Gingerbread Houses (and other structures)

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I have confessed my love for gingerbread many times, but I am not sure if you know about my obsession with gingerbread construction. It is problematic at best.

It started when I was a pastry chef, making centerpieces for the restaurants I worked in. Now our projects represent our summer vacation. Guess where we went this year …
mt rushmore
Don’t feel compelled to go crazy like me. (I once did the Taj Mahal.) Simple houses are fine, too.

The best gingerbread for construction is made with cheap but fragrant materials. I use shortening instead of butter because I don’t plan to eat it. But if you use this recipe for edible gingerbread men, substitute butter for the shortening, and cut the spice quantity in half. Here I have added more spice than I would want to eat (for its room-freshening ability).

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3-1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 TB. cinnamon
1 TB. ginger
1 tsp. clove
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup water

METHOD

  1. Beat together shortening and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add molasses and mix to incorporate.
  2. Sift together dry ingredients and add them alternately with the water to the molasses mixture .
  3. Divide the dough evenly into thirds, then press each piece between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll with a rolling pin to create an even sheet of dough about 1/4-inch thick. Chill sheets in the fridge or freezer until firm, at least 30 minutes or overnight.
  4. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Place one parchment-packaged sheet of dough on a baking sheet and carefully peel off the top piece of parchment. Cut out the pattern pieces for your structure. To keep them in shape, remove the excess dough around them rather than moving the pieces themselves. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet. Repeat until you have all the pieces you need. Excess dough can be re-rolled, chilled, and cut as needed.
  5. Bake pieces until slightly puffed and firm, about 15 minutes. Cool completely. Meanwhile, make the Royal Icing ‘glue’.

Royal Icing:
2 egg whites
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1-1/2 to 2 lb. powdered sugar, sifted

In an electric mixer, beat egg whites and cream of tartar to medium peaks. Slowly add in sifted powdered sugar until the icing is thick and holds its shape. (The amount needed will vary with sugar brands, and the moisture content of the egg whites.) Icing can be thinned (if necessary) with a few drops of water.

  1. Assemble the structure on a serving platter or stiff board. Fit a piping bag with a plain tip and fill the bag halfway with royal icing. Pipe a fat strip along the wrong side of the vertical edges of the front of the house. The two side pieces are then butted up against these strips of icing and held in place for 30-60 seconds. Re-enforce the inside joint with a bit more icing. Pipe similar strips on the wrong side of the back of the house, and press the back wall up against the two side pieces. Allow to set and harden for at least 1 hour.
  2. Pipe icing along one side of the roof line, and set one roof piece on top. Allow to set 30-60 minutes. Repeat on the other side of the roof. Again, allow to set 30-60 minutes.
  3. Use remaining icing to decorate your house as you see fit. Glue on candies, make icing icicles, pipe architectural features, or leave it simple and just give it a light dusting of powdered sugar snow.
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