Sturdy, sweet and gorgeous

Make your gingerbread house last all season with these pro tips

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Who doesn't love a gingerbread house? They look and smell great. They evoke the magic of the holiday season and they're fun to make.

I started making gingerbread houses as a teenager with my home economics teacher mother and younger brother, and have been making them ever since. I'd like to take you through a few of the basics of gingerbread house construction I've learned over the years through trial and error, including errors resulting in a totally constructed house collapsing overnight after hours of labor.

Gingerbread has a long history. The construction of gingerbread houses can be traced back to Germany in the 16th century. Gingerbread houses, a lebkuchenhaeusle in German, truly entered popular culture in the early 19th century after the publication of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale, "Hansel and Gretel."

If you're like me, you may only vaguely remember the details of Hansel and Gretel's plot line. A summary starts against the backdrop of a terrible famine in Germany, during which Hansel and Gretel are being raised by their woodcutter father and an abusive stepmother. The stepmother poses a scheme to the woodcutter to lose the children, and their extra mouths to feed, deep in the surrounding woods. She browbeats him until he relents, and the young children are eventually left alone deep in the woods. While wandering alone, lost in the woods, the nearly starving children discover a beautiful gingerbread house covered with delectable sweets. However, this seductive gingerbread house is a clever trap, constructed by a witch to lure young children, so she can catch them and roast the tender little darlings in her oven for dinner.

From a 21st-century perspective, I'm not sure how this plainly horrifying old German folktale fits the definition of a fairy tale intended for children, except Hansel and Gretel are happily reunited with their loving, however weak-willed, father after Gretel kicks the cannibalistic witch into the hot oven intended for the children. Somehow out of this dark tale of famine, death and deceit, is the much more palatable vision of a magical gingerbread house, elaborately decorated with sweets and icing, which has endured as one of our joyous symbols of the holiday season.

Almost 30 years ago, I was awarded first place in the professional division of the first gingerbread house contest put on by the Lenox Chamber of Commerce. Today, I don't compete in much of anything and stick to making a gingerbread house similar to the one I helped my mother make with a few upgrades. All elements of a gingerbread house should be technically edible, save some special lighting. To ensure against the agony of a collapsing gingerbread house made to be displayed for a few weeks, this gingerbread recipe is intended to be more concrete than cookie.

GINGERBREAD FOR GINGERBREAD HOUSES

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup shortening

1 cup molasses

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon powdered ginger

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 cups flour (approximately)

DIRECTIONS:

Combine shortening, sugar and molasses in a pot and gradually bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and stir in the cinnamon, ginger, baking soda and salt. Gradually stir in flour one cup at a time until the dough is stiff, but still pliable. Roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick. Chill the dough for at least a half hour. Cut shapes and bake chilled dough shapes at 300 degrees F for 30 minutes.

ITALIAN MERINGUE

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

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1/3 cup water

Room temperature egg whites from 5 large eggs

DIRECTIONS:

Combine the sugar with the water in a saucepan over medium heat while stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Let the sugar boil while not stirring and using a pastry brush dipped in water to wash down any crystals that form on the side of the pan. Remove from the heat at the softball stage or at 240 degrees F using a candy thermometer. Meanwhile, have the egg whites ready to whip in a large, clean, dry bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.

When the syrup has almost reached the correct temperature, whisk the egg whites on high speed until foamy. Slowly stream the hot syrup down the side of the bowl into the egg whites with the mixer running on high speed. Continue to whisk at high speed until the meringue forms soft peaks and the bowl feels slightly warm. The meringue is done when you lift up the whisk and the meringue holds its shape and is still warm. Be careful not to overbeat.

ROYAL ICING

INGREDIENTS:

Room temperature egg whites from 4 eggs or 3 ounces pasteurized egg whites

1 teaspoon lemon juice

4 cups confectioner's sugar

DIRECTIONS:

In a large bowl of a stand mixer fitted the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites with the lemon juice and whisk on high speed until frothy. On low speed gradually add the confectioner's sugar until all the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is shiny. Turn the speed up to high until the mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. The icing will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Tips for success

- Make sure your work area is clean, organized and you have all ingredients and tools collected and ready to use before starting any recipe or construction of the house. In a professional kitchen, this is called mise en place or French for "everything in its place."

- Make a pattern out of cardboard for the house. There are many patterns available online or make your own. My present pattern is 8 1/2 inches long by 5 1/2 inches wide by 8 1/2 inches high as it fits nicely on a sheet pan covered with foil on a little table we have for presentation. These recipes provide more than enough for a house this size.

- After the gingerbread comes out of the oven, it may be necessary to recut the shapes using the patterns as a guide. Square edges help in the construction. Recut quickly with a sharp knife while the dough is still warm.

- After the dough has thoroughly cooled, decorate the walls of the house before putting the house together using royal icing, both as glue for candies and to pipe on decoration.

- Glue the pieces of the house together with royal icing. Don't be too concerned with excess icing oozing from between the pieces. All "blemishes" can be covered with icing or candy when you finish decorating.

- Quickly spread the just-made Italian meringue first on the rooftop, forming icicles around the edges as you go from top to bottom. You can form awesome icicles with this meringue! Spread the remaining meringue around the house. Place candies on the rooftop meringue while it's still soft, but sufficiently cool so it doesn't melt the candy.

- Gelatin sheets make great windowpanes and are especially effective if you place a small string of Christmas lights in the house.

- Be creative and have fun!


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