Thursday, 21 March 2013

Easter bunny gingerbreads

Or telling the tale of a family tradition established around 1978, I think.

Golden, plump, delicious.  Easter gingerbread bunnies.

We live rurally on the Fleurieu Peninsula (a part of the Adelaide Hills).  Our snail mail is delivered to a postbox in the village.

After living on the 25th floor in a Sydney apartment, we eventually moved to a semi-rural region, near the beach on the South Coast of NSW; it was our ‘sea-change’.   After this we re-located to South Australia, and the Adelaide Hills.

Our now 12 year-old Chihuahua, Sugar still misses our South Coast daily visits during the week from the postie puttering along on his red 125 cc motorbike, rain or shine.  

Adorable, best dog in the world (we think), our lovely Sugar.

It was the postie’s bike that delighted Sugar the most.  She would rush to the gate barking, her eyes popping from her apple shaped skull, taking a forward stance with her little heckles up on the back of her neck.  The postie would switch off the engine to have a chat and a gossip at the gate (this was a seaside village on the South Coast of NSW, not the busy city) and Sugar would settle on the driveway to rest, her eyes welling up with tears as she stared directly into the sun, in total sun worship (those familiar with Chihuahuas would relate).

Village gossip exchanged, the postie, (his name was Pete and ‘hi’ to you Pete if you’re reading this; you were an excellent postie, everyone in our district loved your work ethic and positive attitude).  Pete the postie would start the engine on his postie bike and Sugar would leap from her reverie in the sun and take the postie stance.  Pete would deliberately gun the little engine to thrill Sugar and Sugar would reinterpret her last eye-popping performance with very few modifications; the postie would ride off and Sugar would return to relaxing in the sun.

I have digressed greatly, but I needed to pay homage to our postie back on the South Coast and you’ll see there IS a segue.

Back to our family tradition that I suspect began in the mid to late 70’s.  When my mother grew up, no-one in her family taught her to cook.  She claims she only knew how to boil a bit of spaghetti and then toss some butter over it as a midnight study snack.  When she married, her mother-in law, my fabulous Russian grandmother Helena took her under her wing and Simone learned.  She was taught to make all sorts of meals that were hearty and used many different cuts of meat, including offal (which I found pretty inedible as a child), but Helena taught Simone about thriftiness, slow cooking and flavour.  My mother is a good cook now, but not much of a recipe person.  If you ask her exactly how much of an ingredient to include in a recipe, my mother’s response is always, “well you know, a good amount” and you know you have to go with your natural instinct and feel.  It usually works.

In the 70’s my mum must have made a conscious decision to explore other realms of culinary delights.  I was only a child, but to be direct about it, she became baking OBSESSED.  We ate ‘pain au chocolat’ for breakfast, most days, for a time.  Croissants.  Freshly baked bread, delectable dinner rolls; “would you prefer a poppy seed garnish or sesame seed”?...  You could choose!  

During this exploration of then, to her, new dimensions of cooking, my mother began to make gingerbread.  After  a time all the fancy yeast based breads and desserts faded, and my Dad instituted a sickening morning family running regime, (thanks so much James F. Fixx; “The Complete book of Running” completely ruined my mornings before school for a term at least until Dad realised all the whinging wasn’t worth it and it was best he took himself for a run. (Although I’m partial to running as a meditative sport now, so, thanks Dad in the long ‘run’ you were right).  

This cover brings back the 70's to me.  In an instant.

But the gingerbread stayed.  It became the treat to celebrate Easter and Christmas.  My generous mother enthusiastically made bucketloads of gingerbread and gave away pretty tins full of them to family friends every Easter and Christmas.  Everyone loved them and began to anticipate these times of celebration as they knew a gift of gingerbreads was forthcoming.

My mother proselytised gingerbreads.  She took her gingerbread paraphernalia and dough to primary schools and made gingerbreads at Easter and Christmas with every child in every class in the school.  Her friend (Sue N.) was a school librarian and she and Mum would run the madness that was 25 children at a time in the art/rec room rolling dough whilst maintaining the cooking in the ovens.  I can’t recall the system they used to ensure that each child received their own creation after cooking, but I know there was one.

About 10 years ago, my mother notched up the gingerbread from pretty yummy on the treat scale to absolutely (if you were keen on them in the first place); from pretty yummy to absolutely delicious.  She added a ridiculously thick generous layer of chocolate on the back; completely her invention and a beautiful flavour combination it is.

So there you are, the gingerbread family tradition explained; inaugurated by my lovely mum over 30 years ago.

And the postie segue I promised? 

As we live rurally (Graeme likes to say we made the ‘tree change’) there is no Pete the postie on his bike delivering mail to your postbox at your driveway's end; instead we drive to collect our mail from the local post office.  Greg is our postmaster.  He likes the cold weather, loathes the hot, and plays a huge role in the local football club.  He knows everything about everyone in the village, he’s charming and has a good sense of humour and I think my mother has only failed once in 10 years to present Greg with a lovely gift of Easter and Christmas gingerbreads (his family love them).  He’s a super postmaster and my Mum is a fabulous generous lady.  Thank you Greg the postie for your work and thank you Mum for your big heart.

Here is Sylvie in Mum’s kitchen following the family tradition.  The recipe is included after you have scrolled through the photos.  Remember my Mum’s cooking style is ‘instinct’ based, so follow your heart.

Have a happy Easter.
Best, Lara Jane.

The rolled out dough, Sylvie cutting out the bunnies.

Painting the bunnies with a milk wash before decorating.

After the milk wash, decorating the bunnies, eyes, nose and 100's & 1000's for the body.

The before and the after (before chocolate coating the back).

Mum coating the back of each gingerbread with chocolate.  She places them on alfoil to let the chocolate set.

Simone’s Gingerbread recipe (fine-tuned over 30 years but still, 'go with your heart'). 

You’ll need to convert the measurements, but I wanted to leave them Imperial for our American cousins and also because this is how Mum presented me with the recipe.

Ingredients & equipment

1 and a half pounds of SR (self raising flour), (I think in the US this is referred to as baker’s flour, it already includes the rising ingredient).
10 oz sugar
10 oz Golden Syrup
2 eggs
1 tsp mixed spices
1 tsp cinnamon
A ‘good amount’ of ginger (translates to, on questioning; around 4 teaspoons, but described as, “oh, just shake a good amount in, don’t be scared, it needs to taste of ginger for goodness’ sake”)
2 tsp of bicarbonate of soda (mixed in a separate cup with just a little hot water)

milk in a cup
brush to add the milk wash
your choice of biscuit decoration (100’s and 1000’s etc)
cooking chocolate (Mum is very generous, about 300g)
rolling pin
baking trays
baking paper
cooling racks
electric frypan and metal container to melt the chocolate
broad bladed knife to apply the chocolate
aluminium foil


Heat your oven to 180 centigrade (or 350F), but all ovens bake differently, keep your eye out, the gingerbreads are not like soufflé, they are reasonably resilient and they will survive regular turning and checking.

Combine all dry ingredients in a big mixing bowl and make a well in the centre.

Gently melt the sugar and the golden syrup in a medium saucepan on the stovetop and then add the bicarbonate of soda mixture to the saucepan.  The mixture will froth a little.  Let it cool just a bit.  Pour this mixture into the well of dry ingredients.  Begin to combine with a wooden spoon and then add the two eggs.  If your dough is too dry, add just a bit of water, but it’s usually not necessary.  Turn out dough onto floured surface.

Take sections of dough and roll out to around 3mm thick (not too thin, you’re making gingerbread, not ginger snaps.  Use cutters to make the shapes you require (rabbits in this case) and place the rabbits on a baking tray using baking paper. As you re-combine rolled out dough with new dough as you continue to cut out the shapes, the dough may become dry, use the milk wash brush to brush on a bit of milk and then handwork the dough until it is a reasonable consistency.

Before placing in the oven, apply a milk wash and decorate your gingerbreads with your chosen items.  Pop them in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, they should look golden brown when they are ready and have expanded to be quite full and plump.  Place them on racks to cool.

Mum melts chocolate in her electric frypan she and Dad purchased as newly weds, (they made things to last then, as Mum and Dad have been married for over 40 years).  I am no expert in chocolate but somehow Mum ensures the chocolate on the gingerbreads is always shiny.  She says the trick is to heat it slowly and not over-heat it.  (There will be those out there who know so much more, and I would love to hear from you).

Use the pictures to see the method Mum uses to coat the back (and sides).  Pop them on a foil-lined tray until set.  Mum recommends using kitchen grade (no powder) kitchen gloves, it saves sticky fingers.

Tell me how you went!
Happy Easter!

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