Sometimes you make insane decisions that are a little painful to live through, but in the end end up OK. Deciding to make an 18 inch tall gingerbread house from scratch for a dessert table spread (and everything else on the dessert table) when you’ve never made a gingerbread house in your life squarely falls in that category! But nothing ventured, nothing gained. I learned quite a few valuable lessons along the way creating this piece, and it’s my absolute pleasure to pass them on to make going on a gingerbread house adventure a little easier for all of you out there in the blogosphere. And if you want to hear from a gingerbread professional, checkout the guest post from Nicole at Tradewind Tiaras here.
Building a gingerbread house is a lot like building a real house. You’ve got to plan, plan, plan plan plan. And then plan a little more. And this isn’t a one day process, you’ll need to budget a couple days for this project. It took me three. One to plan and make the dough, one to bake and glue together and one to decorate. I did a good bit of research into gingerbread houses, surfing the net and even (gasp) visiting the library and buying a book on gingerbread houses to explore methods, styles, etc. And once I sketched down my ideas the real fun began!
Before attempting any baking whatsoever, you need to build some gingerbread templates. I happened to have an old pizza box handy (because I do less cooking for my fam than I should these days) that was perfect for building a mock-house. This photo is from Craftstylish.com, and shows about how many templates you need for a basic house – the front, an equal sized back, two equal sides and a roof. Tape them all together to make sure they fit together well before you measure even your first cup of flour.
Once you get the architectural design figured out, It’s time to make some dough. I think there are two kinds of gingerbread: the kind you eat and the kind you build with. While this gingerbread recipe was good enough, I have certainly eaten better — but the better stuff probably would not have held up during construction.
For the house I built, I used two batches of gingerbread dough, but I probably only needed a batch and a half with all the leftovers I had!
After your dough has been thoroughly chilled, roll it out on a floured surface and place a cardboard template at a time on the rolled dough and cut around with a knife. Transfer to sheet pan and bake! The books I read recommend 1/2 inch thick dough for stability, with your accent pieces being rolled a little thinner. Being the maverick I am, I paid those books absolutely no attention. And because of that, I ended up using royal icing to glue the cardboard templates to the back of my gingerbread to reinforce it. I think it’s probably necessary anyway because my pieces were rather large!
Another fun thing that happened in the oven was that the gingerbread didn’t stay quite the same shape as the templates. Since icing will hide all manner of flaws, I took a super sharp knife and trimmed back any edges of the gingerbread that might interfere with it fitting together snugly.
And now for the really fun part–construction! You’ll need to whip up some royal icing to glue everything together. Since (in theory) no one will be eating this, I used 1 cup powdered sugar to every egg white with a pinch of cream of tartar and didn’t worry about flavoring. Just whip the eggs and suger with your mixer on high until stiff and glossy. You need it a little on the thicker side so it sets up pretty quickly. I did one egg white/cup of sugar at a time so the frosting didn’t all dry out on me, and so I didn’t make too much!
Using a large cake circle for the base, I set up the walls at right angles, then piped icing on the seams to hold them together. (Thanks to King Arthur Flour for the pic). The first try, I frosted everything together and walked out of the room for a moment. I came back to the front of my house on the floor!! Lesson learned. I also learned I should not do any decorating whatsoever before building the house. The panel that fell lost all its doors and window when it met the floor. Lucky me, though, the gingerbread didn’t break. Other people with a tad more gingerbread experience may be more lucky.
The next try, I supported the walls with large cans of food and bottles of olive oil while the icing dried so nothing moved a millimeter. I stepped away from my house for a few hours at this point – but mostly because I had to clean up the mess I had made in the kitchen!
After everything was nice and stable and I could remove the cans, I made another batch of icing and started to decorate. This part is really a matter of personal preference…but a few things I did…
Vanilla wafers and red hots were used to shingle the roof. Note: when small children are “helping” by handing you the vanilla wafers, be sure to have an extra box of wafers on hand! I ended up with exactly enough after the one for me one for the house hand-off ended. The red hots — happily all those went untouched!
I used a number 3 tip to create icicles around the roof line…this was the source of most of the hand cramping. It was a nice effect, though!
Stacks of Kit-Kat chocolate bars made the stairs and door and peppermint sticks made the columns for the front door. I had run out of patience for gingerbread at this point in time, so I used graham crackers for the little roof here and all the flower boxes and window shutters on the house.
As I said before, the royal icing will hide all kinds of mistakes!! I am by no means a champion cake or cookie decorator. I like to leave that to the professionals most times. The windows I piped on were a little uneven in the end…so I added window boxes to even them out. This was just a quarter of a graham cracker glued to the house at a 45 degree angle. Worked great, and it’s a neat little architectural feature. This is another area you really need to plan out – window and door placement, etc. My 4 year old was (of course) obsessed with this house while I was building it. She stuck her finger right into the gingerbread and made a fair sized hole in the front of the house. But with a little icing, it magically disappeared.
I think enough learning went on this time that I feel confident about building another one next year that the kids will help out with. And in the end, I think the lack of perfection on these houses make them just a little more charming.