December 19, 2012 by Meg G.
Well, folks. Prepare yourselves to be bowled over by the sheer talent of my dear friend, Mike. Mike and I have known each other for over ten years – wowza!
We share a love for food, singing, social justice, a really good belly laugh, and the occasional awkward “family” photo.
Alright, alright, enough of that.
Try not to be completely overwhelmed by Mike’s genius. I think there’s something for everyone to learn and appreciate here, even if you’re not
crazy courageous enough to build your own masterpiece totally from scratch! ; ) Here goes!
Hello, Small World Supper Club readers! Thanks to Meg, my dear friend, for allowing me the chance to share one of my newest holiday traditions: the gingerbread house.
I’ve been decorating gingerbread cookies since I was a little kid. However, until a few years ago, I had never made a gingerbread house, I think because I always saw them as cutesy and occupying a space more akin to decor than food. But being that I love a good homemaking challenge, I tried my hand at a homemade gingerbread house and have been hooked ever since.
Let me preface by saying: they are as complicated as you want them to be. There are pre-baked, pre-assembled kits (complete with an icing mixture and candy) for the time-strapped. For those who want something more involved, there are nifty cookie cutter sets that allow you to cut out roofs and walls from gingerbread you make then decorate the whole thing as you like. But I have a real passion for design and detail and find the process I describe here – designing, making, and decorating the house – meditative in some ways, so I go whole hog.
Whatever you decide, make it a group activity. Just this year, I made a pre-baked, pre-assembled kit with my two-year-old niece and hosted a party for friends using the cookie cutter set I mentioned. Both were the highlight of my holiday season.
So here we go, the steps for designing, making, and decorating your own gingerbread house! (Note: to preserve your sanity, I recommend doing this over the course of two or three days.)
Gingerbread House Design
Depending on the complexity of your design, this can be the most laborious part of the process. You may have to exercise some math skills (triangles! pyramids!) that you haven’t used in a while. Or you can use an online template (like this one from King Arthur flour) that takes care of that part for you. Just keep in mind that the larger you make it, the more gingerbread you’ll have to make.
What you’ll need:
- Notebook paper
- Craft paper (or leftover paper shopping bags)
Sketch out your design on notebook paper, thinking through the surfaces that will make up the structure, probably four walls and two sides of a classic gable roof. If you’re doing a gable roof, you’ll want a template for two different walls and a simple rectangle for the two sides of the roof. In my “townhouse,” I decided to try a Mansard roof. Just be sure to consider how the weight will be distributed throughout, remembering that these are somewhat fragile cookies. If you’d like to cut out windows, be careful not to do too many or make them too close to the edge of any surface, which may compromise the structure. For added effect, consider cutting a hole in an unseen wall through which you can later place an electric candle.
Once you have each surface finalized, carefully draw it to scale using a pencil and ruler on the craft paper. Cut out.
Normally, I use a tried and true recipe from an old neighbor of ours, but this year my parents (and keepers of the recipe) were away when I set about making the house, so I turned to Martha Stewart. Next time, I will call my parents before they go out of town and write down the recipe for myself.
One batch will get you a small house, or you can double it and have some leftovers for cookies (or, if you don’t trust yourself, extra roofs and walls).
- 6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
- 4 teaspoons ground ginger
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon finely ground pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup unsulfured molasses
- Sift together flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a large bowl. Set aside.
- Put butter and brown sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then eggs and molasses. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture; mix until just combined. Divide dough into thirds; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a lightly floured work surface to a 1/4-inch thick. Place your template on to the cookie dough and carefully cut out, remembering to cut four walls total and, for a gable roof, two sides. Space 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, and refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes.
- Bake cookies until crisp but not dark, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.
Constructing and Decorating:
What you’ll need:
- Carmel syrup (optional; recipe below)
- Molding clay (optional)
- Royal icing
- Pastry bag and tips
- 7/8” nails
- Serving tray
If you’ve cut out holes for windows, follow the steps below for making caramel syrup. If not, skip this step.
Caramel Syrup Ingredients:
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup water
Carmel Syrup Directions:
Bring sugar and water to a boil in a medium saucepan; reduce heat, and simmer until thickened and light brown, about 10 minutes. (Full disclosure: I have never cooked my sugar to the right temperature and always end up with something that resembles a clear, mottled liquid, but it still looks nice, I think.)
Roll out molding clay 1/4 inch thick on a Silpat. Measure windows of house; add 1/2 inch all around. With a utility knife, cut out molds from clay using measurements. Make the caramel syrup and pour into molds. Let set in molds until completely dry, about 1 hour. Carefully lift clay, leaving windowpanes behind.
Meanwhile, make your Royal Icing.
Royal Icing Ingredients:
- 2 large egg whites
- 4 cups sifted confectioners sugar
- Lemon juice (as needed)
Royal Icing Directions:
Beat the whites until stiff but not dry. Add sugar and lemon juice; beat for 1 minute more. The consistency should be glue-like, stiff and shiny, but with no visible lumps. Pour the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a #2 tip.
Decorating your House:
If you’ve made caramel syrup windows, now is the time to adhere them to the underside of the gingerbread with royal icing. Be generous, as the windows can be heavy. Let dry.
Here is where the controversy comes in: to decorate the sides flat, before assembly, or to construct the house first, then decorate. I prefer the former because it’s easier for me to decorate something that’s lying flat as opposed to upright, though I leave the roof unfinished until it’s in place. And the icing will harden nicely, so don’t worry that construction will mess it up. That being said, if you’re not going to do much piping detail and will instead rely on candy decorations primarily, go ahead and assemble it first. Do whatever you want. I’m not the police.
This part is mostly creative and perfect for little helpers. I like color coordinating my candy and dreaming up confectionary stand-ins for real-life architectural and landscaping elements. Snowcaps as cobblestones! Yogurt-covered pretzels as fencing! Golden Grahams as roof shingles! Call me lame, but this gets me excited. I found my candy all at Trader Joe’s.
When you’re ready for construction, you’ll need an extra pair of hands. Get your serving tray ready and cover with two or three overlapping pieces of wax paper to keep things tidy (just one will make it hard to remove later). Beginning with your walls, generously pipe the icing on the inside edge where the two walls meet, holding in place for a few minutes while it sets. Then carefully nail in each nail, one per side should do the trick.
If you’re nervous, follow Martha Stewart’s inimitable advice from her own gingerbread house how-to: “Just grit your teeth and do it.” Spoken like a true felon.
Repeat with the remaining pieces of gingerbread.
Before long, you’ll have your very own gingerbread house, yard, and whatever else you dream up.
Once it’s finished, remove the wax paper, and place a candle inside to illuminate the windows. Just don’t leave it on for long periods, or else you risk melting the windows and icing. If you’re planning to eat it, best to do so soon, and remember to take out the nails first, especially around children. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
Mike, I think you’ve outdone yourself this year! Thanks a TON for sharing your creativity and skill with us!