Monday, December 16, 2013

How to build a kid-friendly gingerbread house

When I was a kid, I remember making gingerbread houses with my mom. Unfortunately what I remember the most clearly is our gingerbread houses collapsing. It seems like our roofs were always caving in! Maybe we made ten sturdy gingerbread houses and only one that collapsed, but all that withstood the test of time in my brain is the one that collapsed. Sorry, Mom!

Because of that, building a gingerbread house has always seemed a little daunting to me, but I've used the same process a few years in a row now and not a single house has collapsed (not even in the humidity of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where we built a few of these houses back in 2011).

My favorite recipe and template comes from Simply Recipes. I've added some ground pepper to the recipe to give the dough a bit more spice (we always make cookies out of the leftover dough) but other than that, I follow her recipe exactly.

Our Simply Recipes template cut out and ready to use.

Here are a few notes on what has worked for us:
  1. I double the recipe. One recipe will make two houses, but you have to use every single scrap and re-roll it a few times to get all of the pieces cut. Instead, I make a double batch and then use the scraps to make cookies. Unlike pie dough or a more delicate cookie dough, this dough doesn't get tough and inedible with multiple rollings.
  2. I use parchment paper under the house pieces while I cut and bake them, as Elise at Simply Recipes suggests. It's amazing how much more square a gingerbread house can be when the raw dough pieces don't shift and stretch as you move them from the cutting board to the baking sheet! When we cut the pieces, we do it on a cutting board and push down hard so that the knife can go through the parchment paper. Then we slide the parchment-backed walls and roof pieces right onto the baking sheets.
  3. Since the walls and roof pieces always get a little out of shape and rounded while baking, after they finish baking and while they're still hot, I lay the template on top of them and use a serrated knife to trim the edges. This gives me uniform, square pieces to work with. Then I let them cool, preferably overnight, before building the houses.
  4. For icing bags, I've had just as much success in the past using a ziplock bag filled with icing and a tiny bit of the corner cut off as I have with real icing bags. The ziplock bags are actually a little easier since my kids can't seem to keep from squeezing icing out of the top of a real icing bag. (If we're using real icing bags, I fold the tops over and secure them with a rubber band to keep them closed.)
  5. My kids like landscaping around their houses as much as they enjoy decorating the houses themselves, so I make sure to cut out cardboard pieces big enough to for a yard, then we wrap the cardboard in aluminum foil before gluing the walls to the foil as we build the houses. 
  6. As we put together the houses this year, I used a rubber band around the four walls to keep them together while the royal icing dried. I've used the melted sugar technique before, but prefer royal icing. Melted sugar is a bit too scary for me and my blood pressure rises as I stress out about whether or not I can put the pieces together before the sugar hardens. It does work, it's just not my favorite way to put together a house.
  7. Once the houses have their four walls up, I give them at least half an hour to set before putting on the roof. Finding a small jar or something similar to prop up the roof as it dries helps keep it in place.
  8. For the chimney, in the past I edge-glue all four pieces together, leaving a hollow center like a real chimney. This was never quick or easy. This year I figured out that I could sandwich together the two angled pieces and then glue the short and long pieces right along the edge of that sandwich. There's no need for the chimney to be hollow, and all of the seams end up covered in decorations anyway.
  9. For decorations, in the past we've used both leftover Halloween candy (stashed away just for the houses) and candy bought just for the houses. I also let my kids raid the pantry. They love to use nuts, dried beans, cereal, grains, lentils, and pretzels to decorate their houses.
  10. Lastly, gingerbread houses are time consuming and so I make the dough, bake, and build them over the course of a few days. I try to do most of the baking and cutting either by myself or with just one kid at a time. Once the decorating starts, they don't need my help anymore. They're pretty good at wrangling the icing bags without me. But if they tried to build the houses without me, it would be a disaster. I'm happy to do that for them – slowly and without them trying to rush the process.
Red lentils for the pathway.

Diagonal pretzels for siding.

Almond and marshmallow walkway, with a little pond out of blue sprinkles.

Almond chimney and Chex shingles.

Dried cannellini beans for stonework.

The gingerbread girl chilling outside her house!

1 comment:

  1. Your story sounds so similar to mine. As we've been making our gingerbread houses for almost 20 years (I can't believe I waited a few years to buy a mixer), my husband finally started to trim the pieces with a saw to get the same clean edges you talk about. Too funny


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