For the last 20 to 25 years our family has been making gingerbread houses every year. My aunt started making them for the kids to decorate each year after Thanksgiving. My sister grew up with this a bit more than I did, but even when I was off to college or down here in Texas, I always got photos of the work that everyone did (I do remember snacking on a few of her houses).
Once we both had kids it felt like it was time for us to start up the tradition down here in Texas. This is my third year making these houses and every year I learn a new little trick. I have to thank my aunt for sharing her recipes and tricks with us so our kids can have the same fun she created for us. By passing on her process she saved us a lot of trouble and tears. Thanks, Diane!
It’s important to know gingerbread houses aren’t hard to make, they just take time. There are a few periods of hold time you just can’t avoid. It’s essentially a four-day process. So, to keep with this theme I’ve broken these steps into days. I have a few tips to share too that should help you be successful.
The instructions below build us two 8” x 10” houses on 2’ x 2’ plywood boards. Please, if you run into any question, let me know. I’d love to help.
Day 1: Making the dough
To make the dough:
1. Whip the cream.
2. Add in sugars, molasses, ginger and baking soda.
3. Stir for 10 minutes.
4. Add flour and work with a dough hook and/or hands until smooth.
5. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Tips: If you are using a big mixer (recommended) when you start adding the flour make sure you switch to a dough hook. Once you get most of the flour in there any other stirrer may burn out your mixer. Take this from one that made her mixer smoke last year. When I go to store mine I break my dough down into a few different saran wrapped squares (see photo below). I find it easier to work with the next day. I also can leave it in the fridge for a day or two longer and not worry about it drying out.
Day 2: Making the pieces
I take my dough squares out and let them sit on the counter for 30/45 minutes before rolling them out. While they are doing that I find my stencils from the year before. My houses are 8” x 10” X 10”. It’s best to cut them out from a strong cardboard. I used a beer case box. Don’t forget to leave overhang space!
Pre-heat your oven to 300 degrees. You’ll be baking these sheets for 20 minutes a piece.
To roll the dough you want to roll out to 1/8” – 3/16” thickness. I roll right on parchment paper so I can easily move it onto a cookie sheet (Big kudos to my Aunt Diane for this tip. I’m sure if she didn’t tell me this before I’d never made it past year 1). Before you put your stencil down to cut make sure you flour it otherwise it may stick. Cut out the pattern with a knife. Before putting into the oven you’ll want to brush the top with water. This makes the outside pieces a bit prettier. If you put two on a sheet just make sure there is 1/2 to 1” buffer.
As you take the pieces out leave them out to cool. You should let this sit out overnight if not for a day or two. The goal is to let them get hard.
Day 3: Building the houses
Before making my icing and getting my pieces ready I get my base prepared. We use 2’ x 2’ plywood bases that were pre-cut at Home Depot or Lowes. It takes a lot of icing to cover the base and can be pretty messy so I’ve started covering the base with wrapping paper. It’s worked out really well.
Now that the base is ready I get my pieces out and make sure I have my walls all planned out. We won’t put the roofs on at this point. We’ll only be building the walls.
1 lb. confectionary sugar
3 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
To make the icing:
1. Mix ingredients together on low speed until well blended.
2. Beat on high for 7 to 10 minutes (until a knife drawn through leaves a path.)
3. Too think? Thin with a few drops of lemon juice. Too thin? Add a bit more confectionary sugar.
This makes about 2 cups of icing. It sets fast, so just make a batch at a time as you need it.
You’ll notice in the photos below that I use soup cans to help me build my houses. They are my backups as I’m starting to build the houses. Once you get a couple of walls up they hold themselves up. My biggest fear is having a wall break, so I try to make any falls short and soft.
I start building by setting up one of the smaller sides. I leave a bit of frosting on the base and have it balanced with a can for a few minutes. This lets me work on getting the walls set up.
Don’t be shy with the icing. You don’t want to pile it on in front, but you can use as much as you need on the inside. If something doesn’t fit perfect, don’t sweat it. If you are decorating with kids, everything gets covered. Roll with the gingerbread punches as you make these. It’ll all work out. This icing is better than cement! I’m not much of a baker. If I can pull this off each year, basically anyone can.
In case you are wondering, I don’t leave the cans in the house once I’m done. You’ll notice once you have a couple of walls up everything works together. I have heard of a few family stories though were Legos were used as reinforcement. It’s fine to leave them in, just don’t forget to take them out before you throw away the house!
Once you have your bases together, they need to stand for at least an hour before you start your roof. I really recommend waiting a few hours if you can. The stronger the walls are the better shape you’ll be in. Once it is time for the roofs just set them up one by one and you should be all set! If you have any areas with open holes or big gaps, just fill them with icing. Nobody will ever notice.
Day 4: Building the houses
If you are going to be decorating with kids I really recommend covering the surfaces you’ll be working on. Icing tends to get all over the place. Newspaper or even saran wrapping the table works. Once it hardens it’s not very easy to remove, so try to make life easy for yourself.
When I make the icing for building day I tend to make double batches. I put some in the decorating bags and some in a bowl. If you are decorating with kids you’ll find just covering a wall at a time with frosting is easier for them to work with rather than putting icing on the back of each candy.
If you want a pretty house, make yourself a separate house. Kids love decorating, If you have too much of a plan you’re just going to set yourself up for an argument. Keep the peace and let them do what their little heart desires. You’ll be impressed with what they do. I couldn’t believe what Henry and Lennox came up with this year. A huge difference from last year.
When you decorate your house make sure you don’t over load your roof especially if your pieces don’t seem rock hard.
Just remember to have fun with it and don’t get too stressed if something isn’t working out perfectly. It takes a time or two to really get to feel comfortable with the process.
Happy creating. If this inspired you to try making a house please share some photos! I’d love to see what you or your children came up with.