Every year, our church sponsors several family activities. My favorite of these is called “Jammin’ Gingerbread Blast”. Families come to the church and decorate a pre-built gingerbread house. It’s messy and fun and the kids leave with the biggest sugar high of the year. This year, a record 26 families signed up. When you account for extras, that means the church needs 30 pre-assembled gingerbread houses. I was in charge of making half of them. I finished up this morning.
Since I’ve gotten pretty good at building these things, I thought I’d take today to share some tips. Above all, remember that these houses are for decoration. Just because they are technically edible, that doesn’t mean you will necessarily want to eat them. In order to be structurally sound, everything has to be hard. Also, it takes time. You’re not going to whip up some dough and have decorated houses in a couple of hours. It takes me a minimum of two days to get houses ready to decorate. With that in mind, here are my tips for hassle-free gingerbread house baking and construction.
1. When you make your gingerbread dough, use shortening instead of butter. Butter adds extra moisture, which you definitely don’t want.
2. Use a mold if you can. The edges are so much nicer if you can get a house mold. However, don’t overfill the mold. Half full is plenty. I put a blob of dough in the middle of each section and then use my rolling pin to roll the dough so it covers most of the mold. Then I use my fingers to press dough into any spaces (especially corners).
3. If you don’t have a mold, make sure your pattern pieces fit together before cutting them out of dough. You’re going to want to cut twice – once before baking and once after so you have nice straight edges.
4. Refrigerate your dough. Gingerbread is sticky. It will be so much easier to work with if you do this.
5. Turn down the temp and increase the cooking time. You WANT these pieces to be dried out.. The recipe I use calls for baking at 375* for 10-12 minutes. I bake at 325* for 12-14 minutes.
6. Let your gingerbread sit on a flat surface at least overnight. This gives the pieces plenty of time to cool completely and to dry out a bit more before you try to assemble. If you try to assemble soft gingerbread, your walls are going to bend and buckle.
7. Use a base that you can attach the house to. Cardboard works great. The pictured houses are on cake rounds, but you can use any cardboard. If you’re worried about cleanliness, wrap it in foil.
8. Make royal icing and make it thick. Royal icing has egg whites or meringue powder in it. It dries rock hard. You need it to be at least as thick as toothpaste for construction and decorating, otherwise your pieces will just slide everywhere.
9. Don’t be afraid of having visible icing. It looks like snow anyway. It’s easier to get enough icing to hold the pieces together if you aren’t concerned with a little squeezing out at the seams. You’re probably going to cover it up with candy later anyway.
10. Build the walls first, and anchor them to the board. You’re going to want to let your walls dry for at least an hour before you try to put the roof on.
11. If you’re not building en masse and you want some really ornate décor on your walls and roof panels, I’d suggest decorating them before you assemble the house. Just be sure you let the panels with the decorations dry for at least an hour (preferably more) before you try to assemble your house.
Are you going to try this? I’d love to see your finished product in my comments!