Ever wondered how the prettily decorated gingerbread house takes shape? If you want expert advice from someone who has been making them for many years, read on. This Entry has all that you need to know!
These are top tips on how to make a successful gingerbread house.
Before you Start
Find a recipe, with dimensions for the templates, in a book at the library or on the internet (that's the easy bit). To give you an idea of quantities, the recipe I use requires three egg yolks, which is useful because I then have three egg whites for making the royal icing.
Make templates out of card. Cereal boxes are good because you can use the shiny side against the dough, which will stick to the plain side. If you think you are going to do this for several years, cover the templates with sticky-backed plastic to make them wipe clean. I've only just got around to making myself a wipe-clean set, 20 years after my first gingerbread house ...
First Stage, Day One: Make and Bake the Gingerbread
The dough will be sticky because it's sugary. So roll it out between two pieces of greaseproof paper. The thinner you roll it, the harder it will be when baked, which improves its resistance to being squished by children applying sweets; but the house itself is, in my view, easier to assemble and more stable if you roll it out thicker – say half a centimetre – plus it's nicer to eat. The chances are high that all the pieces will be different thicknesses anyway, which is part of the charm of a homemade gingerbread house.
When you start to cut the pieces, if you find the cardboard templates are sticking to the dough, put greaseproof between the dough and the template, and mark around the template with a blunt knife. If you're careful, you won't cut the greaseproof, just crease it, but it will leave enough of a mark underneath to show you the shape to cut.
You can also cut the dough using a ruler and knife and not bother with templates – which is what I did the first time. The only really tricky bit, doing it this way, is positioning the windows.
When you cut out the windows and door, lift the pieces carefully out of the holes. The door you will use as a door, the windows can be cut in half to make shutters.
You will need baking sheets lined with greaseproof or parchment for baking. You can keep re-using the paper.
You will be baking two sides, two ends, two roof pieces, and bits for chimney/doors/shutters – these last are small bits that you can fit onto a baking sheet wherever there's space, but unless you have a very large oven and very large baking sheets you probably won't be able to bake all the pieces at once. Each piece of gingerbread takes about 10 minutes to cook, and then you need to leave it on the sheet until it's cooled so that it's hardened off a bit, before you lift it onto a cooling rack. (You may need extra cooling racks, I have three). It's possible to roll out and cut one piece while the previous one is in the oven and the one before that is cooling, so you get a production line going. You need to be free from interruptions and distractions to do this.
Let all the gingerbread cool off and harden off overnight.
Second Stage, Day Two: Build your House
The next evening, make up some royal icing. Don't add glycerine at this stage; you want it to go rock hard when it dries because it will be holding the whole gingerbread house together.
Use lots of royal icing to glue the house walls to whatever cake base you're using (you may need to buy a large one), to glue the walls to each other, and to glue the roof in place. Don't worry if the edges look messy, you'll be sorting that out tomorrow evening.
Find LOTS of DVDs and stack these around the outside of the house to hold the walls up, and the roof in place, while it dries. Glue the chimney pieces together but don't fix them in position and don't fix the shutters or door in place.
Leave overnight well away from pets and early-rising small children1. Cover the royal icing and put it in a cool place.
Third Stage, Day Three: Apply the Icing Decoration
The next evening, glue the door and shutters in place. Glue the chimney in position. Add some glycerine to the royal icing and beat well.
Use the icing with a star or shell nozzle to pipe along all the joins and all around the base, covering up the mess you made yesterday and making it look fantastically professional. Go mad on this bit; it makes it look super-impressive – one year I made lattice windows but the icing needs to be exactly the right consistency for this to work. Let the whole thing dry off overnight.
Final Stage, Day Four: Decorate with Sweets
Divide lots of little sweets (jelly tots, smarties and dolly mixtures are good) among bowls sufficient for the children decorating the cake. Divide the icing into bowls. You can add a teaspoon in the hope that the children will use this, rather than their fingers, to apply the icing. Agree with the children who is applying sweets to which part of the house. (Our split is 2 x side and end, and one person does the roof, and they have some weird system I don't understand for rotating who gets what – including the end with the door – each year). If you sort all of this out before you start, there will be far fewer arguments – possibly even none.
Make sure the children don't press too hard when applying the sweets, but otherwise let them get on with it, reminding them not to lick their fingers!
It is possible to assemble the gingerbread house and do the piping and decorate it with sweets all in one day. But you must bake the gingerbread itself in advance, and you really won't have much time for anything else if you do it all in one day. This is why I spread the process over several evenings; it gives a better finished structure. You can also make the dough, cut it out and freeze the uncooked pieces, which if you do it several weeks in advance for example, spreads the effort quite a bit.
I really wouldn't involve the children before the sweetie decoration activity. Quite apart from anything else, the language can get quite fruity during the assembly stage. And if you lose concentration while you're baking, the gingerbread burns really quickly, and you won't have enough dough to make a replacement section. Plus, children aren't very good at waiting, and there's an awful lot of waiting in making a gingerbread house.
In our house we have developed several traditions around the gingerbread house:
- The sweetie-sticking is done on Christmas Eve afternoon, when all the deliveries are done, I'm baking the mince pies, we've got 'Norad Tracks Santa' up on the laptop, and there's a pleasant sense of anticipation in the house.
- Anybody who visits while we're doing this is invited to join in.
- The gingerbread house remains uneaten throughout Christmas, so that all the effort we made gets lots of admiration.
The children smash up the gingerbread house using rolling pins, meat mallets etc (each child chooses their own weapon) on New Year's Day (our best friends usually bring their children over to join in with this, or we stick the gingerbread house in the boot and take it over to them - it travels reasonably well.)
Nobody actually eats it. I put all the bits in tubs and take them into the office. But we've been doing it so long that it wouldn't be Christmas without the gingerbread house.
Editor's note: The photograph illustration, courtesy of kelli, is of a gingerbread house made by following this advice, so it proves just how useful this first-hand knowledge has been!