Run, Run as Fast as You Can...You Can't Catch Me, I'm Vegan Gingerbread?

I like to bake. And even though I've been doing it for awhile and have presumably built up a certain level of expertise, things don't always go as planned. (I once had enough material to compile my greatest hits: Lisa's Top Ten Baking Crises.)

I'm afraid such was the case for my first brush with gingerbread as well...(although in the end I learned some powerful lessons).

I have always *thought* that making a gingerbread house would be fun...but I never actually made one until last Christmas - and even then it was only at the bidding of my five-year-old niece. We used a kit from Sam's Club, so it was more an exercise in frosting than anything else. And without those precious grooves in the plastic tray that came with it, I don't know how anyone could get the walls to stand up. (I also made the mistake of confessing that the Feliz Navidad song on my niece's holiday CD was my favorite -- from then on she felt she had a strange power over me, turning it on and poking her head out of her door, calling out, "Auntie Lisa...guess what song I'm playing...")

Had I actually *made* gingerbread with my niece last year, I would have learned that there aren't a lot of bells and whistles -- just molasses, brown sugar, spices, baking soda, butter, egg, flour and salt.

When it came to earlier vegan baking -- like a pumpkin or sweet potato pie -- it was relatively easy to experiment because I've made countless pies before. But gingerbread is new turf, so I decided to get my sea legs with a standard version before attempting a vegan batch.

The baker in me finds it amusing that the gingerbread recipe I found specifically called for molasses that was "not robust." (Although the Grandma's Molasses Web site says robust is "excellent for all cooking in which many spices are present (i.e. gingerbread)," so your guess is as good as mine as to what should be used when.)

I first learned that there are different kinds of molasses when I toyed with the idea of entering the World's Greatest Shoo-Fly Pie Bake-Off & Eating Contest in Lancaster, Penn. I didn't actually know which jar of Grandma's to purchase for my first shoo-fly pie -- the recipe called for light molasses and the label on the robust jar said it was darker in color, so I opted for unsulphured. (In subsequent research, I also learned of its role in Boston history: the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919.)

Fear not if you think I'm going to peak too soon with the molasses. The most notable part of gingerbread-making -- whether vegan or otherwise -- has to be the foam.

"Foam?" you say. "There can't be!"

Oh, but there is. In order to make gingerbread, you basically throw molasses, dark brown sugar and spices into a pot and melt them down. Then you add baking soda and the fun begins. The best way I can think to describe it is that it becomes either brown bubble bath or hot shampoo. It just bubbles up into this thick brown stuff. You can sort of make it die down if you keep stirring -But why would you want to? It's fascinating. -- and then you add butter (or margarine). My recipe said to add two sticks of butter three pads at a time. My capable assistant thought this was crazy-talk...but we did it anyway. And then when you add flour it immediately congeals into this very thick, very heavy dough - the likes of which I have not seen before.

My recipe said to next knead the dough and to then split it in half and wrap one of the halves with plastic. Here's where the problems began with my standard butter/egg version. Part of it is that I live in a studio and my counter space is literally one wonky Ikea kitchen cart (my fault - not Ikea's...I had a little trouble with one of the screws during assembly and never bothered to ensure that it was properly installed) *and* the recipe called for 3 3/4 to 4 cups of flour and I actually just threw in all four cups at the very beginning. This made kneading the dough something of a challenge. But since the recipe said you only have to do it for 30 seconds, I made the executive decision that kneading can't be all that important. I broke the dough in half and wrapped half in plastic even as my friend asked, "Why do you have to do that?"

"I don't know," I said.

I do now: gingerbread dough -- at least when you've added too much flour, dries out very easily. This makes it extremely difficult to roll out or to use cookie cutters (which, I found, are not as much fun as I remember when I was a kid).

For my vegan version, I was good and followed the directions and found that the dough was an absolute dream to knead and roll out. (I got an 18-inch round without even trying!) But I wonder if the margarine had something to do with it as well. I *also* made two batches of sugar cookie dough (I'm in a holiday mood...) and found the version with margarine was much greasier, even after sitting overnight in the fridge. (More on that later.)

Regardless, I loved vegan gingerbread dough.

Prior to Gingerbread 101, I was planning to buy holiday cookie cutters...but then I remembered I inherited a Brooklyn Bridge cookie cutter from an old roommate (This is the same woman who requested a wedding cake in the shape of the Brooklyn Bridge with a marzipan dead body floating in a blue Jell-O East River). What I *forgot* was that she *also* gave me a Statue of Liberty cookie cutter (which my friend said was phallic) along with a snowman, a star and an ornament.

Because they were so much easier to roll out, the vegan dough produced much prettier bridges, statues and snowmen. After setting the butter/egg version on racks to cool, I ended up with a wonky Ikea cart full of broken noses and torches. Plus, they were all wrinkly because the dough was cracked. (While I was struggling to roll it out, my friend Googled "what to do when your dough is tough" and came up with: 1) check the date of your baking powder; and 2) add a tablespoon of milk.)

The spices were perhaps not as readily apparent in the vegan version, but the cookies are so much more beautiful, it's hard to care. If this was a scientific experiment, I'd do the butter/egg version over again without screwing up the flour to see if it makes much difference. But as far as I'm concerned -- human error aside -- the vegan version is the gingerbread victor.

It was my intention to ice both batches as well -- before I even knew one would be ugly. But, I ran out of time on that particular I will have to save vegan icing for another day.