Sugar and spice and everything nice.
Gingerbread House Recipes:
When I started this project, I had a dreamy vision of a delectable gingerbread castle decorated not with gumdrops and red hots but with the varied shapes of spices such as star anise, clove, and nutmeg. Cinnamon-stick window boxes would line the windows, and rosemary topiaries with pepperberry swags would grace the castle yard. My apple-cheeked children and I would gather happily in the warm, fragrant kitchen to put the finishing touches on our edible masterpiece.
That was before I realized that gingerbread projects are not as easy as I'd thought. Soon my castle was scaled down to a cottage. At one point, I was tempted to construct it with superglue and duct tape and coat it with polyurethane. Then I'd display it somewhere so high that the kids couldn't reach it and wouldn't nibble on it.
Now we have our edible gingerbread house, and I can laugh at my expectations, remember the fun and challenge of it, admire our somewhat lumpy walls, and overlook the cracks I patched with icing. The finished house is an ode to earthy imperfection—a bit rough around the edges, and nothing like the sugarplum fairy castle that had danced in my head, but nonetheless charming and sweet.
The building of our gingerbread house reaffirmed a few lessons that seem especially important during the holidays: Stop rushing to get finished and learn to enjoy the process. Enjoy spending time with the people you love, doing things you’re normally too busy to do. Don’t expect perfection—don’t even seek it. Let yourself be surprised and delighted. We certainly were. As Camille, my five-year-old, put it, “This ginger house is so good because we made it all by ourselves—all together.”
Building a gingerbread house isn’t difficult, but it requires patience, steady hands, and time. Allow three or four sessions to complete the project: one for making the dough and icing, one for cutting and baking the pieces, one for assembling the house, and perhaps another for decorating it. It’s a good team activity because there are so many steps, but small children will need supervision and direction. My kids (Camille and Rainer, 1 1/2) could measure and mix, help roll out and cut the shapes, and help decorate. They excelled at taste-testing the leftover gingerbread scraps.
When it came to assembling the building, the kids’ enthusiasm sometimes proved a bit too much for the balancing act required. After one almost disastrous cave-in, I sent the kids off to bed so that I could erect the gingerbread house on my own. With plenty of icing on hand, I was able to coax the gingerbread pieces into becoming a sturdy little house.
I learned to use the icing with reckless abandon: it is the glue that sticks one piece to another, it fills all the gaps, and it brings together wavy edges that don’t quite meet otherwise. It sets fast and hard, and after a little practice with the pastry bag, it can be applied with surprising precision.
The children woke up in the morning to see that a gingerbread house had appeared: it was bona fide Christmas magic. I had to restrain my toddler from hugging it.
Many other edible materials can be used. We lined up sliced almonds for roof tiles, formed a rock wall with carob pods, and decorated with dried cranberries and cherries. Try horehound drops, licorice sticks, and puffy white peppermint candies for accents, dried orange and lemon slices for windows, and sugared flowers or mint leaves for other decorative touches.
Prepare a sturdy base for the house. We used three layers of 15-by-18-inch corrugated cardboard taped together and covered with foil. We cut a hole in the middle so that we could fit in a small flashlight to illuminate the finished house from inside.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a 1/8-inch plain tip. Working quickly, pipe a thick line of icing on the lower edge of the house front and set the piece into place on the base. If you don’t have extra helping hands available, use heavy cans or jars to support the walls while the icing dries. Pipe a line of icing on the lower, front, and back edges of the side pieces and set them into place against the house front. Pipe a line of icing on the lower edge of the back piece and place it abutting the side walls. Pipe another line of icing along the lower edge of each of the standing pieces so that they won’t move on the base. Hold everything in place until the icing begins to set.
The secret to a stable roof is lots of icing. Pipe a fat bead of icing onto the upper edges of the walls and gently lower one roof section into place, allowing the excess icing to squish out and properly fill the spaces. Have your helper patiently hold it in place. Place the other roof section and pipe a line of icing along the ridge of the roof to bond the two sections together. Hold the roof in place at least 10 minutes longer or until the icing is quite hard. Don’t worry about gaps between the walls and roof; you can fill those in with icing.
This is the playful part. Decorate your house any way you want. I put my young son in charge of the stepping stones, and my daughter became adept at placing roof tiles, putting ornaments on the topiaries, and stacking cinnamon-stick firewood. Their little fingers were an asset.
Use icing placed in a pastry bag fitted with a decorative tip to cover seams, gussy up eaves, and put on the finishing touches. Add a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar “snow” to the roof. See the box on page 26 for other suggestions on using spices and herbs as decorative touches.
After you’ve created your enchanting little gingerbread house, toss a few of the leftover star anise, cloves, and cinnamon sticks into a pot of apple cider and warm it. Sit back with a cup of mulled cider and admire your work.
Susan Wasinger is a graphic designer who lives with her family in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. She designs PieceWork magazine, published by Interweave Press, and the covers for The Herb Companion.
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