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For me and my family, gingerbread houses and Christmas go hand in hand.
There’s something so festive and comforting about those adorable miniature homes covered in seasonal candy. Although I haven’t been making them for as long as the Germans (they began in the early 1800s) or even the White House (1969, to be exact), it is something my kids and I look forward to doing together every year.
Perhaps mine aren’t as grand as the White House’s, where pastry chefs use 33 pounds of royal icing and 200 pounds of gingerbread on just one home, but we sure have a lot of fun designing, decorating and, inevitably, eating them during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
What sets gingerbread apart from other holiday cookies is the dark brown color from the addition of molasses and brown sugar, plus all of the tasty spices including cloves, ginger, cinnamon and allspice. And because gingerbread houses should be edible, you need to use a strong icing to hold all your pieces together. In this case royal icing serves as the “glue” or “cement.” Royal icing is simply made up of egg whites and confectioners sugar or, alternatively, you can use meringue powder and water in place of egg whites. Meringue powder is a fine white powder made primarily egg whites and stabilizers, which can be found at baking specialty stores or craft stores.
Once you have your gingerbread and royal icing, it’s time to dig through the pantry to find the festive and sweet decorations. Leftover Halloween candy, cereal and shredded coconut usually do the trick in my house.
Now let’s get started.
1. Make the dough using our gingerbread recipe
- 4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for rolling
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 8 tablespoons butter
- ¾ cup dark brown sugar
- ¾ cup molasses
- 1 egg
In bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and spices.
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter, sugar and molasses until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Add in the egg and mix until thoroughly combined.
Slowly add the flour mixture to the mixer until everything is fully incorporated.
Divide the dough in half and form two discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.
2. Design your house and cut out your template
- You can create your own home or find a variety of templates online using sites like Pinterest. Decide whether you want to make a simple A-frame house, a classic colonial or a little village of homes.
- Once you have chosen your design, cut a template out of paper or cardboard to be used on the dough.
- For younger children just starting out, you can even “glue” graham crackers to small empty milk cartons (the old school kind), or an empty quart container, as a base house.
3. Make, cut and bake your gingerbread
- Once the dough is made, flatten it into a disc, wrap kit with plastic wrap and chill it for at least 30 minutes. Chilling your dough before rolling it out makes it less sticky and easier to work with.
- Roll out your chilled dough to ¼-inch thickness directly onto parchment paper, dusting with flour as needed.
- Place your parchment paper directly onto the cookie sheet. This helps prevent tears and misshapen walls and roof panels that you can sometimes get when transferring dough from one place to the next.
- Lay your template onto the dough and, using a pizza cutter, cut out your panels.
- Remove and reserve excess dough, which can be rerolled later. If you are making windows or door openings be sure to cut those out before baking. For a stained-glass effect, fill windows with crushed Jolly Ranchers or Life Savers before baking.
4. Make the gingerbread house icing
- Royal icing is the “glue” that will hold your walls and ceiling together. You’ll also use this to adhere all of the decorations to your house. Traditionally, royal icing contains egg whites. If you are concerned about eating raw eggs, then use pasteurized egg whites or meringue powder.
- Since royal icing hardens very quickly, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the icing or cover it with a damp paper towel. Fill a piping bag or a plastic baggie with royal icing and then you're ready to use it.
5. Assemble the gingerbread house
- Some bakers prefer to assemble the walls and ceiling before decorating while others decorate each wall and roof panel while they're laying flat and then assemble once all of the decorations are hardened. Personally, I assemble first then decorate. I usually assemble my houses on cardboard cake rounds — but a scrap of any clean cardboard box works just as well.
- Cut out the cardboard you need and wrap it in foil or wrapping paper and you’re good to go.
- “Glue” together the wall pieces and let them dry thoroughly. I even “glue” the bottoms of the wall pieces to the base so the house doesn’t move around.
- Once the walls are dry and secure it’s time to install the roof. As the “glue” on the roof is drying, I find it helpful to prop up the roof panels with a drinking glass to keep it in place and prevent it from sagging.
- To make sure I've got a sturdy base, I like to assemble my house a full day before decorating it. This gives the “glue” plenty of time to harden so that the structure is secure.
6. Decorate your gingerbread house
- Using plenty of candy, pretzels, dried fruit and nuts, it’s time to make your gingerbread house a home.
- Shingle the roof with cereal, sliced almonds, or sour strips of candy. Pave a pathway with mints or pretzel sticks. Inverted ice cream cones covered in green icing make great trees, while stacked marshmallows make the perfect snowman. You can even use red string licorice to make a little scarf for them.
- Don’t forget to finish it all off with a sprinkling of snow in the form of shredded coconut or powdered sugar.