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Can’t keep up with the gingerbread woman

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Sheila Cowling can still smell the Christkindl market of West Berlin. The atmosphere throughout the traditional Christmas fair was “jolly and very bright;” the air was filled with the scent of spiced cider, mulled wine and gingerbread cookies. Inspired by the fragrant treats, Cowling began baking her own.

In the 30 years since her time in Berlin, she’s created a variety of gingerbread structures — a carousel, a haunted house, even a gingerbread veterinary clinic with candy animals peeking out of the windows. As she’s learned from experience, “You can make anything out of gingerbread.” 

Cowling was working as a crypto-linguist in the U.S. Air Force in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, “when the Cold War was still going strong,” she said. Her first dorm room was in the hangar of an airport. Her only window overlooked the “Candy Bomber” — the plane that dropped sweets to East German children during the Berlin Airlift. Her office was next to the Berlin Wall, across from an East German guard tower. 

Cowling and her husband, also in the Air Force, were married in Germany and traveled around the country in their free time. “We went everywhere we could and Christmas time was my favorite,” said Cowling. “Germans really do Christmas.” As she wandered through the Christkindl markets’ outdoors stalls, she would stop to buy soft pretzels, ornaments, a cuckoo clock or a huge, heart-shaped gingerbread cookie personalized with a message in icing. 

Her gingerbread dough has about double the amount of spice — a mixture of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, which Cowling says gives the bread an extra pop. The dough, filled with sticky molasses, takes a lot of elbow grease to mix, so she enlists her children or other volunteers for help working the dough. She adds less flour for soft cookies and more flour for firm gingerbread roofs that won’t crumble under copious candy décor.  

Next, she spreads out the dough, occasionally using textured rolling pins to give the cookies a design —one has evergreen trees and reindeer. She’s eagerly awaiting the arrival of a rolling pin with different breeds of cats and dogs. If she’s making something special, like a sleigh, she’ll trace the shape on paper first and then cut out the dough. But it’s easiest to use cast-iron molds to give the dough its shape and a bit of detail, such as indented doorways, shingled roofs, brick siding and balconies.

Sheila Cowling, a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville, frosts a gingerbread house in the parish kitchen. ZOEY MARAIST  |  CATHOLIC HERALD

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Once the bread bakes, meringue-based, snowy-white icing serves as the edible mortar that holds her creations together. Sometimes, she accentuates the architectural features with delicate lines of sugary piping. But the average decorator usually smothers the details with candy and icing. Cowling likes cinnamon dots, Skittles, nonpareils, candy canes and bits of cereal to complete the festive homes. In her opinion, houses are best eaten with hot chocolate or cider. 

This year, Cowling’s made about 20 houses. She bakes much of her gingerbread in the kitchen at St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville and sells them at the parish Christmas bazaar. The following weekend she holds a gingerbread decorating class at the church. With her passion for gingerbread, she urges many to give a second chance to the cookie they’ve written off as little better than cardboard. “If you buy a kit nowadays, that’s not real gingerbread,” said Cowling firmly. 

Cowling also makes houses for friends and family. When people can’t make it to her class, she comes to them. “I’ve done gingerbread workshops for people in their homes. I had a lady come up to me this weekend, her son has leukemia and she asked, ‘Can you come to us?’ I said sure,” said Cowling. “And it’s not just kids that like it. Adults like it, too.” 

As much as Cowling loves a bite or even just a whiff of gingerbread, she tends to snack as she bakes rather than break apart her finished product. “I’ve got to taste it and make sure the batch tastes good. (But) I don’t really eat my own. (After) all that work, I personally can’t,” she said. “It’s fun to build something and see it come together. It’s even more fun to give it to someone and see their face.”


Sheila Cowling’s Gingerbread House Recipe

6 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons powdered ginger

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 cup solid vegetable shortening

1 cup granulated sugar

1 ¼ cups molasses

2 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift together dry ingredients. Melt shortening in a saucepan and cool slightly, then add sugar, molasses and eggs, incorporating each ingredient as you add them. Mix well by hand using a heavy duty wooden spoon. Add flour mixture one cup at a time. When you can no longer stir it, add spoonfuls of dough onto floured surface and knead flour into the dough. Keep dough covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerate dough not being used right away. Bake until lightly browned. Yields one large house. 

Beat all ingredients with an electric mixer until icing forms peaks, about 10 minutes.

Royal Icing Recipe

3 tablespoons meringue powder

4 cups confectioners’ sugar

5 tablespoons warm water

Beat all ingredients with an electric mixer until icing forms peaks, about 10 minutes. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018