Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gingerbread House How-To

So, every year we make a gingerbread house, and every year I turn to my binder of recipes and first see this Gingerbread House nightmare recipe from a woman who is trying to be reassuring about the difficulty of making a GH, and then says you have to be prepared, have 4-5 batches of icing ready, and set aside the entire weekend. And then she includes a picture of her finished house.
Um, no thank you. If it really was that much work, to make something that looked that bad, I would never make one. So here is my recipe and my tips on making a gingerbread house. I won't pretend our finished house is brilliant, but I think it's pretty cute and it only took an evening.
First you need a couple of helpers standing on a chair, blocking your access to measuring cups, baking sheets, and anything else you might need handy. It helps if they have cute helper poses.
Gingerbread recipe
5 cups flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 eggs
Combine first 6 ingredients in large bowl and set aside. In mixer bowl, beat shortening and sugar until creamy. Add the molasses and eggs and beat until well combined. Slowly mix in flour mixture until smooth dough forms. Divide into 3 balls. Roll out dough on foil lined cookie sheets, cut out your pieces, and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. Cool on sheets slightly, then move foil to cooling racks to cool completely.
I've made this every year for the last 3 0r 4 year and it has worked every time. In my Kitchenaid, the dough didn't really come together, but I dumped it out and kneaded it and it was just fine. Now, I don't ever eat this gingerbread, so I'm not really shooting for taste in this recipe. I'm mainly extolling its virtue for ease of use, good smell and sturdiness. Chloe thought it tasted really bad. I couldn't get Addie to stop eating the dough. She may look like it tastes bad in this picture, but let me assure you, she loved it.
To roll out the dough, I line my cookie sheets with foil. It makes removing the pieces so much easier, and it enables you to do stained glass windows. Basically, roll out each ball of dough to about 1/4-1/8 inch thickness. If you roll it out in a jelly roll pan, or lipped cookie sheet, your rolling pin will naturally rest on the edges of the pan ensuring that your dough is evenly rolled out and of a uniform thickness. Cut out two large pieces from each roll out, ie 2 walls, two roofs, one back and one front. Make sure that you leave space between each piece as you cut or they will take longer to cook and might not separate easily. After cutting, remove any excess dough. I didn't use a pattern, just cut out 5 x 4 inch walls, 4 x 5 x 3 inch front and back, and 4x7 inch roof pieces. You can find lots of patterns online, or just come up with something on your own. Just make sure the sides of the walls match up, and that the roof is big enough with some overhang. I then cut a door out of the front piece, and used a small cookie cutter to cut windows out.
If you want to do stained glass windows, just fill each window with broken hard candy pieces, or even whole hard candies. When you bake the pieces, the candy will magically melt. After the pieces have cooled, you can just peel them right off the foil and the windows will stay intact. If you don't use foil, you will not be able to get the candy off your cookie sheet and will have to soak it in the sink forever and start the whole project over. I then gather all the scraps, roll them out again, and cut out trees and snowmen, a chimney, and any other decorations I want. The dough will still seem a little soft when you remove it from the oven, but it is a good, dense gingerbread, and it will be plenty sturdy.
Icing glue
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
Beat egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Gradually add in sugar and beat until combined. Fill pastry bags and keep remainder covered tightly with saran wrap or a wet cloth until ready to use. If you're planning on eating this and are concerned about salmonella (ignoring the dust and spider webs that often accumulate throughout the month) use powdered egg whites instead of fresh.
This stuff sets up like a rock, and quickly, so you don't want to leave any you're not immediately using exposed to air. Most recipes call for only 3 1/2 cups of sugar, but I think that's way too runny and I don't want to have to wait for it to set up. This recipe works really well for me, and gives me just the right amount of time to set up and decorate the house.
Usually I use a piece of cardboard covered in foil. This year I used my nice cake plate. Which will have to sit in the sink for days after Christmas is over in order to soak all the icing off of it. Not my best idea. It's good to use something disposable so if you want to destroy it with a hammer or maybe fireworks, or even just throw it away, you can.
Anyway, decide where you want your house to sit, then pick a wall piece and pipe a good amount of icing along the bottom. Try to stick it to the base, but don't worry if it falls over. Do the same to an adjoining piece, but add another heavy bead down the joint. Stick it to the base and hold the two sides together until it sets. Add more frosting to seal the joint. Repeat with remaining side pieces. Once they are all connected and stable, let it set for a few minutes. Then add the roof. Fill in any gaps with icing. Let the house set up undisturbed while you distract the kids from touching it by filling bowls with candy and telling them not to eat them yet.
Once the icing you glued the house together with feels firm to the touch, start decorating. It seriously will set up within minutes, and you won't have to worry about the house collapsing as soon as you slap the first m&m on.
And here's our finished product. I think it's pretty cute, and only took about 3 hours start to finish. I love the necco wafer roof, though frosted mini wheats are cute, too, and I've heard good things about golden grahams. I usually add the chimney after the rest of the roof decoration is on. As far as candy options go, we always use necco wafers, m&m's, gumdrops, candy canes, licorice all sorts, and a variety of boiled sweets. And a warning, if you live in CA or somewhere else humid, you will lose various pieces of candy off your house throughout the holidays. The hard candies tend to go first, so if you're not concerned about edibilty, try some hot glue.


kimberly said...

Verrrrry cute...I love it! Thanks for sharing your recipe and tips!

Tanja said...

Oh my Martha! You've really outdone yourself. I did the lazy mom routine and got a nasty $10 kit from Walmart. Yours is, I must say, the most adorable GH I've EVER seen...I'm serious about that.

The Mills Family said...

I was watching the Food Network Gingerbread House Lady and she had a cute idea to use ice cream sugar cones for trees. She used green icing and then added the candy or ornaments. It was a cute idea.

It's a beautiful house as always.
Good work!

Sandy said...

That turned out really cute! We cheat and do the huge gingerbread house kit(pre-made pieces, sacks of pre-made frosting and little baggies of coordinated candy...)my mom sends us every year. It is currently stuck at a Salt Lake City UPS warehouse on account of bad weather...anyway...your house looks awesome, and it looks like everyone had a great time making it! I have to say, though, that in that last picture of the kids and your DH around the table, it looks like the position Chloe is sitting in would hurt...a lot...flexible kid, eh?:)