Be a Gingerbread Genius!
Ready to make a gingerbread house but don’t know where to start? You could try one of those kits from the supermarket or… make one from scratch at home! It will be fresher, tastier, and you’ll have the pride of having done it yourself. It’s also a great way to use up any Halloween candy you might still have! Making a gingerbread house can be a great family project and maybe even the start of a new holiday tradition.
Gingerbread Houses: A Family Tradition
Our family began this tradition ourselves six years ago. We build ours on Thanksgiving morning and then eat it with friends at our annual party in December. That first year we made a simple house but each year we learned more and our creations became bigger and more complex, culminating with last year’s “Back to the Future” diorama (see photo below).
Making Your Gingerbread House
We had to learn a lot over the years before we could get to something so complex. If this is your first time, here are our tips for successful gingerbread house construction:
1. Start small. Our first gingerbread house was exactly that–a house.
2. Make your dough the night before and let it chill for at least one hour. We prefer letting it chill overnight. (Recipe below).
3. Make a model for your house out of paperboard (cereal boxes work great). Cut the shapes out and put them together to make sure your proportions are good. Once your dough is rolled out, dust it lightly with flour* and then place the pieces right on the dough and carefully cut the dough. (*so the paper doesn’t stick)
4. Try to keep all the dough a consistent thickness. Also, remember to take the thickness into consideration when creating your pieces or they might not fit together properly.
5. Don’t bake extra dough until you’ve finished baking your house pieces. If any of the house pieces happen to break out you can try again. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
6. Once you’re sure your house pieces are safe, use cookie cutters with your leftover dough to make people, animals, and vehicles. We also like cutting out letters and numbers to include our last name and the year.
7. Foundation! You’ll need something for your house to be assembled on. We usually use a large piece of cardboard or craft foam board. We have also used a large cookie sheet that was covered with foil.
8. Make the icing on the day you are assembling. Make less than you think you need as a little goes a long way. It’s easy to whip up more if you need it.
9. Have small bowls and pastry brushes (or new/clean paintbrushes) ready. Some bowls will be used for different colors of icing (a few drops of food coloring will do the trick.) Kids love painting the icing on!
10. Other bowls will be needed for decorations. This is where that leftover Halloween candy comes in handy. We usually buy a few new things, too, for specific uses. For example, last year we bought some Bubble Tape to use as the cable strung from the clock tower and gumdrops to use as the lollipop street light bases. Small candies like Smarties, M & Ms and Nerds make great roofing tiles or sidewalk pavers. Mini marshmallows stuck together can look like smoke coming out of a chimney.
11. Get the candy ready. Tootsie rolls and Laffy Taffy can be warmed up in the microwave in 5-second intervals until they become pliable enough to be easily cut and molded.
12. Canned goods to the rescue. It’s tricky getting the sides of a house to stay together while the icing (aka the “glue”) is drying. We use canned goods from the pantry placed on each side to hold things together until it dries. This also means placing some cans on the INSIDE of the house until it is dry, then removing cans and adding the roof.
13. Roof support. The roof will probably also need some support while the icing glue is drying. For this, we use more canned goods (2 cans stacked together to reach) or cracker boxes.
14. Start decorating! Once your house is assembled, let the decorating begin! Think details: roofing tiles, windows and shutters, doors and knobs, vines and shrubbery, sidewalks and pathways!
15. Finishing touches. Lastly, add your decorated gingerbread people, animals and vehicles to the outside of your house or onto the base.
Keep in mind there are no rules for what your gingerbread house needs to look like. There have been some years my children put so much candy on our gingerbread house I referred to it as the “candy house” instead. Let different family members each add their own touches to it and have fun working on this project together. If that means your end result is a sideways house with green gingerbread men and a licorice chimney, then so be it! Enjoy your very unique (and proudly homemade) gingerbread house. After all, if you wanted a cookie-cutter gingerbread house, you could have gone with that kit from the supermarket.
Gingerbread Cookie Recipe
1 cup softened butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 cups molasses
1 tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
6 cups all-purpose flour
With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.
Blend in the molasses, then beat in the eggs one at a time.
Add the cinnamon, ginger, salt, baking soda and HALF of the flour, and mix well.
Add the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough is shapeable.
Form the dough into four thick pancakes and layer them on waxed paper and refrigerate for at least one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
On a floured surface, roll the dough out to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out your shapes.
For the ends of the house, lay a pentagonal side of the cardboard frame on the dough and cut around it with the knife; repeat. You should have 4 rectangle cookie cutouts (2 sides and 2 roof pieces) as well as two pentagons (2 ends).
Place the dough on a greased cookie sheet, checking it against the pattern for accuracy. Bake the gingerbread for 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly brown.
Cool thoroughly on a wire rack.
This will make enough for one gingerbread house, with plenty left over for gingerbread men and trees.
This sticky icing is the cement for gingerbread houses. Be sure to keep a damp cloth over it, though, or it will harden in the bowl.
3 egg whites
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
With an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with 1 cup of the sugar and the cream of tartar until smooth. Add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at time. Mix until creamy and smooth.