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Last week, without permits, drawings or inspections -- and without much experience -- I built a house in two days.
I glued it together using flimsy materials. In the process, half of the roof slid off, and the other half broke up. The walls were structurally unsound. I glossed over mistakes with decorations, ran over budget with abandon and even subcontracted the landscaping to my 5-year-old. And yet, the new inhabitants couldn't be happier.
You see, I'm a gingerbread house contractor.
A few years ago, my wife signed us up for an evening class in gingerbread house construction. There we learned that gingerbread houses come in two varieties: over-the-top and way-over-the-top. We assembled pre-baked walls and roof pieces, then settled in to heap spectacular amounts of food onto the groaning little structures and stuff plastic figures inside. Gingerbread cookies were provided to keep us from devouring the building materials.
It was fun, but as the only guy in a class of about a dozen women, I think that I saw things a little differently. Sure, the houses looked great and smelled great, but nobody (with a lick of sense) was ever going to eat them. But then it dawned on me:
This was not a cooking project, this was construction.
And like any house project, it can continue indefinitely until you're happy or just plain bored with it. The basic structure can go up pretty quickly and be decorated as your schedule allows. You can add to and change the decorations as the muse inspires. As long as the underlying structure holds up, keep working.
During the class, we put together a pretty good little house that lasted a couple of seasons -- with pets and small children kept at a distance.
But this year, with our daughter now 5, I wanted to pass on our "skills."
This is not a project that one does from memory, but I was lucky to have kept the forms from the class, and I consulted a couple of the many great books on gingerbread construction.
As every guy knows, the best part of any project is the tools -- the more the better. And gingerbread construction is no exception. The indispensable tools are a couple of bowls, a rolling pin, a mixer, a pastry bag with a few tips, a very flat cookie sheet, a sharp kitchen knife, a new 2-inch paintbrush for brushing the walls clean and a serrated knife for trimming. My upgrades were a heavy-duty stand mixer, a pizza stone (instead of a cookie sheet), an X-ACTO knife (instead of a sharp kitchen knife), parchment paper, a battery-operated Dremel craft tool and a hammer.
As for building materials, the baking, cereal and candy aisles of any decent-size grocery store are your Home Depot. As you stroll past the foodstuffs, think of them as siding, shingles, fencing, trees and shrubs, windows, shutters and anything else your house should have. Candy, cookies, crackers, sugars, pretzels and molasses all go into your shopping cart. I spent about $35 on supplies.
In line for the checkout, I got some stares.
"Bingeing," I explained.
The last thing you'll need to get is a base. Plastic-foam insulation works fine. And if you want to light the house from the inside, you can cut a quarter-size hole in the base and stick in a small clip light that you can find at a craft store.
There are plenty of books that contain patterns for gingerbread houses. Choose one and photocopy it to the correct size and transfer the pattern to poster board or lightweight cardboard. Follow the instructions below for making the gingerbread (or consult the book that the pattern came from). Rolling out the dough on parchment paper was a great job for my daughter Leah, although it took some supervision.
Place the pattern (with windows and doors cut out) over the rolled gingerbread dough, taking care to keep the pattern floured to prevent it from sticking to the dough. Cut out the pattern with your knife. This is where the hammer comes in. If you would like candy "glass" windows, smash some hard candy (wrapped in a towel on a cutting board) until it is a fine powder.
For a window that is the same color as the candy, pour the powder into the window opening after the gingerbread has baked about halfway. For a caramelized brown window, add the powder at the beginning of baking.
Remember, you need flat pans. If the baking pans are even slightly curved, your walls and roof will be bowed.
Royal icing is the glue that holds the whole thing together. This mix of sugar and raw egg white works like a cross between caulking compound, reinforced concrete and duct tape. It dries rock-hard and supports a fair amount of weight. Needless to say, it is completely inedible.
Putting up the house was just like the barn-raising scene in Witness, but on a much smaller scale and with no Amish people. I played Harrison Ford. Leah was Alexander Godunov. We worked hard and smiled at each other to acknowledge our prodigious skills.
It's the only kind of construction I know that puts a roof on in two large pieces, and many hands are needed. We braced everything after attaching the first piece, then had lunch. After our break, we removed the braces and stood back to watch the roof slide onto the lawn.
On the second try, we used stiffer icing. We pressed a roof piece into place and it cracked into three pieces.
A looser batch of icing and two thinner, lighter roof panels fixed the problem.
While you assemble, remember: bracing, bracing, bracing. Have plenty of jars, glasses, wood skewers and other objects available to brace things until they dry.
The gingerbread may expand or flow so the pieces won't fit together. I fixed the problem by firing up my Dremel with a sanding drum to square up the pieces. This created some noise and a lot of gingerbread dust that was very satisfying.
Once you get the structure up, decorate to taste. Leah helped make ice-cream-cone pine trees with green icing and cake decorations. We added a Tootsie-Roll- and-pretzel fence, gumdrop stone wall, a woodshed and a railroad with a metal steam engine and licorice tracks. Icing snow completed our house -- for now. The gingerbread family we made seem quite pleased.
One school of thought says that gingerbread houses should be edible and enjoyed by passers-by. But, I'm reminded of what happened to Hansel and Gretel when they partook. Also, it takes an awful lot of work to create a totally edible centerpiece, and after a few days in the dry winter air, it almost petrifies. Finally, as my wife reminded me, like any house, it gets dusty.
Makes enough for a house about 9 inches long and 9 inches high, plus leftover scraps for decorations
6 cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups molasses
2 beaten eggs
Royal Icing (see below)
Mix dry ingredients except sugar in one bowl. Melt shortening in a pan over low heat. Add sugar and molasses and remove from heat. Mix in eggs until completely incorporated.
Add half of the wet mixture to the dry and stir with a wooden spoon until completely absorbed. Add the remaining wet ingredients and knead dough until completely mixed. Chill dough for a couple of hours. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Tape a large sheet of parchment paper onto a flat surface and put one-third of the dough on the parchment. Roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch for end walls and 1/8 inch for roof pieces and other pieces. Keep the gingerbread and the rolling pin floured to prevent sticking.
Cut the pieces according to your pattern. Place the parchment on the very flat cookie sheet (or pizza stone) and bake. Watch the gingerbread carefully. You want it fully baked, but as soon as it begins to darken, remove it to a rack to cool -- overnight if possible.
Royal Icing (Sweet Concrete)
Makes enough to assemble and decorate house
1 pound confectioners' sugar
3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Put sugar in a bowl or stand mixer. Add egg whites and cream of tartar.
Mix on low until it reaches the stiff-peaks stage (about 10 minutes). Don't over mix. If it's too stiff, the icing won't flow through the piping bag. Add color if desired, and mix carefully with a spoon.