Gingerbread houses are among the most charming (and delicious) traditions of the holidays. They’re also a great way to get your children involved in the “spirit” of the season and help them express their creativity. Best of all, you don’t need a building permit to make one. You only need a couple of good recipes for the “brick & mortar” and a few helpful tips from a veteran builder and construction manager.
I’ve built my fair share of gingerbread houses over the years–whole villages in fact. It’s one of the many projects culinary students are often assigned in their bakery classes, and there are plenty of competitions for eager students to show their creative talents. One, in fact, has been held for many years at the English Garden’s store on Garfield Road in Macomb Township, right down the street from our Nino’s store on Hall Road.
And while competitions are fun, this is the perfect time to give you your first gingerbread-house-making tip.
Keep the construction simple, ESPECIALLY if it is your first attempt.
So many people get frustrated when their ambitions exceed their experience or the amount of time they have to complete their houses. Keep in mind that besides mixing dough, icing and baking, you need to set aside time for gluing the pieces together, drying, and then decorating. It’s more than a one-day project.
Therefore, my second tip is:
Make your first house no larger than a typical toaster. That will make each piece of wall and roof small enough to be sturdy and easy to assemble.
As far as the actual “blueprints” for your gingerbread house are concerned, my recommendation for your first attempt is four walls and two roof pieces. Each piece should be cut out of a stiff cardboard as a template and then labeled and pre-assembled using tape so that you know what your house will look like when it is finally constructed out of gingerbread. You’ll also need these pieces to help “re-cut” the baked dough (see #2 below).
Typically, a gingerbread house has one wall with a door, and most have a window or two. If you choose doors and windows, keep in mind that gingerbread dough, like cookie dough (which is what it is), tends to spread out as it bakes, which will close in the cutout you’ve made for your door and windows.
Keeping the openings and sizes of each piece just as you need them to be for assembly can be managed in one of two ways:
As it bakes, open the oven every few minutes and gently push the dough back into position as it firms. This can work but occasionally creates wrinkles or “pleats” in the finished piece.
Let the pieces bake as they will naturally and gently “re-cut” the pieces while still warm with a sharp knife (recommended).
Chimneys are a must, but I’d recommend one on top of your roof rather than a tall sidewall chimney; it’s just a lot easier. Again, a chimney is just a small, four-sided box with an angled bottom that matches your roof pitch/angle. It can be assembled separately and then attached later.
Lastly, if you want window shutters or a swing-out door, cut them out and bake them on a separate pan. This is important because they will take less time to bake than larger pieces, and you’ll be able to take them out of the oven when they are properly baked.
After all of your gingerbread pieces have been baked, trimmed and cooled, it’s on to construction.
Choose a nice, firm platform on which to build your house. A piece of plywood or large platter can be a suitable base. Just be sure you have at least 4 to 6 inches of extra “yard” away from the side of each exterior wall, so you can add other decorations, such as a candy cane fence, a sidewalk, or some trees.
Your “mortar” to glue all your pieces together is called royal icing. It’s a simple mixture of powdered sugar, egg white and cream of tartar, and unlike most icings, this one dries “rock hard.” It’s simple to make, but it MUST be mixed well.
Important Tip # 3: Glue your side walls together on day one, (also gluing them to your platform), and then add your roof on the following day. This will allow time for the walls to form a solid foundation BEFORE you add the weight of the roof. Another important step is to stabilize your newly glued walls with some sturdy brace, like a canned good or some other small, weighted box, and be sure to leave your house somewhere out of the way where the kids or your pet can’t disturb it.
After all of your pieces have been glued together and have dried for at least two days, its time to decorate your new home. Don’t worry if there are a couple of places here or there with gaps; your candy decorations and royal icing will easily cover up any construction mishaps.
Traditional decorations are colorful candy glued in place with the same royal icing you’ve used for your basic construction. You can also use royal icing for snow and icicles to make your finished piece take on a real wintry look.
Other finishing materials include:
- Clear gelatin sheets for windows (can be obtained at specialty cake-decorating stores)
- Cotton balls or fiber fill for chimney smoke
- Landscaping (trees and other items from hobby stores)
Below are recipes for gingerbread dough and royal icing. For the gingerbread, roll out ⅛-inch to ¼-inch thick on a well-floured, flat surface, and bake at 350 F. Bake on non-stick silicone baking sheets or a non-stick cookie sheet.
Have fun, and of course, I’d love to see pictures of your masterpieces!
Gingerbread House Cookie Dough
Makes enough dough for a medium-sized house:
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/3 cups molasses
8 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a large bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar until smooth.
- Stir in the molasses and eggs.
- Combine 1 1/2 cups of the flour, baking soda, salt, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. Then beat into the molasses mixture.
- Gradually stir in the remaining flour by hand to form a stiff dough.
- Divide dough into 2 pieces.
- On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to ⅛- to ¼-inch thickness.
- Cut into desired shapes.
- Place pieces 1-inch apart onto parchment-lined cookie sheets.
- Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
- Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven.
- Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely
Makes enough to glue together and decorate a medium-sized house:
2 Lbs confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar
6 extra-large egg whites
- In a medium bowl, sift together confectioner’s sugar and cream of tartar.
- Using an electric mixer on high speed, blend in egg whites, beating for about 5 minutes or until mixture is thick and stiff.
- Keep covered with a moist cloth and plastic wrap until ready to decorate.
Mixture can be covered tightly and refrigerated but must be re-beaten when re-used.