Friday, December 16, 2011

Gingerbread Houses - Tips and Ideas

'Tis the season for Gingerbread Houses! I love to build gingerbread houses, and the great thing is that you can make them as simple or as involved as you wish. This week I will posting some tips about building gingerbread houses from simple to complex. I will also include some professional tips for adding details that take it to the next level, for those who would like to take a house from simple to stunning. Here are some tips for success:

  • Use a dough that is specifically for houses, not cookies. Cookie dough is meant to be softer. There are two kinds of gingerbread dough for houses - regular and construction grade. Regular Gingerbread Dough is tasty and suitable for building small houses and children's houses. It is easy to roll out and work with. Construction Grade gingerbread dough is tougher and harder to roll out, but it yields amazingly hard dough that will not warp after assembly. Construction grade is usually only used for large houses or competition houses (which may have to sit for a long time and are susceptible to humidity). 

  • Lay a piece of aluminum foil on your cookie sheet and roll your dough out right on that instead of rolling it on a board and then transferring it. (Transferring it can cause the dough to break or the shape to become askew.) If your dough spreads during baking, you can trim it with a sharp knife after it comes out, so your sides stay nice and straight.
  • Roll the dough thick (about 1/4"). For large houses, I bake it twice for extra hardness. The bigger the house, the more important it is that the dough be very firm. After initial baking, let the pieces sit for a day, then rebake them at 250 degrees for ten minutes to dry the dough out a little more.

Constructing the House:
  • If you aren't working with a pattern, build a model out of cardboard first. Tape it all together to see how the house will look.  Then use the pieces as a pattern to cut out your dough. You can do a search online for gingerbread house patterns if you do not want to design your own. Here is one good source for patterns: Gingerbread by Design

  • Build your house on a sturdy base. The larger the house, the sturdier it needs to be. Small houses can go on cardboard cake boards. Large houses require a wooden board of some kind (scavenge your own from your shed or buy pre-cut plywood squares at your local hardware store).

  • Assemble it with Royal Icing, which dries super-hard like glue: (Royal Icing recipe) For a professional look, Tint half of your Royal Icing the same shade of brown as your gingerbread dough and use that icing to assemble the house (so that the icing does not show through in the cracks):
  • You will still use white royal icing for the decorating, and for adding "snow."
  • It is generally easier to decorate the sides of your house - windows and walls - BEFORE assembling the house. It is easier to have a steady hand for piping if the walls are flat, and candies will dry without sliding downward like they sometimes do when you decorate after the house is assembled and walls are vertical.

  • Use soup cans to prop up walls while you wait for them to dry. You can also use soup cans or something similar to hold the edges of your roof up while drying.
  • Plah ahead to give yourself assembly time! Allow the assembled house to dry overnight (8 hours) before adding the roof on top. Then give your roof several hours up to overnight to dry before adding shingles or decorations on top. The larger the house, the longer you need to let it dry for structural integrity. For large houses, it can take up to 48 hours of assemble/dry/assemble phases. Very small houses can be completely decorated and assembled in one day, but plan ahead because they always take longer than you think they will!
Decorating Tips:
  • Get creative! Go around your grocery store looking for crackers, candies and cereal that could work as shutters, roof tiles, or accent pieces. Be open to using things other than candy. Remember that what you use for roof tiles will need to be pretty flat because shingles are stacked on top of each other. I have also seen gingerbread houses where the roof pieces are "embossed" or imprinted with a shingle design prior to baking. I have also seen pretty designs drawn on with royal icing. The important thing is to make the house yours, in your own personal style. I tend to make houses that are replicas of real buildings, so they are less whimsical than other gingerbread houses. That is my style, and everyone has their own. Many people prefer a gingerbread house that is whimsical and covered with a rainbow of different candies. I love those houses too, so explore your own design style.

  • Snow makes everything look nicer. You can cover up areas that don't look so good with icicles and snow. Dusting the entire house with a touch of confectioner's sugar when it is complete will give it a "just dusted with snow" look.
Take it to the next level:
  • Let there be light! It is not hard to add lights to the inside of your house. Buy a strand of battery operated christmas lights at any craft store. Put them inside (I prefer to have the side and front walls on before I place the lights, so I can tape down the strand while making sure I get the bulbs placed beneath the windows.) Make a little notch in the back wall to allow for the cord to go underneath it, then put the battery pack in back of the house. Depending on how opaque your windows are, the lights should give a nice warm glow to your house.



  • Candy Windows: Just cut the window holes when you are rolling out the dough. After baking your pieces and cooling them, you can pour crushed candy pieces into the window holes and bake at 350 for 5 minutes or so, just until they are thoroughly melted and no chunks remain (watch carefully to avoid overcooking). Let them sit until cool. If the house is lighted inside, the light will show through the windows a little, giving the gingerbread house a warm glow. You can use any hard candy (lifesavers, jolly ranchers) but sometimes candy windows melt out after several days. Brach's Butterscotch discs are the only ones I have found that never melt out, but they are more opaque than other candies, so it is a trade-off.


  • See-through windows: Gelatin sheets (aka "leaf gelatin") can be purchased at cake decorating stores or online. You will be able to see completely through the window, so you could place items in the window for viewing:

  • Landscaping: The area around the house looks nicer if there are trees, bushes, etc. You can use trees, fences, etc. to create visual interest, and bushes close to the house can be strategically placed to cover up areas of the house that may look unsightly.

  • Glitz it up! Your local Cake Decorating store or craft store will sell edible glitter which can be dusted lightly over the top of the house to give it sparkle and make the snow "glisten." The one I like best is something called "Disco Dust" - it is far more glittery than other powders.

    FYI - Disco Dust, Lustre Dust, and Metallic Gilding Dust all fall into the category of "Non-Toxic" which means that they won't make you sick, but are not classified as "Edible" by the FDA. So on items that WILL get eaten, do not use them in large quantities. Just something to keep in mind if you plan to eat your house. You only need a little anyway, and in truth, most gingerbread houses do not get eaten after they have been getting stale on display for weeks.

 Again, I have to give a plug to a great gingerbread website, Ultimate Gingerbread. Go visit this site for tons of ideas, how-tos, and gingerbread inspiration! The woman who runs the site, Loreta, is also very helpful if you have questions. She returns my emails promptly and gives helpful suggestions.

Have FUN!


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