Gingerbread Houses

by Beryl

in Methods

When I was little, my family went through a gingerbread phase.  I don’t really know how that happened, but we got really into it.  I’ve kind of been into it ever since.  It is a really fun, frustrating, rewarding, sometimes heartbreaking project, and who isn’t looking for more frustration and heartbreak during the holidays?  The fun part is when you get your blue print all drawn out and cut out and then you start assembling the cooked pieces and they actually fit.  The frustrating part is when they almost fit.  The heartbreaking part is when you forget to put parchment under your candy window and wind up cracking an entire wall in order to pry the piece of the baking sheet, or drop a piece on the floor, or when your structure caves in cause your walls weren’t really dried yet enough for a roof…  But the payoff in the end is pretty great.  I definitely get a little thrill when I step back and admire my handiwork.  Even before it’s decorated, I’m pretty happy just to see it standing on its own.  Anyway,  this year’s gingerbread house will be underway shortly, and I thought because gingerbread houses are borderline food, I’d share the recipe and some photos.

UPDATE: This year’s gingerbread house has been built! It’s a perfect scale model of our houseboat. OK, it’s not to scale, and it’s not really perfect… but you get the idea. Here’s a time lapse video of the process:

[Talley says: When Beryl finished writing this post, she handed it to me to read through.  As I went through the photos I realized that almost all of the pictures of gingerbread construction featured me. I don’t know what happened, I guess Beryl was on camera duty that day… anyway, I’m just butting in to point out that Beryl is definitely the gingerbread fiend in the family, she’s just a bit camera shy sometimes.]

Gingerbread house pics1.001

Assembling the pieces...

Gingerbread housesWhat you can’t see in the picture above is the cracked wall and roof, but I think you pretty much get the picture by looking at Talley.  It was a minor setback, but the gingerbread house went on.

Gingerbread house pics2.002


The long but satisfying roofing.


gingerbread housegingerbread house


Utilitarian Gingerbread (no refrigeration needed)

This gingerbread doesn’t actually taste very good, but taste is not what we’re going for.

  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup dark molasses or corn syrup (dark for dark colored dough corn syrup for light dough.   Use half molasses and half corn syrup for a medium colored dough – see also note about baking for different colors further down in the directions)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4-4 1/2 cups of flour

Melt shortening, sugar and syrup in a pot over low heat. Remove from heat and pour into the bowl of a mixer. Combine the next 6 ingredients (baking soda-flour) in a separate bowl, then stir them into the wet ingredients, 1 cup at a time. An electric mixer will be handy here as the dough gets quite thick and hard to stir. Split the dough into manageable balls, wrapping excess in plastic wrap.  One of the nice things about this dough is that you can work with it immediately without having to refrigerate.  In fact, if it gets too cold, it won’t be very pliable.  If you feel like the dough isn’t working well, heat it in the microwave about 10 seconds to warm it, knead again and then roll it.  Roll out, cut pieces, and place on a parchment lined baking sheet (I have made the mistake of not lining my sheet and it sucks – if you don’t line the sheet, just be ready to loosen the cooked pieces form the sheet soon after they come out of the oven, otherwise they will stick horribly and you will never get them off in one piece). Bake at 375 for 6-12 minutes. I recommend rolling the dough out on the sheet itself, otherwise the dough will tend to deform during transfer from counter to cookie sheet and your carefully measured pieces won’t square up.

Egg white icing:
(makes 2 cups, you’ll probably have to make more than one batch)

  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 (16 oz box) confectioners powdered sugar

In a large bowl combine all ingredients. Beat ~7 minutes with an electric mixer until smooth and thick. It is done when a knife blade drawn through the icing leaves a clean cut. Store in a tightly sealed container if you are not using it right away. (I’ll sometimes leave some in the pastry bag too; whatever’s in the tip will clog up a bit, but you can just take that off the bag and rinse it out.)

Meringue Powder Royal Icing

  • 3 Tablespoons Meringue Powder (available where cake decorating supplies are sold)
  • 1 1 LB box (3 3/4 cups) confectioner’s sugar
  • 4-6 Tablespoons cold water

Put dry ingredients together, add half the water, then add more water as needed. The consistency of the icing should be thick, where a knife can be drawn through it leaving a clean path…but not so thick it won’t go through an icing tip. Takes about 2-3 minutes with this method.

A Couple Architecture/Assembly Tips

This may or may not be the very best way, but it is my habit at this point.  For the blue print, I use a ruler and draw the pieces onto paper.  I cut out the paper pieces and (this is the important part and can save you a certain about heartbreak if you are diligent) loosely assemble the house with the pieces of cut paper.  You might have to enlist the help of a friend for this because paper is floppy and won’t really stand up and assemble, but you can at least partially assemble it to make sure the pieces match up as you envision – if they don’t, it is much better to discover this when they are made out of paper than when they are made out of gingerbread.  I mean, even if they are made out of gingerbread it’s not the end of the world, but sometimes it can feel like it is. Alternately, you could cut your pieces out of cardboard, then holding them up together won’t be as hard. The major walls are relatively easy to get right, but there are a certain amount of mental gymnastics that must be done to get a chimney lined up on a slanted roof.  Once you are confident in your pieces of paper, roll out your gingerbread.  Place the paper cut-out on top of the gingerbread and cut around it with a knife.  I have found that it works best to tear off a bit of dough and roll it out directly on the baking sheet, that way you don’t have to transfer the cut piece to the sheet and risk distorting it in the process.

If you find your pieces don’t line up as they should, it is possible to carefully trim them. In fact, I find that even when I do get the dimensions correct, the dough tends to morph a bit in the oven and I try to make any adjustments that are needed soon after the cookies come out of the oven – when they are fresh from the oven they are easy to trip, once they cool they become brittle and then they are a little more difficult to fix…

When you’re assembling the cooked gingerbread pieces, don’t be in a hurry.  We’ll usually just spend all day doing it.  We’ll get the walls glued together and then prop them up with canned beans or whatever is on hand and then just walk away for a few hours while it dries.  No good can come from trying to put a roof onto partially set walls.  If you are needing to speed up the drying process, you can get the hair dryer out. Best to keep it on cold…

A Couple Decorating Tips

  • Stained glass windows are fun and there’s more than one way to do it.  Try melting lifesavers into the window frames. Before baking, crush lifesavers using a mortar & pestle or put them in a ziplock bag and beat them with a rolling pin or hammer. One way or another, get the candy crushed and then use it to carefully fill the windows. IMPORTANT: Place some wax or parchment paper under the rolled out dough, at least under the window; otherwise the candy will stick to the cookie sheet when it is baking and it will be just about impossible to get the cooked gingerbread off the sheet in one peice. I know from experience. Bad, bad experience.
  • You can also make your own candy glass: Combine 3 cups sugar, 1 cup water and 1 cup light corn syrup in a heavy sauce pan fitted with a candy thermometer.  Stir over med/high heat until mixture reaches hard crack stage (300 degrees).  Once your thermometer gets up above about 250, watch out – it takes a while to get to 250 or so, but once it’s there it heats up fast.  Pour the hot syrup into the window frames of your cooked and cooled gingerbread.  If you don’t have a candy thermometer, test for hard crack stage by dropping a small amount of syrup into very cold water – if it makes a little cracking sound and turns hard and brittle, and any threads that form are brittle and breakable, you’re there. If the candy is still pliable, keep going. You can add coloring at the end if you want “stained glass” IMPORTANT: Again, remember to place the pieces on parchment paper under the gingerbread before filling.
  • Sliced almonds are good roofing material, I can’t think of anything more beautiful, but it takes FOREVER and is best done with a friend, or at the very least, a good radio program.
  • You can make gingerbread shingles too.  It’s actually a pretty good use of left over gingerbread scraps.  I discovered (on accident) that cooking the ginger-shingles for different lengths of time makes gives you a nice mix of colors (since you’re probably not going to eat this, you don’t have to worry about over cooking).  Of course you can accomplish the same thing by making different gingerbread doughs, some with with molasses, some with corn syrup, but this way  you only have to make one dough.  I cut the ginger shingles into irregular length (although I did keep them a uniform height) because I liked the look, but you can do what you think is best.
  • Little rock candy is really fun decorating material.
  • Sometimes it is better to decorate elaborate pieces flat, then assemble the pieces.
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