Secret Ingredients: Ona’s gingerbread houses

The secret ingredient that makes every recipe better is a story. In this first installment of our Secret Ingredients series, a shared recipe for gingerbread used to make gingerbread houses turns into a memorable Christmas experience for a family.

By Alan Miles

We have a lot of recipes at our house. Besides shelves full of cookbooks, there are notebooks, folders and card boxes overflowing with handwritten ones. But we have only one recipe that’s framed and hanging in the kitchen. Ona Yoder’s recipe for gingerbread houses is singled out in commemoration of a person and a Christmas my family never forget.

Ona

Ona Yoder in one of her many blue dresses.

Ona Yoder

Ona Yoder was our nearest neighbor when my wife, Karen, and I rented a farmhouse in the Iowa countryside in the 1980s. Ona was in her 80s by then, unmarried and still living (by herself) in the same house she had been born in. She grew up with farm-girl responsibilities when the family raised almost all their own food, made their own clothes and cut their own wood. As far I could tell, she owned only blue dresses. She said things like, “Oh my gracious!” and, “Well, I’ll be!” and peppered her conversation with endless homilies like, “Clear moon, frost soon.” And Ona was humble and generous to a fault.

She had health issues — with her heart and joints mainly — and those infirmaries limited her physical activity. (She had scarlet fever when she was young, and she said it “knocked her down a peg.”) But she was as hardworking a person as you could ever meet. She eked out a modest income by continuously making traditional farm food items — pies, cakes, noodles and a huge variety of pickles and relishes — and by relentlessly piecing, quilting and selling quilts. Her customers were almost exclusively people she knew through her church.

A good neighbor and enduring friendship

Karen often walked the three-quarters of a mile to Ona’s house when I was at work. Ona usually had several projects going on at once, and Karen would pitch in while she visited, learning about gardening, canning, cake decorating, quilting and such in the process.

Ona’s most demanding project — and biggest moneymaker — was making gingerbread houses at Christmas time. We had marveled at the two dozen or so incredibly ornately decorated houses the first year we were there and were promptly told our Christmas gift was that we got our “pick of the litter.” Ona also gave Karen her recipe for the gingerbread she used, a special version that made strong walls.

A few years later we moved out of the farmhouse to a town about 50 miles away, where we started our family. We kept in touch with Ona and visited her now and then. Our oldest daughter, Lily, and Ona were always close, and the summer when Lily was five, she liked nothing better than visiting Ona in her fascinating old house. Lily still has the baby blanket Ona made for her when she was a newborn.

That winter Ona got sick. Her illness hung on, and she finally had to admit that she wasn’t going to be able to do gingerbread houses that year. On a visit to her house, Karen volunteered to call and tell everyone for her.

A special gift

But on our way home, Karen asked if we wanted to do something really special for Ona that Christmas. “We could make her gingerbread houses for her,” she said.

The kids were instantly all-in. I was a bit more hesitant. I’d seen the 20-plus houses all in one place, each one covered with what seemed like thousands of little detailed frosting dabs, gum drops and candy pieces. It seemed overwhelming. But Karen pointed out that Ona did it by herself every year, so I joined the party.

When we got home, Karen called the people on the list, explained the situation and asked if we could secretly make their house for them this year. All of them agreed.

What a time we had! We could have opened a candy shop with all the candy we had on hand. Karen pulled out Ona’s recipe card and made oven load after oven load of gingerbread wall and roof pieces. We assembled a couple dozen houses with frosting, let them harden overnight, then started decorating. We let the kids do as much as possible, but we were limited in what we could assign them. We had to come as close as possible to meeting Ona’s standards, and they were high ones.

Karen had helped Ona decorate the houses and learned to use the icing bag and its various tips, and we tried to remember and copy some of Ona’s decorating idea for the roofs, walls, doors and windows. But we also had plenty of ideas of our own of how to distribute the candy, including some really good ones from the kids. Eventually we had 26 fully decorated gingerbread houses. We delivered them and collected the money.

Giving Ona the money from the orders she thought had been cancelled along with pictures of the gingerbread houses we’d made was truly an “it’s better to give than receive” experience. It was the perfect way to show her how much our family cared for her and how much we appreciated all the food, plants and knowledge she’d so selflessly shared with us over the years. The kids were proud to have been a part of it and breathlessly told her all the things they’d done to help make the houses.

Ona's recipe card still hangs on our wall.

The framed version of Ona Yoder’s gingerbread recipe, which still hangs on our wall.

Ona’s Gingerbread Recipe for Gingerbread Houses

There’s nothing particularly special about the ingredients or directions for this gingerbread to make gingerbread houses. In a practical sense, it’s pretty ordinary. But I’m pretty sure that if you use it to make a gingerbread house for someone you care about, that house will help create some really good feelings for both you and the person who receives the gift.

Yields: Enough for one medium-sized gingerbread house. 

Ingredients:

5 1/2 cups flour
3 eggs
1 cup molasses
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Directions:

1. Mix 3 cups flour and other ingredients. Beat 3 minutes, then add remaining flour and mix well.

2. Wrap in waxed paper, then place in a plastic bag. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

3. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Roll out on a well-floured surface. Cut into shapes 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick. Reroll scraps to make more pieces.

4. Bake on cookie sheet in preheated oven for about 15 minutes, until firm. Let cool for 10 minutes on cookie sheets, then move to cooling rack.

To assemble: Once completely cool, “glue” the pieces together within icing. Let the house sit overnight to harden before decorating. Both the cooling and the hardening are important to preventing your house from collapsing!

Ona noted on her recipe card that the gingerbread dough freezes well and will keep frozen for a year before baking.

Templates for pieces, detailed instructions for making houses and decorating inspiration are readily available if you search the web for “gingerbread houses.” (And Ironwood Gourmet has a Gingerbread House Bake Set that includes cookie cutters for making houses.)

What holiday recipes are special to your family because of the story behind them?

Alan MilesAbout the Author: Alan explores ideas and issues related to a sustainable lifestyle — from cooking and culture to social and environmental responsibility. He enjoys Shakespeare, but not as much as college basketball (Go Hawks!). Alan is a family man, liking nothing better than spending time with his wife of 35 years, his four kids and four grandkids.

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