Is there anything that speaks to our inner childhood fantasies more than the gingerbread house? It’s a house made of cookie dough that’s covered with icing and candy.
About the only disappointing thing is that these goodies usually are for show, not for eating.
But Kristine Samuell, author of A Year of Gingerbread Houses (Lark Crafts), quashes that myth: Gingerbread houses, especially the candy, are made for eating, she said.
“Most of mine I don’t eat, but I give a lot away to friends and they do get eaten,” Samuell says.
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If you are giving one away, make sure it’s all completely edible, she suggests.
“Dogs in particular find gingerbread irresistible,” she says. “I’ve made hundreds and hundreds over the years, and I can’t count the number of people who’ve said the dog ate it when they were out.”
Samuell’s new book has great tips for creating your holiday masterpiece. One tip that you might find surprising: There is nothing wrong with starting with a standard gingerbread house kit from the store.
“Factory-made houses tend to be quite sturdy and can withstand mountains of candy,” she says. (Which is good if your little helpers are the kind to eat a piece off the house now and then.)
But ditch the premade icing that comes with it, Samuell suggests, in favor of making your own royal icing.
“That stuff you get in the kit is impossible; it’s like squeezing clay through a tube, and it doesn’t usually dry,” she says. “But you can really make a nice house with a kit and doctor it up.”
The number one problem with gingerbread houses is finding a recipe that makes good, hard gingerbread that’s suitable for construction.
Samuell’s book has a recipe for hard gingerbread for construction and a recipe for softer gingersnap cookies that can be spiced up with fresh ginger.
But, as Samuell says, “Most people don’t eat the gingerbread anyway; they eat the candy.”
And the candy that comes the kits is pretty unimaginative, so take a trip to the candy aisle to dress things up.
Not just for Christmas
The candy is partly what got Samuell to bust another gingerbread house myth: that they are only for Christmas. She likes to make them for for Halloween, Easter, Valentine’s Day and birthdays.
“I’ve done houses the year ’round because I run out of time at Christmas, or I see the pretty candy, and that gets me going,” she says.
Samuell suggests that, if possible, you decorate the walls of your house before you assemble it because it can be hard to pipe icing on vertical walls.
If you don’t have gingerbread, you can make a house out of graham crackers. Samuell suggests doubling up on the crackers and gluing two together with icing to increase the strength of a tiny house. Or make a big one with graham crackers by “gluing” the crackers to a cardboard box, cut in the shape you like, with royal icing.
Any crackers iced to the cardboard shouldn’t be eaten, “but all of the candy is fair game,” she says.
You can even make just a gingerbread façade by decorating the front and bracing it against cardboard triangles.
Make sure your house is built on a strong base, such as a cutting board or an upside-down pie pan or cake pan. You can make a house look larger by putting it on a small base. Samuell recommends using an overturned plate or platter to give some height, and covering the curve with icing grass, snow or candy.
If you want your house to have interior lighting, you might want to use a cardboard base with an access hole, in which case you’ll want to cover the cardboard with heavy-duty foil, held down with strong clear packing tape. Samuell’s book includes step-by-step instructions for how to make a sturdy base.
Build it to last all season
Take your time with your house, especially if you’re starting from scratch. Making a gingerbread house almost always takes at least two days because the icing has to dry after each step.
Samuell recommends bracing the walls with squares of rice cereal treats, which can be bought in sheets.
“You can press them together and make anything,” she says. “Or you can do a great big one and stack it, and decorate it like a house. Which is also great for someone who is gluten-intolerant.”
And if the house is big, brace the roof, too, with extra supports. To put the whole thing together, you either need extra hands or items to brace the walls. Samuell suggests cans of food, coffee cups or jars. Cover them with towels to brace the decorated sides gently. Samuell also recommends using lots of royal icing inside the house (where it won’t show) to keep pieces stuck together. And if a piece breaks, it can be repaired with extra supports on the back and more royal icing.
Only limits: Imagination and weight
When it comes to decorating, your house can be as simple or as fancy as you like. And think creatively.
For instance, for chimneys, Samuell uses gray, black and brown jelly beans to give the look of stones. Or use chocolate covered raisins. Cinnamon sticks make great “logs” stacked up like firewood.
Craft shops have a variety of impression mats, molds and cutters that can help you add wood-grain or cobblestone textures to dough, fondant or pastillage (hard, candy-like icing.) Use icing tips to press holes and make lacy gingerbread fences.
Samuell’s creations often have beautiful white piped tracery on them, and to do this, the wall pieces have to be flat. But if your house is going to be decorated by children, you might want to put the whole thing together beforehand so it has time to dry completely.
Samuell recommends using colored fondant to make decorations for the houses, or cookies if you don’t have the patience to color, cut and paste. Fondant tinted brown and gray can be rolled into rocks that kids love to eat, she says.
Roofs are best decorated once they are on the house, Samuell says. Want it to took like a log roof? Try long, thick pretzel sticks. For roof tiles, use anything lightweight and small, such as Smarties or gumdrops, or candy hearts.
For three-dimensional Christmas trees, Samuell likes to use sugar ice cream cones; for bigger trees, add more cones.
For more ideas, check out her blog, GingerbreadJournal.com.
Need more hands-on help?
Wild Thyme Cooking School, 1060 Chinoe Road, has parent and child gingerbread house classes for $35.
“Typically we have them assembled, so the royal icing has time to set, and we focus on the decorating,” owner-chef Allison Davis said. The kids get to decorate the houses and complete a craft and get hot chocolate.
Looking for something even simpler for younger hands? Wild Thyme also has Cookies with Mrs. Claus sessions, featuring cookie decoration, hot chocolate and a story from Mrs. Claus. That class also is $35.
Call 859-523-2665 for more information.
From A Year of Gingerbread Houses by Kristine Samuell
5 tablespoons meringue powder
1/2 to 2/3 cup water (4+ ounces)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (added for acidity; taste will be unnoticeable) or 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 pound bag of powdered sugar (about 8 cups)
2 teaspoons peppermint extract of other flavored extract (no oil-based flavorings, only extracts)
Combine the meringue powder, water, and lemon juice (or cream of tartar). Mix until the meringue powder dissolves completely. Gradually add the powdered sugar on slow speed.
Beat the icing on medium speed for 2 to 4 minutes, scraping the sides occasionally until the icing is bright white, light and fluffy. Add extract. Cover with a damp cloth.
You can thicken with more powdered sugar or thin with a little water to change the consistency to suit the type of piping you want to put on your house. Use thick icing to stick pieces together. You can color it with paste or gel food coloring.