In 1929, at the age of 17, my father’s father — my Opa — immigrated to the United States as an indentured servant to pay his boat passage across the Atlantic. The farming people who purchased his indenture took good care of him, taught him English, and even gave him some money when he was done working for them. He was a lucky guy.
Eventually he ended up in Chicago where he peddled eggs on a bicycle during the Great Depression. There he met my Oma, a farm girl from rural Illinois, who was working as a maid on Lakeshore Avenue. They were both members of an old-world Calvinist church which is where they met.
My Opa had apprenticed as a baker in Stuttgart (though there had been almost no ingredients available to bake with at that time), and my Oma decided that they would open a bakery. They moved to Highland Park, Illinois where they were joined by my great-aunts Elizabeth and Dorothy, who helped take care of the children and also worked in the bakery. Over time, Baum’s Bakery became a great success.
One photo that mesmerized me as a kid was an elaborate Swiss Chalet made entirely of gingerbread (the picture above shows something different). When we were old enough, my mother helped my sister and me to create gingerbread houses every year. Of course we festooned them with candy because we knew that eventually the houses would be demolished and eaten.
On the right is an early effort from around 1976, as evidenced by the Very 70’s Chair in the background. I believe that we used a template published in Sunset Magazine of that year, but you can design your own. Create the template from sturdy cardboard and try assembling the cardboard first to make sure your design makes sense. Then use the cardboard pieces to cut your gingerbread when it’s half-baked (see recipe).
The recipe that we used back then has evolved over the years, from a sturdy construction gingerbread to something closer to speculatius, enriched with lots of ground almonds. For me, this cookie represents the holidays more than any other food.
This year, my partner Juan and I made the gingerbread together, and he asked me to write the recipe down so that it could be a little more (ahem) reproducible. I thought I’d share it with you as well. I’ll add more details when we’re done baking — so far we’ve just created the dough.