"...they came to a little house, and the bird perched on the roof, and when they came nearer they saw that the house was built of bread, and roofed with cakes; and the window was of transparent sugar. 'We will have some of this,' said Hansel, 'and make a fine meal. I will eat a piece of the roof, Grethel, and you can have some of the window - that will taste sweet.'"
- Hansel and Grethel,
Grimm's Fairy Tales
It seems that gingerbread houses have become engraved into the list of Christmas traditions.
While ginger bread (or lebkuchen, as it was called in Germany), was used to make cookies and cakes beginning in the 1300's, gingerbread houses did not come about until much later. Most sources agree on that they were first created sometime in the nineteenth century, with the rise of the popularity of Grimm's fairy tales. In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the two unfortunate children find a house made of bread, cakes, and candy, which is actually the residence of an evil witch. It is from this fairy tale that the idea for a gingerbread house evolved. Englebert Humperdink created an opera based on the story, and I believe, he was the first to actually mention that the witch's house was made of gingerbread. The tradition of making gingerbread houses decorated with candies, raisins, and icing spread in Germany, and throughout the next century, was brought to North America where it gained immense popularity. From elaborate Victorian mansions, to simple "no-bake" creations, gingerbread houses have became something like a Holiday art form - a delight for culinary neurotics and little children alike.
Today, there are many variations on the classic gingerbread house, ranging from the very, very simple, to the extremely complex. The most popular thing currently seems to be ready-made gingerbread house kits that contain everything you need to assemble and decorate a house without all the hassles of baking. These are available from many online retailers as well as regular grocery stores. It is also possible to buy gingerbread house moulds (heavy pans that form all the necessary parts of the house), which significantly simplify the entire process. These are a good investment to make if you plan on making lots and lots of gingerbread houses in the near future.
The basic materials used for making a gingerbread house are:
- gingerbread dough
- a template for your house (unless you're using a mould)
- a cardboard base
The quality and quantity of your materials depends on the complexity and size of the house you wish to make. It is best to begin with a simple design of medium size so that you can get a feel for the actual process. As you become more and more experienced in the fine art of making gingerbread houses, however, you might want to stray a little bit from the classic stereotype of a cottage and build a Tudor Mansion or an igloo. Eventually, it may be possible for you to move on to something more grandiose - say, a gingerbread replica of Buckingham Palace or the Taj Mahal. If you are feeling up to it, you can even abandon the idea of a building altogether, and create something like the starship Enterprise....
The possibilities are endless!
(If you ever do succeed in making a gingerbread version of the Enterprise, please send me a picture! I would love to see it.)
Below, I have included a basic recipe for a gingerbread house. Keep in mind that there are many different versions out there.
You will need the following:
for the Gingerbread dough:
3/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup cold water
4 1/2 cups of flour
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
for the icing:
4 egg whites
6 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp glycerin
- small candies (M&M's, skittles, chocolate chips, gum drops, mints, etc.)
- candy canes
- various cereals (Wheat-thins, Rice Crispies, Cheerios, etc...)
- raisins, nuts, and dried fruit (these are nice for a healthier alternative)
- pretty much anything else that is small, edible, and looks pretty
- a piece of thick cardboard (appx. 1 square foot), covered in tinfoil. This will be the base for your house.
- a ziplock bag
- two large bowls
- a cookie sheet
- a rolling pin
- templates for your house. (You can print them out from here and here)
Preparing the dough:
1). Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
2). In a large bowl, mix the shortening, sugar, molasses, and water.
3). Add the other ingredients and knead the dough until it is nice and stiff. Divide it into three portions.
4). Take one portion and roll it out on a floured surface with a rolling pin, until it is about 1.5 mm thick.
5). Place the template on the dough, and cut around it. Gently loosen the cut piece, and transfer to a greased cookie sheet.
6). Repeat this with the remaining dough and templates until you have all the necessary parts.
7). Bake for 15-25 minutes. Once the pieces are slightly brown, remove from the oven, and allow to cool directly on the cookie sheet.
Preparing the icing:
1). Beat the egg whites in a large bowl.
2). Continue beating, and add the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and glycerin.
3). Mix until the icing is of a creamy consistency.
4). Spoon the icing into a large ziplock bag. Once you are ready to assemble your house, cut off a small corner of the bag, and pipe your icing directly onto the gingerbread.
1). Attach one gingerbread wall of the house (its doesn't matter which one) to the base with the icing. (note: it is best to wait at least 15 minutes each time you add something to the structure, as this gives the icing time to stiffen.)
2). Add on the remaining three walls, making sure to use generous amounts of icing.
3). Attach the roof.
4). Voilà! Your gingerbread house is assembled. Leave it out overnight so that the icing can dry completely before decorating.
This is the fun part. There's really no proper way to decorate a gingerbread house, so you can unleash your imagination, and do whatever you like. A number of things work nicely for creating a realistic look for your house. Wheat-thins are great for making a "thatched roof", and pretzels can be used for windows. Try making designs on the house with tinted icing, or with candy sprinkles. You can add gingerbread trees to the cardboard base and create an entire garden around your house. There's really no limit to the things you can do.
To stick something on to the house, simply coat the underside of whatever you wish to attach with icing and stick it onto the gingerbread surface. Avoid overloading your house with candy, however, as you do not want it to collapse. Once you are finished decorating, leave the house overnight to dry, once again. (If your householdcontains small children, I suggest you put it up in a high place where it will be safe from picking hands and nibbling teeth). The house can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to four weeks.
What to do afterwards:
There are a number of things you can do with your house once it is complete. You can do the obvious - meaning allow it to be devoured by hungry family members. If you cannot stand the thought of having your masterpiece destroyed, you can buy some clear varnish at a craft store and glaze your house with it, thus preserving your creation for many years to come. If you enjoy making the house, but aren't too keen on eating it, it makes a wonderful and delicious gift for almost anybody. Another possibility is to donate it to your local children's homeless shelter, where it is bound to be enjoyed. (This is what my family ended up doing this year.)
Whatever you end up doing, I hope I have offered a reasonably clear and detailed explanation of this great holiday treat.