenting Science, Kellymom, The La Leche League,  Sassy’s Sanity, The Natural Parent Magazine, The Leaky Boob, Cotton Wool Kids, Donnelle from Parental Guidance the wonderful women in Mama’s Milk (you all know who you are), my first antenatal group, my Due October group, my mum and mother in law, the best midwife in the world, my SPCNT friends, the fabulous couple who are Guideparents to our sons and not least a group of cheeky, hilarious mums whom I have the privilege of knowing and loving and without whom I would probably sink into a black hole of nothingness.

So what’s my new years resolution? Stay away from toxic parenting forums of course – particularly those that are sponsored by nappy companies!

A real live gingerbread house

Since I was a little girl I have dreamt of making a gingerbread house, given the undertaking that it is I really didn’t get a proper chance to do one until now at the ripe age of 30. My mum helped me make one when I was nine, but due to a mortar malfunction it collapsed overnight leaving me heartbroken.

This Christmas I was determined to make a gingerbread house despite having a 3 month old and a toddler which as any mum knows is a bit of a challenge on the time management front.
Gingerbread architecture and it’s decoration is neither specifically parenting related nor is it particularly cheap or natural but I am including it in this blog because  it’s a wonderful project to do with your children and in the spirit of Christmas it’s a lovely family tradition to begin that doesn’t involve jumping on the consumer train heading off to debtsville.

Before starting I did some research, some friends of mine had made some beautiful models (a little bit of competition was the only impetus I needed to get going.) There are thousands of amazing houses if you look online which can be a bit intimidating, but also a source for inspiration!

The first thing to do is find a decent Gingerbread recipe. Your bog standard gingerbread man recipe simply won’t work as it bakes too soft and puffs up in the oven distorting the shapes, for a house you need a structural gingerbread recipe. I looked around for one that seemed cheap and easy and found a Pepparkarkor recipe which I adjusted somewhat to suit my purposes.

Here is the recipe I used:

9 cups of high grade flour
3 cups of soft brown sugar (I ran out so I used a combo of brown and white)
1 cup of rice bran oil
½ cup powdered ginger
1 heaped teaspoon of allspice
Cinnamon to taste – I used lots because I like a dark house and I wanted that smell to evoke Christmas
Enough golden syrup to bring the dough together – about 2 cups, some recipes use molasses or treacle which is pretty much the same thing but darker but I went with something a little more kiwi.

You’ll notice I didn’t use any egg or leavening, you can if you want, the baked result will be less of a jaw breaker but I valued strength over taste. The idea is to mix in just enough syrup to get the dough to clump and no more, I ended up adding a bit of water too but not too much otherwise there can be shrinkage.  After t he dough had clumped I wrapped it tightly in gladwrap and refrigerated it overnight. Well actually it was 3 days while the madness of Christmas took over – but overnight will do.

The next thing to do was make up my template, using my baking tray as a size guide I measured out a roof, 4 walls, a door and the chimney pieces. If basic geometry isn’t your strong point then there are plenty of templates online that you can use.

For the rolling and baking step non stick baking paper will be your friend. I rolled out my dough to about 4mm thick in between two pieces of baking parchment on top of the baking tray. This meant that no additional flour had to be added and I could get a very consistent surface with no tears. If you don't have a rolling pin a long bottle with straight sides is fine. If you are having trouble getting a consistent thickness you can use thin strips of wood on either end of the board as a guide for your rolling pin, sort of like train tracks for you to roll with. I had no such strips so I did it by eye. Just be aware that thick bits may not bake and thin bits will come out dark and brittle.

Before cutting I put my trays in the deep freeze for a few minutes to make the dough firmer and more easy to work, then using the template I carefully cut around my shapes that I had precut onto A4 paper and then lifted out the excess. You can also cut out your window shapes at this point. A star or circle cookie cutter does a good consistent size/shape but you could also do squares with a steady hand and a knife. One day when I’m big I am going to try making stained glass window biscuits.

The next step is baking which took about 10-15 minutes in an oven preheated to 180⁰, it pays to watch this step like a HAWK because a few minutes can be the different between perfect and char – especially when using a dough with such a high sugar content. I planned to do a tiled roof so I also did a couple of trays where I simply cut a large area of dough into shingles. I didn’t bother separating them much and yes they stuck together a bit when I baked them but when they were cooled I broke them apart like a block of chocolate and it worked surprisingly well. After baking everything I let them cool completely overnight before starting the icing phase.
Before icing it pays to trim or kerf  the pieces so the house will fit together flush, icing will cover a multitude of sins but a well fitting gingerbread house is a easier to put together and less prone to collapse.

For the icing I used a royal icing recipe which is basically egg white and icing sugar. Here is the recipe.

1 egg white
½  a squeezed lemon or a 1.2 tsp cream of tartar
Enough icing sugar to combine – about a cup and a half.

I beat the egg white and the lemon juice until frothy and then add enough icing sugar while beating until it becomes a good piping texture. The ideal texture is when the icing falls like a ribbon off of the beaters and stays on the surface for a few seconds before sinking back in. I then transferred it immediately to the piping bag. There are a wide range of piping bags and accessories you can get but I find the easiest is a disposable plastic one (cringe) or a home made paper one – which is less airtight but great for quick little jobs on the fly. If you have neither of these then a ziplock bag with the corner snipped is better than nothing and perfectly adequate. I don’t bother with tips I just cut the tip to the size I need and work with that. I also make the icing up in small batches to avoid drying. It’s so quick and easy it’s not a drama to do.

All the pieces

Some people will construct the house and then decorate but I find it is much easier to decorate before assembling. That way you don’t get any dripping and you don’t have to get into awkward angles to decorate the nooks and crannies.  Decorating is of course the best bit, I went a bit mental at the supermarket buying candy. My tip is to pick a simple colour scheme or theme and stick with that. I went with a traditional red and white which worked really well. Sorting red pebbles out of 3 family bags was fun though!  If you are involving the kids this is going to be their favourite bit. I selfishly kept the house to myself but made up a small one for him to have fun with while I concentrated on my masterpiece. 

Some great gingerbread decorating mainstays are candy canes, pretzel sticks, wafer tubes, jubes, pebbles, chocolate chips, 100’s and 1000’s, (you can get natural colour ones from the supermarket) icecream waffle cones (upsidedown they make great alpine trees)  and silver cachous. For my house I ended up using red and white tic tacs, pebbles, pink wafer biscuits, red jubes, white chocolate chips, whole almonds, cremosa lolllipops and chocolate sticks.

Half way there

Once the icing dried rock hard (overnight is best) I started the build. Before starting this stage it is important to have plenty of stabilisers on hand. I used tinned food cans, DVD cases, a wheat bag and a couple of folded cloths. I put together the four walls and got all my stabilisers in place before icing. It’s important to get icing all along the join and to do an extra thick layer on the inside corners and then it’s simply a matter of holding it together while it dries or propping it carefully. The roof was a challenge because of the angle and also because of the heavy tiles but once I had it propped correctly I simply iced it on and reinforced it from within. The last piece couldn't be reinforced from within but it went on really easily because the rest of the house was so stable. Some recipes use caramelised sugar for the mortar but this is what I used for my childhood house and overnight the caramel absorbed too much moisture and melted. It was also very messy with strings of hot scalding hot caramelised sugar everywhere

After the house dried I did the ridge piece and some finishing touches on the house including the door and gateposts. I found the best base to rest the house on was actually a pizza stone borrowed from my mum in law. No faffing around with boards and tinfoil that way

My sons masterpiece
It was still missing something so I ended up making snow out of 50/50 icing sugar and crystal sugar, I also found some great little candy chocolates that looked exactly like snowballs to complete the look. If I had cinnamon sticks I wood have used those for a log pile and star anise would have been a lovely naturalistic looking decoration but I only had one star and that was missing one point anyway.

I was reasonably proud of the finished masterpiece, it turned out better than anticipated. Mister 3.5 was amazingly restrained while he watched me work too and only stole 2 or 3 lollies.

I added a tree that I made with a star cookie cutter set and some snow, very proud of the finished article!

The only question I have is what do you do with a gingerbread house once it’s been built?

A sly finger sampled the snow so I made it a feature...