Gingerbread houses for the rest of us
Posted November 28, 2008
Updated December 2, 2008
Unless you have a culinary degree, an incredibly steady hand and a few months to spare, you probably won't be able to recreate those breathtaking gingerbread houses that dazzle from bakeshop windows.
The sooner you accept that, the sooner you will be on you way to a merrier Christmas.
But that doesn't mean you should give up on your gingerbread dreams. The trick is that instead of trying to create an architectural wonder, focus on creating lasting memories. In other words, just have fun.
"It's one of those Hallmark moments, almost corny at times. This is what childhood is supposed to be about," says Marc Haymon, a baking instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
So here's some tips from the experts on making a memorable gingerbread house.
Plan, measure and create templates first. Cut the templates out of cardboard, then check that they fit together. Once your dough is rolled, you will use these template and a sharp knife to cut the sections of your house.
If the cookies spread during cooking, the templates also can be used to trim them as soon as they come out of the oven.
This also is the time to design windows, doors or other features, which must be cut out of the dough before it is baked. But beginners really should stick with a simple, four-wall, one-door, two-or-three-window design.
If you're stumped for design ideas, check out "How to Build a Gingerbread House" by Christina Banner or "The Gingerbread Architect" by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman.
Use a gingerbread recipe intended for houses; others don't produce cookies that are strong enough. Once the dough is mixed, it is refrigerated before it is cut and shaped, then baked. The dough can be refrigerated for a week or frozen for a month.
Matheson and Chattman suggest rolling the dough onto parchment paper, cutting it on the parchment, then removing the scraps and transferring the dough (still on the paper) to baking sheets and baking.
If possible, bake the gingerbread the day before your house-making extravaganza. Day-old gingerbread is stronger and easier to work with. It also lets you focus on the fun.
Don't bother with icing from a can. You need royal icing, a meringue and powdered sugar-based icing that dries almost cement hard. Make sure to keep extra icing covered with plastic wrap so that it doesn't dry out.
Thin cardboard and other weak supports spell catastrophe, says Banner. If the base bends when you pick up the house, it could shatter the decorations or break the seal between sections.
Build on a solid, moveable surface, such as a large flat platter, a slab of wood covered in foil or a plastic cutting board. Baking and craft supply stores also sell inexpensive cake mounts, which are heavy-duty cardboard wrapped in foil.
Soup cans and mugs are excellent helpers; use them to hold walls in place while you ice (cement) them together. To do this, place a mug or can on either side of the wall, holding it upright in place.
After the walls are assembled, wait at least an hour before adding the roof. If young children are involved, consider building the house without them the night before, then let them do the decorating once everything is solid.
"I'll tell you, from my sad experience, that when a recipe says to let the walls dry before trying to put on the roof, don't rush it!" says Chattman.
Need to kill some time while the walls dry? Bake some holiday cookies. By the time you are done, the house should be ready to go.
Piping (squirting icing from a conical bag) is a handy skill for these projects. This is how you add decorative icing touches (think icicles and "snow"). It's also how you cement together the walls and roof.
You can buy special bags and metal tips, but it isn't necessary. Zip-close plastic bags work fine. Spoon the icing into the bag, seal it, snip off one corner (large or small depending on the flow of icing desired), then gently squeeze.
Children may prefer cups of icing applied with a plastic spoon.
This is where your imagination gets to really kick in. And the possibilities positively boggle. This is just a start:
- Pretzel rods (columns)
- Apricot fruit tape (window panes)
- Sticks of gum (cut them into roof tiles, stepping stones, window boxes, steps, shutters)
- Jelly beans (walkways and foundations)
- Frosted wheat square cereal (thatched roof)
- Wafer cookies (stones, steps and window panes)
- Rock candy (trees)
- Licorice string (accents and other trim)
For the best selection, head to a bulk candy store (the sort in the mall that sells candy in large bins). This also is a good chance for the little ones to help pick their favorite decorations (and snacks).
Royal icing, once again, will be your glue. Feel free to add food coloring and use it to decorate, too.
"There is nothing that's not going to look good on a gingerbread house," says Banner.
But avoid chocolate, the fat of which can seep into the gingerbread and weaken in.
"More than a tear was shed... I used Andes mints to cover the roof of an antebellum plantation, but the chocolate was so moist that the roof got soft and eventually caved in," says Chattman.