Kitchen construction from Spoonful
I knew going in that making a gingerbread house with kids could turn into a disaster.
The task could take up the entire weekend, the kitchen could turn into a sticky mess--maybe even cave in. So, in the days leading up to making the house with eight-year-old Hannah and five-year-old Rachel, I did everything I could to ensure the process went smoothly.
I started with a shoe-box frame to support the walls and baked all the gingerbread. I even sketched a preliminary design of how I wanted the house to look, complete with shoestring licorice windows, a caramel chimney and candy flowers in the window boxes.
But when I invited the girls to start decorating and showed them my sketch, I discovered they had other ideas. They covered every inch of the house with as much candy as it would hold. For a finishing touch, the girls poured blue crystal sugar over the whole thing.
After cleaning up the mess and wondering what happened to my miniature dream home, I realized I had missed the point. It didn't matter whether the doors and windows were in the right places or if the house would win a contest at the gourmet shop. What mattered was that the girls enjoyed building their house. In fact, they were ecstatic.
"I wish my real house was made of candy, like this one," Hannah said.
Most gingerbread houses are made by balancing a roof and four cookie walls with your fingertips, then attaching them with Royal Icing, a frosting that acts like cement when it hardens.
To avoid this balancing act, I built a cardboard inner house out of a shoe box and attached the cookies to it. (Yes, you can still nibble on the house--just peel off the cookies and candies from the shoe box.)
The shoe box, turned upside down, will be the base of the house. But first, trace around one of the longer sides of the box onto a piece of graph paper and carefully cut along the lines to make the pattern for the roof.
Next, trace the graph-paper pattern three times onto a piece of lightweight cardboard and cut the pieces out. Tape the long side of one cardboard cutout along the top of the overturned box; repeat with the other on the opposite side of the box. (Save the last piece to use as a template for cutting out the gingerbread dough.)
Finally, tape the top edges of the cutouts together to form the triangular roof.
Make sure the shoe box isn't too large. I tried a box from a pair of men's soccer cleats and the proportion of the roof pitch to the house was way off. A box from children's or women's footwear is ideal. For a lightweight cardboard roof, I used an empty pizza box--but the back of a notepad works, too.
With an electric mixer, cream the margarine or butter and sugar until fluffy. Blend in the molasses, then beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the cinnamon, ginger, salt, baking soda and half the flour, and mix well. Then add the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough is shapeable. Form the dough into four thick pancakes then layer them on waxed paper and refrigerate for at least one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Dust the cardboard template you made earlier with flour so it won't stick to the dough. Place it on the dough and trace around it with a sharp knife; repeat four times.
For the ends of the house, lay a pentagonal side of the cardboard frame on the dough and cut around it with the knife; repeat. You should have 4 rectangle cookie cutouts (2 sides and 2 roof pieces) as well as two pentagons (2 ends).
Place the dough on a greased cookie sheet, checking it against the pattern for accuracy. Bake the gingerbread for 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly brown. Cool thoroughly on a wire rack. This will make enough for one gingerbread house, with plenty left over for gingerbread men and trees.
To make the project more manageable, bake the cookies the night before you plan to assemble and decorate the house. It will save you time if you have the kids help you mix up the dough. Then you can cut out the cookies after they have gone to sleep (the cutting requires precision).
This sticky icing is the cement for gingerbread houses. Be sure to keep a damp cloth over it, though, or it will harden in the bowl.
In an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with 1 cup of the sugar and the cream of tartar until smooth. Add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at time. Mix until creamy and smooth.
If you plan to eat your cookie house and are concerned about raw eggs, substitute 2 tablespoons water and 2 teaspoons Wilton meringue powder (available at stores that sell cake-decorating supplies) for each egg white.
Once the gingerbread has cooled, you can begin to assemble your house.
Place your cardboard frame on a clean work area and lay your gingerbread beside it. Spread the icing on the back of one piece of gingerbread and place it on a matching side of the cardboard house. Hold it in place for at least 1 minute, or until the frosting dries. Cover the remaining sides of the box with the cookie pieces.
Be sure the kids hold the cookie sides in place for at least a minute, or they won't line up. My kids had trouble with this step because they were so excited to decorate the house with candy. You may want to hide the candy until this step is complete, or risk having a lopsided house.
Now for the fun: Lay out hard candies, licorice sticks, pretzels, gum and other sweets, and help your kids plan a design.
Next, fill a pastry bag fitted with a writing tip with icing. If you don't have a pastry bag, use a zip-top baggie with a tiny hole cut out of one corner. Pipe the icing into the gaps between the cookies and decorate with mini candies.
Let your kids spread the back of the other candies with icing and attach them to the house or pipe on garlands, wreaths and windowpanes with the bag of icing. Once you've finished decorating your house, place it on a large piece of cardboard covered with tinfoil. Then decorate the outside with a walkway, fence and winter landscape. Display for all to see (and nibble on).
I made the mistake of buying too much candy. The kids wanted to pile it all on and they ate far too much--plus it was expensive. Buy small bags of candy or buy it by the pound. You don't need a large quantity; variety is the key.