We got started with Gingerbread houses in 1999, just prior to the birth of our daughter. With time on our hands and thirsty for a challenge, we ordered a Haunted Mansion set from Martha Stewart. Careful to follow each and every direction, starting with the homemade gingerbread and candy windows to the specialty candy needed to complete the project, we enjoyed every moment. Our creation wasn’t quite as pleasing to the eye as the beautiful picture on the box, but we were hooked. It has become an annual family tradition, between Halloween and New Year’s Day. This year we went a little wild with things, and have made three gingerbread houses (and one church!) so far.
Gingerbread houses became popular after the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” This famous tale by Brothers Grimm tells the story of two children coming upon a gingerbread house in the forest. Children enjoy making simple milk carton gingerbread houses using graham crackers, and you can find many pre-made gingerbread kits in many stores. Some kits even come with the house assembled: you just add the candy that comes with the kit! Whether you are ready to create and bake your own, or to use one of the many kits available, making a gingerbread house is a perfect family activity.
Our favorite recipe came to us in that first kit from Martha Stewart. In fact, we love it so much we’ve never even tried another. We tried to find it on her site when writing this post, but came up empty-handed. We love it because it is eggless, mixer-free, and easy enough for even the most novice baker to make. It doesn’t require any time in the refrigerator or freezer, and bakes beautifully.
Gingerbread House Dough
- 4 1/2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3 teaspoon ground ginger
- 2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon finely grated black pepper
- 1 cup vegetable shortening (do NOT use butter)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup molasses
- Preheat oven to 325 (convection).
- Sift together dry ingredients.
- In a large saucepan, melt shortening. Stir in sugar and molasses and mix. Remove from heat and add the dry ingredients.
- Turn mixture out onto flour surface (dough will be crumbly). Add more flour if necessary.
- Roll out to 3/8 inch thickness on a Silpat or parchment paper. Cut the dough to the templates (see below) and remove excess. Bake for 30 minutes, rotating pans halfway through cooking time. After baking, cool completely before assembling and decorating.
The “glue” for gingerbread houses is Royal Icing. Our recipe is simple to make and yields enough icing that you won’t have to worry about needing more.
- 2 pounds Confectioner’s Sugar
- 3/4 cup water
- 6 Tablespoons Meringue Powder
- 1 tsp flavoring, optional
- dash salt
With a stand mixer and whisk attachment, beat all ingredients together for 7-10 minutes on low speed until thick. Spoon into a parchment bag prepared with a #10 tip, or plastic ziplock bag. If using the plastic ziplock bag (this is perfect when you are working with kids), cut the corner off to allow the icing to flow out.
Making the Pattern
The most critical part of the design process is getting the pattern cut correctly. There are plenty of pre-made patterns that come with kits, or even ones you can download, but if you need to do a truly custom design, you’ll need to make your own template. It’s not that hard: you’ll need sturdy construction paper or card stock; scissors, and a good ruler or square. First, have a drawing or photograph of what you’d like to make, and figure out what dimensions you’ll use. Assuming you’ll make a rectangular structure with a roof, you’ll need to cut out four pieces:
- (2) front/back pieces – The front and back pieces are identical, being rectangles with a triangle on top to make the peak of the roof. Add a door and windows to the front, and maybe some windows on the back. If you’re going to put a candle or light in your house, make sure it’ll fit through the door or windows!
- (2) side pieces – The side pieces are also identical, and should be the same height as the rectangular portion of the front and back pieces.
- (2) roof pieces – This is the tricky part. Each roof piece should be as long as the side piece, but add another inch of width so you’ll have a half inch hanging over the front and back of the house. Each roof piece should be as tall as the side of the triangle on the front and back pieces, but add a half inch so it will hang over the side of the house.
Many hands make light work: you’ll need to put the house up in stages: first the front and side wall, then the other side wall and back wall. Use royal icing on the bottom edge of each piece as it gets put down on your cardboard base, and also apply royal icing to the edges as you fit them together. We find that putting the cardboard on a towel and then propping dowels and/or pencils up against the house really helps keep things in place. For example, the walls go up fairly easily, but the roof panels need some help to stick in place. Prop a dowel or pencil between the towel and the edge of the roof, and it’ll hold in place until it dries. With royal icing, you’ll find it takes just 10 or 20 minutes to get dry enough.
Candy! (Not for eating?)
The kids really get into this part. You get to be creative with candy (and eat some while you work!) Some of our favorites are:
- Necco wafers, life savers, banana chips or sunflower seeds (unshelled) for the roof
- Licorice sticks
- Gum drops
- Candy corn
- Gummi bears and Gummi worms
- Sugar cubes
- M&Ms and Reese’s pieces
Other Tips and Tricks
Lighting is a fun way to enhance your house. We didn’t cover how to do windows: but if you’d like to do that, you can either put crushed up Jolly Rancher candies in the window holes as the gingerbread is baking, or make homemade candy to pour in later. Then, put battery-powered tea-lights or other lights inside for an extra special touch.
Transporting your gingerbread house from point A to B is no small feat, either, depending on the size. Make sure you have it on a sturdy surface, like a large cutting board, that won’t warp as you lift it. Then, if transporting by car, put it on a non-skid surface, like something you might have under a rug to keep it from moving.
November 2010: Rudolph at Schoellkopf
Keeping with our annual holiday gingerbread tradition, we embarked on a project unlike anything we’d done before: a holiday scene fashioned after a storied college football stadium minutes from our home: Cornell University’s Schoellkopf Field! We hosted our church youth group and their leaders as they built the entire structure, from start to finish. Over the course of the afternoon, we supervised them as they
- made gingerbread dough
- rolled it out onto cookie sheets
- used tagboard templates to cut out the pieces they’d need
- assembled the structure using royal icing and steady hands
- affixed all of the seats (made from sticks of gum they cut in half!)
- affixed all of the fans to the stands
- modeled all of the “actors”, including Santa’s sleigh, the reindeer, trees, a snowman and presents
- flattened many pieces of licorice candy to make custom roof tiles (!)
The youth entered their creation in the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s annual Gingerbread House Contest. Their entry was on display at Benjamin Peters for most of December. The result? We won first place in the contest!
November 2011: Trumansburg Farmer’s Market
The Feely family helped us make and decorate this fantastic edible version of the Trumansburg Farmer’s Market.
October 2012: Haunted House
We used our Martha Stewart pattern again to make a haunted gingerbread house, just in time for Halloween!
October 2013: Two Haunted Houses!
Aunt Sarah and Adam visited from Oregon, so we had the grandparents over for a huge team effort. Two haunted gingerbread houses!
October 2014: A Well-Loved Template
We used our tried-and-true template for yet another haunted gingerbread house!
November 2015: Two Smaller Cabins
We made our own templates to make two simple(r) gingerbread houses. One for the adults to decorate, and one for the kids!
December 2016: Wisps of Cotton Candy
Here’s another simpler architecture, this time with wisps of cotton candy.
December 2017: Gingerbread Brownstone
We had a blast creating this gingerbread brownstone, using pastel colors to create a fun design on the facade.
Read all about this specific project