My First Gingerbread House

A holiday cooking idea for kids from FamilyFun magazine

by Ken Haedrich
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Building a gingerbread house is every child's fantasy--and a project parents may shy away from because it seems so involved. Looks can be deceiving. While you certainly can't knock out a gingerbread house in an hour, there's really nothing difficult about making one. First, you prepare the dough and make cardboard templates (this one's built onto a six-pack cardboard soda carrier, so it's easier than usual). Next, you roll and bake the gingerbread. Then you're ready for the best part: assembling and decorating the house.

For a gingerbread house like this one, make 2 separate batches of dough (don't double this recipe, as it will be too difficult to mix) and chill the dough for 4 to 5 hours. This will ensure you have enough for the project and some left over for making gingerbread men and other cutout cookies you can eat. (Note: the house itself is not edible, because the Royal Icing used to decorate it contains raw egg whites.)

HOUSE INGREDIENTS

5 cups or more bleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 cup molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Sift 3 cups of the flour into a large mixing bowl. Combine 2 more cups of flour and the baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in the sifter and sift the mixture into the bowl as well. Stir briefly, then set aside the bowl.

2. In another large mixing bowl, beat the butter, brown sugar, and egg until fluffy. Measure the molasses in an oiled glass measuring cup, then pour it in with the butter mixture and beat until evenly blended. Blend in the vanilla extract.

3. Using a wooden spoon, stir the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture 1 cup at a time. Your child may need help with the last few additions, as the dough will be hard to stir. In the end, the dough should be firm but not crumbly. If it's not stiff enough, stir in up to an additional half cup of flour.

4. Divide the dough in half. Place each half in a large ziplock bag, then flatten the dough into a thick, rectangular pancake. Seal the bags and refrigerate them for at least 4 hours. Make the second batch of dough. Wrap and chill it as well.

While the dough chills, help your child trace the soda carton onto thin cardboard. First, trace a long side to create a template to use for the front and back of the house, making it as long as the carton but 1/4 inch less high. Then trace an end to make a template for the peaked sides of the house, as shown--use a ruler to draw diagonal lines from the top corners of the side panel to the top of the carton handle.

Finally, cut out 2 cardboard pieces for the roof, making each one 2 inches wider than the carton and 1 inch longer than the length from the top of the handle to the top of the front wall. Tape the roof pieces together lengthwise, leaving a slight gap between them.

When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 350°. Line a large cookie sheet (one with at least 2 open sides) with aluminum foil and dust it lightly with flour. Set it on a flat surface atop a dampened tea towel to keep it from sliding. Place a dough disk in the center of the foil, dust the top with flour, and roll it out evenly into a 1/4-inch-thick rectangle.

Place the taped roof templates atop the dough and cut around them. Remove the excess dough, then wrap and chill it to use later. Mark the roof center (where the taped edges meet) and cut the dough in half to make 2 roof sections.

Bake the gingerbread on the center oven rack for 15 minutes, then transfer the cookie sheet to a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife down the center of the gingerbread to separate the pieces (they'll have baked together). Lift gently on the foil and slide it and the gingerbread onto the rack to cool 10 minutes more. Carefully peel off the foil and cool the gingerbread completely.

If the baking sheet is still warm, chill it briefly before preparing the next pieces. Use the front/back wall template to cut 2 walls from another rolled-out disk of dough, then bake them, as before. While the dough is still quite warm, place the template over each wall and use a sharp knife to trim it to the exact size of the cardboard. Cool the walls as you did the roof and remove the foil. Use more dough to cut out 2 end walls. Bake, trim, and cool them as well.

Allow the gingerbread to set at room temperature for at least 2 hours before proceeding. (If the pieces still aren't firm, bake them again for about 12 minutes at 300° and allow them to cool.)

You'll need at least 2 batches of this quick-to-mix "cement": one to construct the house, the other to decorate it.

ICING INGREDIENTS

2 egg whites
3 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Combine all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl, taking care not to get even a speck of egg yolk in the mixture. Beat the mixture on high speed for approximately 4 minutes, until light and fluffy. Keep the bowl covered with plastic wrap until you're ready to use the icing.

Set the cardboard carton on a counter that meets a wall. Spread a thick, even coat of Royal Icing on the back (the side that touched the baking sheet) of one gingerbread end wall and press it onto the carton. Push the gingerbread side of the house up against the wall and use a heavy object to hold the carton in place.

Ice the other end wall. Temporarily remove the heavy object to attach the wall to the carton, then replace it. Let the icing harden for about 15 minutes. Attach the side walls in the same way.

To attach the roof, first trim an even 1/4 inch of cardboard from the perimeter of the taped template so it won't show under the gingerbread. Use a pastry bag to pipe a thick bead of icing on the upper edges of the walls, then gently center the cardboard template on top of them.

Spread icing on both gingerbread roof pieces and attach them to the cardboard roof. Again, use heavy objects, butting them up against the bottom edges of the roof, to hold the pieces in place. Allow the house to set for 30 minutes before decorating it.

To trim your gingerbread house, all you really need is assorted candies and confections and plenty of Royal Icing to glue them on. Here are a few tips to get started.

• For the roof, you might use dried banana chips, graham cracker sticks, or Necco wafers for shingles and add a row of chocolate kisses or striped mints for an ornate ridge.
• Candy canes make great corner posts.
• Cinnamon sticks, string licorice, or pillow mints work well for door and window trim.
• A gummy ring adorned with a licorice bow serves as an instant wreath.

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