It’s the season for cookie casseroles, candy canes, and gingerbread houses topped with peppermints and gummy candies.
Few things are more festive than a cute little gingerbread house or a fancy gingerbread mansion. The construction of a gingerbread house not only requires baking and decorating skills in many ways, but also technical building know-how.
“I always recommend starting small when it’s your first gingerbread house,” says Tracie Gotshall, a professor of baking and pastry at the Lancaster County Career & Technology Center, Mount Joy Campus.
That means the cute little cottage may be a better choice than something more ambitious like Gotshall’s own authentic model of the Dutch wonderland castle.
“Duplicating an existing building is far more difficult than building your own,” she says.
To get started, you need a plan. You can make a template of your gingerbread house with cardboard from a cereal box or something similar. Determine the size of each panel and roof. You can even “pre-build” it with the cardboard panels.
After you’ve baked the gingerbread, you’ll want to cut the gingerbread to match your template. Gotshall recommends cutting the pieces while they are still warm so that they don’t crumble. You want clear, clean lines. You can bake the gingerbread a day or two in advance to make sure it’s nice and tough. Do not try to cut it after it has hardened.
The gingerbread recipe is more for a crispy gingerbread than a soft, cake-like gingerbread. The secret is to avoid eggs in the recipe, as eggs tend to make it too fluffy to use in building.
“It’s more like a gingerbread and lasts for weeks,” says Gotshall, in case you want to eat your creation later.
To hold your gingerbread sheets together, you will need “mortar”. That would be royal icing, which doesn’t contain fat like butter. A buttery frosting will slide off instantly and your house will collapse.
Royal icing is made from egg whites that are whipped until fluffy. The recipe calls for powdered sugar and egg white. It will be soupy at first, but if whipped thoroughly it will work better.
“It seems pretty runny, but when it dries it’s rock solid,” says Gotshall.
You can prop up the pieces with soup cans or similar objects until they are dry. Once your gingerbread house is ready, it’s time to decorate. Make sure you decorate it before the royal glaze is too hard or the candy decorations don’t set.
When building gingerbread houses with kids, it is best to use royal icing made from meringue powder instead of egg white. Children often lick each other’s fingers, and raw eggs are at risk of developing salmonella. Once the royal frosting dries, that risk disappears as the bacteria cannot live. During the building process, it is important to wash your hands and keep your hands away from your mouth when using raw egg whites.
“The meringue powder is a safer and easier option, especially when children are involved,” says Gotshall.
The decorations can vary depending on whether you’re building a rustic gingerbread house or something more elegant. Gotshall likes to use candy-coated sunflower seeds that look like Christmas lights. Gelatin sheets make up country house windows. Candy decorations can include peppermint gums, marshmallows, caramels, spearmint trees, coated candies, crushed wheat cereals, waffle candies, and candy canes.
Linda Leeking, cooking and baking teacher for Zest! Cooking school, suggests pre-cut, pre-cut window and door patterns are helpful for doing projects with children. These pre-cut gingerbread house pieces can be purchased in the Zest! Shop in downtown Lititz.
Leeking is a retired teacher in the Family and Consumer Science Department in the Warwick School District and has been to Zest! for four years. In her advanced cooking class at Warwick High School, students made models out of cardboard and then used the cardboard to cut out the rolled gingerbread cookies, she says.
“All of this has to be done on a sheet pan because you can’t lift the gingerbread without deforming the pieces after cutting,” says Leeking.
Beginners may want to start with gingerbread house kits, but they can get more ambitious as they gain experience. Leeking suggests buying a book like Gingerbread for All Seasons by Teresa Layman.
Gingerbread projects are fun for the whole family, says Leeking, who started gingerbread house projects with her grandchildren when she was 2 years old.