I know that Nicole from Tradewind Tiaras definitely had a few chuckles when she read my post about my gingerbread house making fiasco. And after she stopped rolling on the floor, she sent me an email where she graciously offered to right all my wrongs. On top of being a master artisan, creating pieces like these:
and planning parties like the Fairy Party she threw for her daughter,
she has baked and frosted more gingerbread houses than she can even count. Literally. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got the definitive how to build a gingerbread house guide in my inbox! Enough that I’m willing to try my fiasco again – this month! And with that, I’m turning this post over to the master gingerbread baker herself…
Each year, sometime in early December, our family starts our annual tradition. It’s such an undertaking that we have a name for it: Operation Gingerbread. My family has been making real gingerbread houses since I was an infant, so for nearly 35 years now, and we’ve made literally thousands. And when I say literally I actually mean literally, not figuratively like most people mean. Years of one for every kid in my class, my brother’s class, the girl scout troop, the boy scout troop, all our teachers, neighbors, and the work Christmas party really add up! We lost count somewhere after house number 3000.
After all these years, through much trial and error, we pretty much have this gingerbread thing down to a science. Paula did a brilliant job with her first house (I couldn’t believe it was her first!), and actually managed to figure out many of our tips and tricks in her first go. Very impressive! But I thought I’d share some of the other tricks we’ve learned through the years, to make her next attempt (and yours) even easier.
First, to get you started, here’s the recipe we like to use.
White House Gingerbread
- 2 C granulated Sugar
- 1 C plus 2 T brown sugar
- 1 C Crisco solid shortening
- 3 T molasses
- 4 eggs
- 1 ½ t salt
- 2 t baking soda
- 6 C flour
- 1 T ginger
- 1 T cinnamon
- Cream the shortening and sugar in a large stand mixer. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until fluffy. Add the molasses, salt, soda, ginger, and cinnamon. Mix completely. Add the flour, one cup at a time. The dough will become very stiff, and the bowl will be quite full. Once the flour is incorporated, turn the mixer off. It is a very stiff dough, and the object is to incorporate the flour, nothing more.
- Roll dough to a generous 1/8” thickness directly on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Trace around paper stencils (available for publication) to cut out the walls and roof of a gingerbread house. Lift away the excess dough on the cookie sheet with a spatula or knife. Be sure to leave some space between the pieces—the dough does expand while baking.
- Bake at 375 degrees for between 10 and 14 minutes. Slightly over-baked (short of burning) is better than slightly under-baked as you need rigidity for constructing gingerbread houses.
- Let the cookie pieces cool completely before assembly—even overnight. When cooling and storing, do not stack the pieces more than three high. If you do, the pressure will cause warm cookies to cement together.
It was originally published in Mailbox News (a cake decorating magazine), and is the actual White House gingerbread house recipe used by then White House Pastry Chef Hans Raffert.
Operation Gingerbread’s Top 10 Tips:
Tip 1: Buy the cheapest store brand of shortening you can find. Something full of trans-fat goodness. I’m all for getting rid of trans-fats as a general principle, but when Crisco came out with their new formula, they almost ruined Christmas for us. You will get much better performance with the cheap stuff. It’s not like a huge house-shaped cookie is good for you, anyway. Just exercise moderation.
Tip 2: Don’t roll out the dough on the counter and transfer to a cookie sheet to bake. Grease the cookie sheet and roll the dough directly on the pan. Trace around your templates and lift the excess away.
You might have noticed that I didn’t roll directly on the pan. That brings me to…
Tip 3: Especially if you are going to be making multiple houses, roll the dough out on parchment paper. I raid my pastry-chef-mother’s stash of perfectly pre-cut sheets, and each year vow that I should pre-cut a massive stack of my own. They’re really handy.
But the parchment paper slips and slides all over the counter, you say! Fear not, read…
Tip 4: Simply put a Silpat down on the counter. Put the parchment on top of the Silpat and ta-da, it sticks! Be careful not to get flour under the Silpat, though, or you’ll have to clean everything thoroughly to get it to stick again.
But I don’t have a Silpat, you say! Simply take a clean dishrag, get it wet, and squeeze the dickens out of it. You want it to be barely damp. Put that down on your counter, and put either your cookie sheet (if you’re not using parchment paper) or your parchment paper on top. The parchment will get a little damp, but it’s not a problem, I promise.
Tip 5: Your dough will spread at least a bit while cooking, especially since this recipe doesn’t require chilling before rolling (and is WAY easier to roll because of that little fact). If you want the pieces to fit together with precision–and that’s pretty important in construction of the real or cookie kind you’ll need to trim the edges. Do this immediately after pulling the cookies out of the oven. Don’t even wait 30 seconds! You need to move very quickly, while the cookies are still very hot! Use your template and a sharp paring knife and trim the excess away.
There’s a great benefit to doing this. The trimmings are the perfect shape for snacking and dunking in milk or coffee! Bags of our trimmings are highly coveted on baking weekend.
Tip 6: Let pieces cool completely before daring to stack any up to save space. Once completely cool, you can stack the pieces three or four high to save counter and cooling rack space. Do not stack higher! If you do, you run the risk of the pieces cementing to each other. If you live in a humid place (I’m talking to you, Paula!) like Florida, I wouldn’t stack more than two pieces high. We learned that one the hard way when we lived in Melbourne, FL. Here in perfect-for-pastry-Phoenix, I could probably push it and stack 6 or 7 high, but I wouldn’t want run the risk. I max out at 4. Besides, if I only stack two or three high, I can fit them in sheet pans and stack those.
Let dry overnight before attempting to assemble the houses.
Tip 7: When making royal icing, I always make the version with meringue powder. So easy, so dependable!
Sweet, Edible Cement: Royal Icing
- 6 egg whites
- 1 t cream of tartar
- 2 lb (1 bag) powdered sugar
- ½ t clear artificial vanilla
- Pour egg whites into an impeccably clean mixing bowl, free from all traces of grease. Add the sugar and cream of tartar and vanilla. Mix on medium speed for 10-15 minutes, until the icing is stiff. A stand mixer is also very helpful here.
- To prevent crusting over, keep the bowl covered with a wet cloth at all times. Be sure all utensils used to mix and store royal icing are free from any traces of grease. This is critical, as even the smallest trace of fat means that the icing will not set.
Mix up a big batch, and prevent it from crusting over by putting a wet towel over the bowl.
If you’re going to assemble more than one house, use a large disposable pastry bag. You want to have to refill as infrequently as possible.
KopyKake brand is vastly preferable to Wilton brand for disposable bags. You’ll have to order online or go to a cake decorating store to find the KopyKake brand, however. It’s not available at the big craft stores. I’d choose parchment paper cones over the Wilton disposable cones. I’ve had too many of them burst at the seams.
Tip 8: Cake circles make perfect, pretty bases for small houses.
For larger houses, I cut cardboard boxes into rectangles, and cover with freezer paper, dull side out. It makes a nice, snowy white, inexpensive base. While it’s not strictly necessary to make the house on a base, it’s much sturdier, and I love having room to landscape around my gingerbread houses.
Tip 9: Especially if you’re going to make multiple houses, seriously consider an A-frame design. Not only does it look cute and germanic, it’s also super easy to assemble!
My husband’s job, holding the first two pieces for me:
And then it stands up on its own while I assemble the rest:
If you’re going to make more elaborate designs, especially ones with four walls and a roof, assemble in stages. Adhere the walls together, and prop them in place with cans, just like Paula figured out. DON’T add the roof yet! Wait a few hours, come back, and then you can add the roof. Be sure your royal icing is nice and thick, especially if you have a steep pitch to your roof, and if possible, stack cans to reach right under the eaves, to hold the roof in place should it start to slip before the icing sets up.
Tip 10: Don’t underestimate the decorative power of royal icing. Don’t get me wrong, I love to decorate with candy! But that can get really expensive, and using royal icing as its own decorative element can look absolutely gorgeous!
If you’re going to do decorative piping, or if you’re going to put on heavy candies, it’s much easier to do the decorating before the house is assembled.
There you go! Add these 10 tips to the valuable advice that Paula already figured out, and you’ll have fabulous success making gingerbread houses. Happy baking!
Thank you SO MUCH Nicole for your brilliant and detailed tutorial. And Nicole does create works of art other than her gorgeous tiaras. Some things you positively need for your holiday festivities:
Monogram Seals – perfect for extra special invitations and party favors!
Thanks again, Nicole!!