Sunday, December 18, 2005

Construction Work

My very own Prancer and Vixen
The divine creatures you see in the above picture are my daughters A. and L. They are, obviously, decorating a gingerbread house. I took the picture this afternoon. I baked the pieces for the house, as well as some extra trees and small gingerbread people, last night, and we assembled and decorated the house this afternoon.

There is really not much point in me giving you recipes for the gingerbread house. You can surf on over to and put "gingerbread house" in the search box, and you'll get several recipes. I believe the recipe I used was the first one. I did double most of the spices because I generally find that most spice cookie recipes are not sufficiently spiced for my tastes. It is also possible that some of my spices have lost some of their potency, but in any case, the resulting gingerbread worked well for construction, and the girls thought that the cookies made from some of the leftover dough were terrific. (The girls are pretty easy to please in most cases. But then you could probably have figured out that they were fine people from their willingness to have their pictures taken while wearing felt antlers. I am a lucky, lucky father.) I thought the cookies were fine, but if I were setting out to make cookies, I would probably use a different recipe, one with a higher proportion of butter-to-flour.

There are also many, many sources for gingerbread house templates on the Internet, but they almost all are the same old boring pattern that everyone uses. And there's nothing at all wrong with using that pattern, but I wanted to try something different, and in my searches around cyberspace, I found that has templates for colonial, saltbox, A-frame, and side gable houses. I was tempted by the A-frame, but I went with the saltbox. (If you're tremendously ambitious, you can, of course, get Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipe and templates for her gingerbread replica of Notre Dame. It's in her Rose's Christmas Cookies book. I can't imagine that anyone ever makes it; it seems like the ultimate example of food porn, but it's undeniably impressive.) The good part about the saltbox is that it's really no more difficult than the standard side gable gingerbread house, but it's still different. To my mind, there's no point in getting too complicated with your gingerbread house blueprints because the fun of the gingerbread house is almost all in the making and almost none in the having. And if you get too particular about either the construction or the decorating, then you've really missed the point. The decoration should, ideally, be turned over to children, who are almost certain to make a mess of it and who don't care if they make a mess of it. You should not care, either. Or, if you do care, you should turn a simple one over to the kids and keep the more complicated variety for yourself. Just be aware that everyone I know is sufficiently impressed by anyone who makes his own gingerbread house and is no more impressed if it looks especially great. You reach the point of diminishing returns very, very quickly.

In cutting out the pieces of your house, you have two basic choices. You can either make great sheets of gingerbread (or lebkuchen) and then cut the pieces from the baked sheets, or you can cut the dough into the shapes of the pieces of the house before baking it. The former method gives you the most precise pieces, but it seems very wasteful. The best compromise I've found is to roll your dough out, cut the pieces according to the templates, transfer the pieces to a greased baking sheet, bake, and then -- while still hot from the oven -- use the templates and a sharp knife to true the pieces up. Shaving a millimeter or two off the sides also gives you a wider edge and more surface area for your adhesive to stick to.

However you make your pieces, you really needn't be too concerned with neatness in the construction. You'll be using royal icing as your construction adhesive, and you should use plenty of it. If it seeps out between the pieces, you can cover the excess with pieces of candy. I also use dressmakers' pins to hold the pieces together, and I do so with neither shame nor remorse. If you use the ones with red spherical heads, they even look nice.

You probably know this already, but you can put candy glass in your windows by crushing up a translucent hard candy (Lifesavers will work, as will the spherical candies which are basically stickless lollipops) and by baking them into the window holes for a few minutes. You want the pieces of your gingerbread house to be fairly well baked so they'll hold their shape well, so you can bake them for about twelve minutes, remove them from the oven, trim them with a knife, put them on a baking sheet with a Silpat, spoon crushed hard candy into the window holes, and bake for an additional five minutes. This is all at 350 degrees.

I find the baking of the gingerbread fun and not really very taxing at all, but if you want to do a gingerbread house with the kids and are worried about getting the pieces cut correctly, then there is no shame in buying a kit. The kits work especially well if you have children whose levels of perfectionism diverge wildly. You can let the free spirit work on one house while the control freak works on her own. I am fortunate to not be in that position, but a few years ago when the seven-year age difference was more of a problem, I got a kit for each of them, did the basic construction, and let each child decorate her own. They had a blast. Whether you buy a kit or make the pieces yourself, make sure that you buy a large variety of candy decorations. The kits often fall short in this regard, and I did not do the greatest job myself this year: everything was round, and there was an insufficient variety of colors. It is useful to include candies such as gummi bears and licorice and/or peppermint sticks to get more interesting shapes. If you are into making at least a part of your house look like the real thing, nonpareils make excellent roof tiles. If you're not into that, they're fun to eat while you're decorating.

It's a good idea to put your gingerbread house on a fairly large platter (plastic will do) so that you can surround it with gingerbread trees and gingerbread people (they are generally small enough to be of unascertainable gender). L. insisted that we also put a couple of gingerbread people inside the house, so I had to stand them up with icing before putting the roof on, and one of them fell over, so that the inside now looks a bit like a crime scene. Fortunately, you can't really see that without looking very closely, and in any case, the little gingerbread person could just be taking a nap. That's the official story, anyway.


Anonymous lindy said...

Those are two of the best looking reindeer I've seen in a long time. You are very lucky to have two such charming daughters, who are even, as you note, willing to humour you with respect to antlers.

I actually kind of like the crime scene idea. There could be an annual "Christmas Mystery" to solve, with gingerbread clues.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Sangroncito said...

My fantasy is to live in a gingerbread house and spend my life nibbling away at it.

3:36 PM  
Anonymous leslie said...

nice looking reindeer! I doubt I could get mine to pose with same antlers.

Definitely time to get baking with kids here...

5:41 PM  

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