If you’ve never attempted to make a gingerbread house before, MaryJane Robbins has some words of advice: It can be addicting. “Some people are even doing it year-round,” she says. “For Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, even Halloween.”
A baker for much of her life, Robbins has, for the past eight years, worked the phones at King Arthur Flour, helping fellow bakers sort out issues with pizza dough, piecrust, and, yes, gingerbread houses. For a couple of years she even taught classes on the fine art of gingerbread decorating. She loves the creativity it brings out in people. “In my classes, everyone got the same candies, but nobody ever built the same house,” she says. We caught up with Robbins between calls at her King Arthur office.
For beginners, the kit route is perfectly suitable. It’s one-stop shopping, complete with pre-baked walls, roof, icing, and decorative candies. For hardcore DIYers, making a house from scratch starts with a recipe for construction gingerbread, not gingerbread cookies. “The cookies, they’re crispy on the outside but soft on the inside, and once you start to put the thing together, it will fall apart,” Robbins says.
No kit? No problem. Robbins suggests using a small milk carton or cardboard box as the home’s base. Cover with icing, layer with graham crackers, add another round of icing, then start decorating. “With little kids it can be really easy,” Robbins says.
Make It Stick
Royal icing is literally the glue behind any well-made gingerbread house. The recipe: well-beaten egg whites, confectioners’ sugar, and a little bit of lemon juice. The final substance should resemble paste. “You want it soft so that you can press candy into it,” Robbins notes, “but stiff enough so that it will dry and hold.” The same mixture can be used on the exterior of the walls, too, to hold candies and other decorations. You’ll find pre-made icing mixes at craft stores and party-supply outlets.
Tools of the Trade
You can go as bare-bones as you like. Ziploc bags make excellent pastry bags—just fill with icing and snip off the ends. Parchment paper and a good, flat baking surface are musts, as is a sharp knife to cut out the walls. For finer detail, pick up an icing tip (about $1) to give your roof and walls an intricate design. Robbins also uses a microplane grater to carefully shave off the sides of her walls to make them fit better.
Making a gingerbread house isn’t a one-day thing. One year, when her daughter was young, Robbins made a house that had two sections connected by a breezeway. The baking took a couple of days. At the very least, Robbins recommends gluing the house together the day before you decorate. The icing will need time to dry, and if you’re working with kids, it will let them home in on what they like best: dressing up the house with candy.
Beyond the Neccos
For as long as gingerbread houses have been around, the Necco Wafer, it seems, has been a staple decoration. But Robbins encourages bakers to experiment with other options. Triscuit crackers make good roofing shingles, while Frosted Mini Wheats give the place an even more rustic look. A stack of pretzel sticks becomes a handsome outdoor log pile, while ice-cream cones and a little green icing make perfect fir trees. Get creative, Robbins recommends, and don’t be afraid to goof up. “Icing covers up almost any mistake,” she says.
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