One of my favorite pastimes during this season is making Gingerbread houses. I have made all kinds of Gingerbread houses from the very large and ornate to the small and simple; I love making them all. I have created a number of large “centerpiece” houses for various functions and benefits, my favorite being the large church I created as the centerpiece for the gift table at my own wedding. It was over 2 feet long and the steeple stood almost that high. With large, candy “stained glass windows, Golden Grahams as roofing shingles and a full array of bells in the steeple the project took weeks to complete, but I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Then there was the time, as chef of a country club, when I had to make 30 mini Gingerbread houses for kids to decorate. I didn’t take the simple way out and make them out of graham crackers but cut out and “glued” together 30 of the little things.
It’s been a few years since I last made a Gingerbread house, but this year my daughter is 3 and I figured it would be a good time to restart the tradition. Of course she is still too young to help Daddy build a Gingerbread house, but she would be more than capable of decorating one, so I set out to build a couple of houses, one for her and one for the neighbor boy who I thought would also like to decorate a house.
The making of Gingerbread houses is not a single day task, unless you want to drive yourself insane. I find that I like to spread it out over 3-4 days, if making an average sized house, many more if making a large or elaborate structure. Day 1 – make and chill the dough. Day 2 – roll out, cut and bake the dough. Day 3 – assemble the house. Day 4 – decorate the house. Of course some of these steps can be combined into single days, but as a working stiff, I find that breaking it up this way makes each step easy to accomplish while still allowing me time to do other things after work.
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup molasses
5 1/4 cups Flour, all purpose
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground clove
2 pinches salt
3/4 cup water
Cream together the butter and the brown sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add the molasses and mix well. Sift together the flour and baking soda and add, along with the spices and salt. Once well mixed add the water and mix to incorporate. Chill dough at least 3 hours, or better yet, over night. Meanwhile draw out your template for your house. For a basic Gingerbread house you will need 2 sides, a front and back and 2 roof pieces for a total of 6 pieces or 3 template pieces.
To make a house with the same dimensions as I have pictured your side template should be 3″ tall x 4″ long, the template for the front and back (same template for both, just no door or window cut out for the back) is 5″ wide, a side height of 3″, and a roof slope of 5″. The roof template will then need to be 5 1/2″ tall (the extra 1/2″ for overhang) by 5 to 5 1/2″ wide (again to provide some overhang in the front and back and taking into account the width of the gingerbread pieces on the front and back).
After you have let the dough chill for the appropriate amount of time you then need to roll the dough out. Use plenty of flour to dust the dough with, to prevent sticking and roll it out on parchment paper cut to fit your cookie trays. The reason for this is once you cut the pieces it is easier to move the whole parchment paper so that you don’t accidentally stretch the dough out of shape. For a smaller house like this, roll the dough out to about 1/4″ thick, for larger structures you will want the stability of dough rolled out to 1/2″ thick. Place your templates on the dough and cut out the pieces cutting about 1/8″ larger than the templates. Bake in a 350F oven for 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool, for 5 minutes on trays before transferring to a cooling rack. While still slightly warm shave the pieces down, using a serrated knife, to the exact size needed.
If you want to created glass windows or stained glass windows, use a hammer to crush up hard candies such as Jolly Ranchers. When the dough has 5 minutes more to bake, fill window with crushed candy, mounding it up in the center. Return to oven and finish baking.
A quick word about edibility; this recipe makes a great dough that provides both a good flavor and good stability. If you are not so concerned about edibility then there are few things I would recommend doing. First off, I would double all the spices. Doesn’t make for great eating but all those added spices helps keep the Gingerbread house fragrant for quite a long time. Also I would lower the heat to 325F and bake the dough for about 35-40 minutes. This will dry out the dough even more making it more stable, but also much tougher on the teeth.
Now that the pieces have been baked, trimmed and allowed to fully cool, it is time to assemble and decorate. But before we can do that we need to make some Royal Icing to use as our glue.
1 each egg white
1 tsp. cream of tartar
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
Beat egg white just until it loosens up. Add cream of tartar and powdered sugar. Stir until fully incorporated. You may need to add more sugar, to get a thick, frosting like consistency. Using just enough icing to adhere the pieces, build the base of your house, like in the picture below, using heavy cans of food to hold the pieces together as the icing hardens. This probably won’t be enough but I prefer to work with smaller batches and make it more often.
Use only enough icing to hold the pieces together, initially. This helps the icing dry more quickly than when it it loaded on. After it dries and the pieces are somewhat secure, you can then go back and reinforce the joints with more icing. Only after you have a solid base, with joints that have dried, can you then add the roof. The same rule applies here; add only enough icing to cement the pieces together to speed the drying process, then go back and reinforce. As you can see from the picture below, I have found it easiest to place the roof flat on the counter top and prop up the house. This works for small houses, but not large structures.
Once the house is solid, I like to attach it to a base. For smaller houses I often use 2 pieces of cardboard, taped together and covered in foil. I then use my icing to cement the house to the base. Next I cover a good portion of the base with icing to resemble snow.
Once that it dry and set it is time to gather up all your goodies for decorating and release the kids!
The list of foods that can be used to decorate Gingerbread houses is endless. Besides the standard gumdrops, M&Ms, hard candies, starlight mints, and peppermint sticks, there are all sorts of items that can be used. I’ve seen Cinnamon Trident used as bricks, pretzel sticks used as fencing, pretzel rods used as lamp posts, shredded wheat used as hay, Golden Grahams used as shingles. Sugar cones covered in green frosting make great Christmas trees while marshmallows can be formed into snowmen. I’ve even seen red pepper flakes used to resemble fallen Autumn foliage.
Of course, sometimes “less is more” but try telling that to a 3 year old, as you can plainly tell from the opening photograph. But I didn’t expect anything less. The minute she saw all that candy, I knew I had lost any control over the situation I thought I had and soon after that, as the first of sugar rush hit her bloodstream, I felt it better to let her do it on her own and keep my fingers a safe distance away.
Needless to say, we had a lot of fun, and while this whole process may seem time consuming, it really doesn’t take that much time overall, if you split it up over a few days. And besides, this was a great way to spend some quality time with my daughter even if she was seriously hopped up on a major sugar high.