Bread dough ornaments, Ecuador-style

In the tiny village of Calderon, Ecuador, the women use bread dough to create small, brightly colored ornaments that find their way to Christmas trees around the world. Along with a bag of the shiny wreaths, fish, angels, bells, and llamas, I left Calderon with a desire to fashion some tree decorations of my own.

As I began to research the myriad possibilities for handcrafted ornaments, I discovered that one need not be an artist or experienced craftsperson to achieve some charming, ornament making is an especially good project for children when the late fall days grow cold and rainy.

Unsure of the exact recipe for the dough mixture used in Ecuador, I substituted a mixture of salt, cornstarch, and water, which makes a remarkably pliable, elastic substance for achieving similar results. About two dozen ornaments can be made out of a mixture of 1/2 cup cornstarch, 2/3 cup water, and 1 cup of salt.

The cornstarch should be placed in a bowl and then mixed with 1/3 cup of water until it is entirely dissolved. The salt should be mixed with 1/3 cup of water and cooked over medium heat in a pan. Stir it constantly until it bubbles. After removing it from the stove, stir in the cornstarch solution until the dough is stiff enough to be kneaded. Just a little kneading makes the mixture smooth and malleable enough to be used like clay.

Although cookie cutters can be used to cut out traditional Christmas shapes, it is remarkably easy and far more interesting to mold your own, as a friend and I proved on a recent afternoon. Anyone who can roll dough into a tubular shape and bend it can make a candy cane. A Christmas stocking is only slightly more challenging, and a tree needs no more than a triangle stuck on top of a rectangular trunk. Our creations included a pear, dove, fish, pumpkin, and the word "joy" made by joining the three letters together. The dough can also be pressed into flat tiles and then painted with bright designs. A darning needle can be used to pierce a hole near the top of each shape.

The salt and cornstarch dough can be stored in an airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator for weeks or months if it is not molded into shape right away. Once the shapes are made, however, they should be dried, preferably in a warm ( 200-degree F.) oven for a couple of hours.

After the ornaments are completely hard, they are ready to be painted and sealed. The simplest and neatest way to color them is to mix food coloring into the dough before creating the shapes. For a shinier effect, acrylic, poster, or model airplane paints can be applied to the dried surfaces. Because it is water soluble, acrylic paint is the wisest choice for young children.

Finding model-airplane paint to be the least expensive as well as the most vibrant, my friend and I bought small bottles of blue, yellow, and red to furnish all the colors we needed. Because the unpainted dough surface is white, it can be left unpainted when a white background or accent is needed. Newspapers to spread over the table, paper towels, paint thinner, cottage cheese lids to serve as palettes, small brushes, sticks to mix the colors, and an emery board to smooth the surfaces were the additional equipment we needed.

Before applying the paint, we gently sanded the rough objects with the emery board. Then we dabbed various colors onto the lids to create orange, brown, and green. We found the little white shapes taking on a life of their own as they were decorated. My friend made a tiny painting of a tree of life symbol on her dough tile and added folk art-style markings to her fish and dove.

After the painted ornaments are allowed to dry (if they are not completely dry, they will break or rot), they must be varnished. This can be done by brushing on either clear nail polish or Elmer's glue mixed with a little water, which is clear when it dries. Once sealed and dry, they can be tied on the tree with strong thread inserted through their holes.

While we found our results to be less intricate than the Ecuadorean examples, we were well pleased with their homemade charm. And by creating simple shapes with few protruding points that can easily break off, we had a colorful supply for seasons to come. To make them last, it is important not to let them get wet , as water will cause them to disintegrate.

Dough ornaments are only one of the many easy ornaments to make. Traditional ball ornaments can be made by blowing a balloon into the desired size, tying it, and using its globular shape as a base. One of the prettiest is the papier-mache variety, consisting of colorful blotches of tissue paper.

To make a papier-mache ornament, first mix water and glue together until it is the consistency of heavy cream. Then blow the balloon up to the size of an orange and tie the top in a knot. Tear up three colors of tissue paper into small bits and dip them into the glue mixture before spreading them flat over the balloon.Each new piece should be partly over the preceding one so that all edges overlap. The pieces should be smoothed down until the color of the paper beneath them is visible, a good way to make sure there are no air bubbles.

The balloon should be completely covered with four to six layers of paper, with no part of the balloon showing through. Then tie a string around the balloon knot and hang it up. After a few hours the papier-mache will be hard enough to hold its shape, and the string can be removed. A ribbon or pipe cleaner tied around the knot makes a loop for hanging the ornament on the tree.

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