BROUGHT TO YOU COMPLIMENTS OF Jonathan Perea
For instructions on how to make your own homemade holiday decor, including a step-by-step gingerbread house guide, visit americanlifestylemag.com/holidays.
One of the most popular holiday traditions in America is also one of the oldest—the making of gingerbread and gingerbread houses. Ginger spice has been used in cooking for thousands of years, with the first recorded instance of gingerbread dating back to the ancient city of Pompeii in 79 A.D. However, its popularity and entrance into Western culture came many years later via an Armenian monk.
As French legend states, Gregory of Nicopolis, a monk living in what is present-day Turkey, brought the gingerbread recipe to Europe for the first time in 992 and began teaching the process of gingerbread making to French monks, who would carry on the tradition for hundreds of years.
Gingerbread quickly rose to popularity in Europe, with special guilds forming for bakers who had perfected the process. These professional gingerbread bakers were the only people allowed to produce the bread throughout the year, with the exception of Christmas and Easter, when ordinary citizens were allowed to make the confection—thus creating the link between gingerbread and holiday celebrations.
Gingerbread continued to be produced in a similar fashion across Europe for hundreds of years. Professional bakers and home bakers would shape the bread into celebratory figures, like the Virgin Mary or Baby Jesus, and in England, ginger cookies were a popular decoration on Christmas trees. Though religious use of gingerbread remained popular, the first secular form came by way of Queen Elizabeth I. It’s documented that she served the first “gingerbread men” to foreign dignitaries as a welcoming treat.
While the artful shaping of gingerbread had been popular for centuries, it took a German fairy tale to cement its status as a holiday institution. In the early 1800s, when brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began publishing stories for children, one story in particular stood out—”Hansel and Gretel.” In the tale, the witch’s home is made of gingerbread and decorated in candies—which is how she lures the children into it. Due to the success of the fairy tale, bakers all over Germany began making replicas of the gingerbread house and selling them during the holiday season. These popular houses became a tradition—one that was brought to America with the influx of German immigrants in the nineteenth century.
In modern America, the gingerbread house has received somewhat of an extreme makeover. In place of the more traditional cottage-style house, families are making everything from quaint cottages to multistory mansions and everything in between—and the fun doesn’t stop there. Gingerbread house decorating has also become a kind of sport, using a variety of candies and anything else imaginable to fashion the most spectacular edible homes.
Though the tradition has changed a great deal over the years, the popularity of gingerbread and gingerbread house making has not. Every year, millions of families across the country use gingerbread as a meaningful, fun way to celebrate the holiday season. Whether you use it for cookies, cakes, or decorations, gingerbread is the ultimate festive baked good.
A TALE OF HOLIDAY TRADITION
The Legend of the
Bacon-Maple Walnut Pie
Bacon-Maple Walnut Pie
Even if you like your morning bacon limp, fry it crisp enough that you can shard it into pieces.These will soften in the pie, providing a distinctly porky flavor to go with the walnuts and maple syrup. You don’t want to burn the bacon—doing so can add unpleasantly bitter notes. But get it crisp enough to stand up to the long baking time and still release lots of sophisticated, caramelized flavor without ending up as chewy, rubbery bits.
For the Crust
- 4 ounces thin-cut bacon slices
- Up to 5 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting
- At least 2 tablespoons very cold water
- ½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
For the Filling
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade A dark/robust or No. 2
- ½ cup granulated white sugar
- ½ cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups chopped walnuts
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place oven rack in the center.
- To make the crust: Fry the bacon, turning occasionally with a fork, in a large skillet set over medium heat, until crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate, and set aside.
- Reserve 2 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat from the skillet, and then transfer the remainder of the fat in the skillet into a heat-safe liquid measuring cup. Cool for 10 minutes at room temperature. Add enough solid shortening so that the total volume in the cup measures 6 tablespoons (¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons).
- Pour the flour into a large bowl, and add the combined fat in the measuring cup. Using a pastry cutter or a fork, work the fat through the flour until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
- Stir 2 tablespoons of cold water and the vinegar in a small cup or bowl. Add to the flour mixture, and stir until a soft, pliable, but not sticky dough forms, adding more cold water in 1-teaspoon increments as necessary. Gather the dough into a ball, dust it with flour, and roll it into an 11-inch crust. Center and set the crust into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim the edges, and flute them as desired.
- To make the filling: Beat the eggs, the maple syrup, the white and brown sugars, and the vanilla extract in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until smooth and uniform, even a little foamy at the top. Beat in the reserved 2 tablespoons of bacon fat.
- Working by hand, crumble the bacon into tiny bits in the bowl. Stir in the walnuts until well combined, and pour into the prepared pie crust.
- To finish up: Bake the pie until puffed and brown, until there is only a slight jiggle in the filling at the center of the pie when the rim of the plate is tapped, about 55 minutes. Cool the pie on a wire rack for at least 1½ hours or to room temperature before slicing into wedges to serve. Store tightly sealed with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
YIELD: ONE 9-INCH PIE
This pie’s texture is something like old-school chess pie with fruit in it—if that were even possible. When you get the cooked fennel into the food processor, take care not to liquefy it. Pulse, don’t process. You want many bits of fennel—no big chunks, of course, but a little chew to turn this rich filling into something extraordinary. Note that the crust is rolled out to a larger diameter circle than usual to create a thick lip to contain the very wet filling.
For the Crust
- 1¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- ¼ cup olive oil
- At least ¼ cup very cold water
- ½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
For the Filling
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 (1½-pound) fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
- ⅔ cup granulated white sugar
- 1 large egg, plus 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups golden raisins
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place oven rack in the center.
- To make the crust: Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and olive oil; cut the fat into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter until it all resembles coarse (but white) cornmeal.
- Stir ¼ cup of cold water and the vinegar in a small cup or bowl; then add it to the flour mixture. Stir until you have a soft, pliable, but not sticky dough, adding more cold water in 1-teaspoon increments as necessary. Gather the dough into a ball, dust it with flour, and roll it into a 12-inch circle. Set and center in a 9-inch pie plate. Fold the excess dough under itself to make a thick lip that stands up on the rim of the pie plate. Flute or ornament the edge at will. Lay a clean kitchen towel over the crust.
- To make the filling: Melt the butter in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the fennel, and cook, stirring often, until softened and sweet, about 10 minutes. Set aside off the heat to cool for 10 minutes.
- Put the sugar, egg, egg yolks, flour, lemon zest, nutmeg, and salt in a food processor; cover, and process until smooth. Add the raisins, and pulse to chop. Scrape the contents of the skillet into the food processor, cover, and pulse two or three times, just until the fennel has been chopped into fairly fine bits. Pour and scrape this mixture evenly into the prepared piecrust.
- To finish up: Bake the pie until set at the center and lightly browned, about 45 minutes. Cool the pie on a wire rack for at least 1½ hours or to room temperature before slicing into wedges. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
- 1 (16-oz.) container refrigerated pie dough roll
- 5 small Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and finely diced
- 1 c. granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 2 tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 tbsp. cornstarch
- ⅓ c. brown sugar
- 1⅛ c. all-purpose flour
- ⅓ c. oats
- Pinch of salt
- 7 tbsp. butter, melted
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Roll out dough onto a lightly floured surface, and cut out 2-inch circles until all the dough is used. Place one circle into each well of a nonstick cupcake pan.
- In a saucepan over medium heat, add the apples, ¼ cup granulated sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, until apples have softened and the juices start to thicken. Remove from heat, and add 1 tablespoon of the mixture to each pan well.
- Combine the rest of the ingredients in a bowl, and mix well; add a generous tablespoon of this mixture to each pan well, and gently press down.
- Bake for 17–19 minutes, and let cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.
MAKES 24 COOKIES.
- 12 cream-filled chocolate cookies
- 24 mini marshmallows
- 12 oz. bag white candy melts
- 12 candy-coated chocolate candies, assorted colors
- 1 tube black decorating gel
- Open each cookie, and place 2 marshmallows into the ear positions. Press cookie back together, and squeeze the marshmallow edges.
- Set aside the 12 white candy melts to use as the snouts, and melt the remaining ones according to package directions.
- Dip a cookie into the white chocolate, coating it completely. Carefully remove with a fork, let the excess drip off, and place on wax paper; repeat with other cookies.
- Before the chocolate sets completely, place the reserved white melts on each cookie, and press down lightly to make the bear snouts. Let cookies set until firm.
- Place a tiny bit of melted chocolate onto the nose area of each cookie, and add a colored candy. Once the chocolate has set, use decorating gel to create eyes.
MAKES 12 COOKIES.
- 12-oz. bag semisweet chocolate chips
- ½ c. butter
- 1¼ c. light brown sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- ¼ c. unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1½ c. all-purpose flour
- 1½ tsp. baking powder
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 8 oz. semisweet baking chocolate, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 12 large marshmallows, sliced in half
- Place the chocolate chips and butter in a microwave-safe bowl, and heat on high for 1 minute. Stir, and then heat for 30 seconds; repeat until chocolate is melted.
- Beat the brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract together on medium, and then blend in the chocolate mixture.
- Add the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix on low until combined. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours.
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop 24 tablespoons of dough onto each cookie sheet.
- Bake for 12 minutes, remove from oven, and top each cookie with 1 piece of chocolate and 1 piece of marshmallow. Bake for another 4 minutes, and let cool for 5 minutes before placing on wire racks.
- 1 c. butter, room temperature
- ½ c. sugar
- ¼ tsp. vanilla extract
- 1½ c. flour
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ½ c. candied orange peels, diced
- 1 tsp. orange zest
- 2 c. dark chocolate chips
- Blend the butter, sugar, and vanilla extract together.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, orange peels, and orange zest, and combine it well with the butter mixture.
- Form the dough into logs, wrap them in wax paper, and chill for at least 1 hour.
- Preheat oven to 300°F, and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Cut the logs into ¼-inch slices, and bake until they start turning light golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. Place on a baking rack to cool, about 20 minutes.
- Place the chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl, and heat on high for 1 minute. Stir, and then heat for 30 seconds; repeat until the chocolate is melted.
- Dip each cookie halfway into the chocolate, and place on wax paper. Sprinkle extra orange zest for added flavor, and let cool.
MAKES 24 COOKIES.
- 2 c. flour
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- 12 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
- ½ c. sugar
- 1 c. brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 c. chocolate chips
- 1½ c. thick potato chips, crushed
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Mix together the flour and baking soda, and set aside. In a separate bowl, add the butter and sugars, and whisk until smooth.
- Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolk, and stir into sugar mixture with the vanilla extract until all ingredients are combined; then spoon the flour mixture into the mix. Stir in the chocolate chips and potato chip pieces.
- Roll the dough into 1½-inch balls, and place on a baking sheet; bake for 12-14 minutes, remove, and let cool on a wire rack.
MAKES 24 COOKIES.
- 2¼ c. flour
- 2½ tbsp. cocoa powder
- 1½ tsp. cornstarch
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ½ tsp. salt
- 8 tbsp. butter, room temperature
- 6 tbsp. shortening
- 1½ c. sugar
- 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk
- 1½ tsp. vinegar
- 1½ tsp. vanilla
- 1 tbsp. red food coloring
- 1¹/³ c. white chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
- Using a hand mixer set on medium, combine butter, shortening, and sugar until mixture is pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add egg and egg yolk, and mix until just combined.
- Add vinegar, vanilla, and food coloring until well blended, and slowly add dry ingredients to the mixture.
- Add chocolate chips, and mix with a spoon or a spatula. Mold 1½ tablespoons of dough into a round shape, without flattening, and place on a cookie sheet; repeat for each cookie. Bake for 8-9 minutes.
MAKES ABOUT 36 COOKIES.
As you walk past the classic red telephone booth, down the festively decorated, cobblestone-covered main street, you stroll past Saint James Theatre, Fezziwig’s Warehouse, and Campbell’s of Breadelbanes Tweeds and Tartans before stopping in Fagin’s Clothier and Draper to see their collection of hats, which includes bowlers, top hats, bonnets, and even bobby helmets. Upon entering back onto the street, you are able to peer into the parlors of various houses, which are on full display for the holidays.
This isn’t a journey through Victorian-era London. It’s the scene that greets you at the Visitors’ Center of Byers’ Choice Ltd., a family-owned manufacturer of holiday collectibles and decorations headquartered in the Philadelphia suburb of Chalfont, Pennsylvania. Incorporated in 1981, Byers’ Choice now sells its products, including its distinctive, world-renowned Carolers, in thousands of stores across the country, on its website, and in the Gift Emporium at its Visitors’ Center.
One needs to go back decades, however, to get a true understanding of the old-fashioned success that is Byers’ Choice. “This all started as a hobby,” owner Joyce Byers remembers. “During one holiday season in the mid-sixties, I saw that everybody was into having silver foil trees and blue lights, which I felt weren’t very Christmassy. I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which was very Pennsylvania Dutch—lots of cookies and live trees, and old-fashioned in many respects. I wanted to return to that type of Christmas for my family.”
An aspiring artist with a background in fashion design, Joyce had the creativity, skill, and motive to make something both crafty and Christmassy—and, as it turns out, special. “One of my favorite parts about the holiday growing up was singing carols. So I decided to start making caroling figurines,” she continues. “That first year, I just made them for myself. My family saw them and thought they were cute. So, the next year, I made each of my kids a set for Christmas.”
Upon entering Byers’ Choice, you’ll feel transported back in time with a street scene right out of Dickensian London.
At that time, a family friend saw the Carolers and urged her to sell them at the local Woman’s Exchange, which were popular consignment shops at the time. Sure enough, they were well received. Within a year, Joyce was selling the Carolers to Federation of Woman’s Exchanges across the country. She continued selling them there, as well as at craft fairs, year after year, and even got her family involved with producing the Carolers every autumn so they could be sold at stores and given as gifts to friends and family for the holidays. Her husband, Bob, also started taking them to area gift shops to be sold. “One thing led to another, and before long, I was selling thousands of them!” Joyce says.
And a family business was created. Joyce and Bob started it at home (with Bob turning the garage into a workshop) and hired their first employee in 1978. They also ran the business with the help of their two sons, Jeff and Bob Jr. “This got going when my kids were very little, and they helped all along the way,” Joyce says. “They had to learn how to wrap the Carolers, and in high school, they even had their friends bending wires to help us create the frames of the bodies.” Today, the sons help run the business, and Joyce is still heavily involved in the day-to-day production of the Carolers, remaining a driving force behind each new design.
Byers’ Choice artists paint every face by hand, resulting in no two faces being alike.
What is it that makes Byers’ Choice Carolers so appealing to so many? Joyce believes it all comes down to how they’re made—or, more accurately, how they’ve always been made. “Almost everything today in the gift industry is made overseas, so those gifts all have to look exactly alike. What keeps us unique is that the handcrafting speaks to people. People can feel that handcrafted tradition in a Byers’ Choice product.
“The Carolers are all completely made by hand here in Chalfont,” she explains. “We hire a lot of people who study hard and who just really like to work with their hands, which you don’t find too often anymore. But we really enjoy it and value it here.” Working by hand is a requirement since, for the most part, the Carolers are assembled the same way they were when she first started: the head is made out of air-dried clay, and the body is formed with a coat hanger padded out with tissue paper (which was newsprint when Joyce first started) and dressed in fabric.
You can’t rush quality craftsmanship like this, which means a lot of planning goes into their craft. From start to finish, it takes almost two weeks to complete a Caroler, which includes ample time to allow the figures to dry. However, as Joyce notes, “We usually start planning almost a year ahead. We make the early prototypes for the collectible shows that start in the first week of January. So, really, we have to know what we’re going to do for the following year in November and December.”
The company produces hundreds of thousands of Carolers each year and also changes its line of Carolers annually, making only one hundred of each to ensure that there’s a constant variety in stores. This includes making custom Carolers, as Joyce explains: “We work with places like the Art Institute of Chicago, for whom we made artist Carolers like Renoir and Monet.
We’ve made Nutcracker Carolers. We also do historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, for groups such as Colonial Williamsburg. Anything people can think of that’s reasonable, we’re willing to give it a try. In fact, for the past several years, we’ve also had days here when people can come in and design their own caroling figures, and our employees help dress the Carolers. The customers love it!”
Hundreds of Carolers—including the originals—adorn displays that evoke a Victorian Christmas.
Another feature the customers love is the Christmas Museum. Byers’ Choice is open to the public year-round and welcomes over 70,000 people annually, so if you want a taste of the holiday season (including Christmas music) any time of year, you’ll find it here. In addition to the London-inspired main street, you can enter individual rooms decorated for the holidays, with Christmas trees, fireplaces, and, of course, Carolers abounding. The museum also leads you through a slew of Christmas displays, with hundreds of Carolers celebrating the holidays in various Victorian-style scenes, as well as a Nativity Room, an elegant museum-style niche that exhibits many Christmas traditions from around the world. A perennial favorite in the museum is the Observation Deck, which allows visitors to actually watch the Carolers being made by Byers’ Choice employees during weekdays. You’ll enjoy ending your Christmas Museum experience by visiting the Gift Emporium, a holiday shopping paradise with thousands of gift possibilities—including Carolers, but also other traditional holiday products they produce, such as handmade Kindles (six-inch bendable figurines), ornaments, advent calendars, and gingerbread houses.
And what could create more of an old-fashioned holiday vibe than Dickens? Besides their countless Dickensian Carolers, Byers’ Choice heightens the holiday experience by welcoming Gerald Dickens— Charles’ great-great-grandson—to their building to perform his one-man version of A Christmas Carol. Joyce says that Gerald has been a welcome sight to visitors for over a decade. “We get several thousand people here every year for his performance, and many of them are return customers,” she says. “People really enjoy it!”
However, Byers’ Choice Carolers aren’t limited to the holidays. For example, in an election year, you could find a “Santa for President” Caroler. In addition, as the calendar progresses, so do the Caroler offerings at Byers’ Choice: they have leprechauns, Irish Santas, and spring and Easter-oriented items in the spring; and items like the popular Beach Santas over the summer and Halloween- and Thanksgiving-themed Carolers in the fall.
Plush landscaping and vivid foliage greet Byers’ Choice visitors once winter thaws at its Pennsylvania headquarters.
If you visit their Chalfont headquarters during the warmer months, you’re in for a treat. Vibrant flowers and lush greenery abound on their tree-lined campus, which boasts a lovely English-style sunken garden and joyous sculptures of children playing, among other features. They also host events throughout the year to support local artisans. “It’s another opportunity to help people appreciate handcrafts and help support fellow artisans,” Joyce says.
The desire to help others is no surprise to anyone familiar with the company, as it values giving back. For over thirty years, they’ve donated 20 percent of all their profits to hundreds of charitable causes in their community and worldwide. “We wanted to give back to the community, so we started the Byers Foundation to spread our giving over the years,” Joyce states. “It’s very diverse.”
The wonder of the holidays is alive and well all year round at Byers’ Choice.
Diverse is an apt word to describe the overall experience at Byers’ Choice, as there’s something for everyone when you visit. “Overall, I think visitors come away from it with their own experience,” Joyce reasons. “It’s kind of funny: we’ll sometimes greet visitors at the door, and a husband will say, ‘She made me come here.’ You can just tell he wants to be anywhere but Byers’ Choice, and yet he’ll come out with a smile on his face, saying he didn’t realize how much actually went into the product, and leave feeling happy about the whole visit. Some people will stand on the Observation Deck and watch the Carolers being made for a long time and find that fascinating, and some people like the Nativity Room and will spend a lot of time in there. Different people like different aspects of it.”
Years after starting her simple quest to recreate an old-fashioned Christmas for her family, Joyce Byers is still “mystified” by how Byers’ Choice Ltd. has grown into the business it is. It’s a validation that many people share the same vision she did all those years ago for a more traditional holiday experience, a credit to her family’s dedication to handcraftsmanship, and a testimony to the personal connections the company fosters with its customers. And the Byers family is grateful that its gifts have resonated with so many.
Bob Jr., Joyce, and Jeff Byers carry on the family’s holiday-inspired business that started a half-century ago.
“This business has meant everything to us in many respects,” Joyce shares. “It’s given us many opportunities to get to know people that we never would have met otherwise. We get so many wonderful letters, and we’ve met thousands of wonderful people along the way. It’s allowed us to visit and to help so many people across the world. It’s been completely amazing to us.”
For more info, visit byerschoice.com.