Adventures in Gingerbread-land

I love the places our imaginations can go when we have unlimited supplies of cookie dough, icing, and candy. 

For years, I've been making gingerbread houses at Christmas time; first on my own, and then with my children, who have become more and more involved as the years go by. 

When I was younger, I remember sitting and staring at the final product, imagining that I was a tiny person walking through the structure, taking the odd nibble of a door-frame or lick of a window pane.  Fairy-tales played out in my head while I sat and gazed, and I'm sure my mother was happy for the peace and quiet. 

Over time, gingerbread house creation became one of my favourite Christmas traditions!

Finding a gingerbread recipe that is firm enough to create a beautiful and sturdy house, but also pliable and tasty enough to actually enjoy eating, was a challenge! The recipe that Canadian Living printed over 20 years ago was a keeper, though, and I've been using it for 10 years now. Isn't it great to find something you love so much that it becomes a necessary tradition? 
When you use this recipe, you will be that person who doesn't just chuck the rock-hard and tasteless cookie at the end of the holiday season.  You will find a way to enjoy it even after it has sat out for a while! After the candy is gone, why not consider making a trifle involving gingerbread, or maybe a cheesecake with a crushed gingerbread crust....  The options are endless. When you have something as good as this, please don't throw it out!
These are all photos from a few year's worth of gingerbread creations. You can get so creative, and that's what I love! You could be simple with just a few lines of icing and a smattering of candies, or you can go all out. Above is the "Candy Shoppe" I created 3 Christmases ago, complete with a melted candy-glass window. (Just crush any hard candy and sprinkle in the window cutout before baking your gingerbread!)

Here is the one from last year, when the kids said, "Let's build OUR house!" The dimensions weren't perfect, but it was really fun to try to create a mini version of our home. 

Letting the icing set up...

Ir really became the kids' creation after the basic cookies were glued together. They wanted the front steps, the woodpile, a snowfort, the trampoline, BBQ, Christmas lights, the whole nine yards. 

The woodpile to the left of the deck, with Daddy's Big Green Egg grill on the deck. 

And another BBQ to the right of the deck, this one with some "steak" on it (pecans).

And the trampoline in the front yard.

The whole project took quite a while, and the results were far from 'perfect', but they were magical just the same. The involvement of the whole family is really what takes it from just-another-Christmas-project to something really special.

In our home, the tradition has emerged over time to have a "Gingerbread House Demolishing Party" on January 6, which is the Feast of the Epiphany (the visit of the Wise Men to the Child Jesus). That's the date that I clean up the last vestiges of Christmas, and we close the day with hot chocolate and the sugar rush of eating a whole bunch of candy.   

Some ideas for your decorating:

  • Don't be traditional - be creative!
  • If you've never done this before, start with a few smaller projects,
    and then tackle something larger.
  • Use icing to drip "icicles" off the roofline.
  • Use a foil covered chocolate coin to make a clock, with a little bit of added icing and some nonpareils.
  • If you're not planning to actually eat the candy, then why not use leftovers from Halloween? We've done it! You can use cheap and tasteless candy - as long as it's colourful.
  • Speaking of colourful - divide your plain royal icing into different bowls and stir in paste food colouring (it's the most intense colour and it won't water down your icing), then use this for your decorating.
  • It doesn't have to be candy! You can decorate your house with pretzels, cereal, etc - you could make a thatched roof out of shredded wheat, or make shingles from Cinnamon Toast Crunch. 
  • Decorate your gingerbread house on a piece of cardboard coated with tinfoil - then it's easily portable.
  • Further to that, cut a hole in the cardboard under your house, so that you can later set your gingerbread house up on a wrapped box and poke some Christmas lights up into the house - what a great way to show it off!

This is the original gingerbread house recipe from Canadian Living's December 1990 issue, and it is my failsafe for all of our gingerbread creations over the years. It makes a lot of dough - enough for one large gingerbread house or 5 small ones! My note on the recipe card says, "For goodness sake, don't triple it." 

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup fancy molasses
1/2 cup cooking molasses
6 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp cinnamon

In large bowl, beat shortening with sugar until light; beat in eggs and fancy and blackstrap molasses.

Stir together flour, ginger, baking soda, salt, cloves and cinnamon; using wooden spoon, gradually stir into molasses mixture. Mix well, working with hands if necessary. 

Divide dough into four discs; wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until firm, or for up to 1 week. 

While the dough is chilling, draw pattern pieces on waxed paper; label and cut out. (Click here to download a pdf of gingerbread house diagrams from Canadian Living - but you can be creative and do whatever you want with this! Their diagram is for making 5 small houses. Enlarge to make one big one.)

Roll out the dough between two sheets of waxed paper. When you have it at 1/4-inch thickness, remove the top sheet and cut out your pieces using the tip of a sharp knife. To avoid having the pieces puff out on the edges, you can freeze them on waxed paper-lined baking sheet for 20 minutes or until hard. Otherwise, you will need to trim the final cookies before assembly.

Transfer cutouts to parchment paper-lined or lightly greased baking sheets, reserving dough scraps for re-rolling into other gingerbread shapes. Bake at 325 F for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden and firm to the touch. Transfer gingerbread to racks and let cool completely.

To build your house(s) (or castles or Santa's sleigh, or whatever your heart desires), use royal icing:

Royal Icing(Makes a lot!)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup meringue powder
4-2/3 cups icing sugar
In a large bowl, beat water with meringue powder until foamy, about 2 minutes. Beat in icing sugar, 1 cup at a time, until stiff peaks form when beaters are lifted, about 4 minutes. Cover with damp towel to prevent drying out. This stuff gets as hard as rock, and it will definitely keep any crazy gingerbread house together. 
Be sure to keep it moist - putting it right into a sealed ziploc bag works well. Then, just snip a tiny corner off the bottom of the bag, twist, and squeeze! Voila! Piping bag. =)

Whatever you decide to do, have fun!