I am not an architect. I do not know how to understand blueprints or make things stable or even really understand what a “model” does. I am a competent cook, but a bad baker. The two layer cakes I have attempted to make in my life both began to slump like the tower in Pisa within hours of their completion. I am, however, immensely stubborn, and very spirited.
I kept seeing gingerbread houses everywhere, and as someone who loves a good snap cookie and a bunch of gummy candies, I sought out some experts to give you (me) the tips that don’t quite make it into the recipes you read online (and there are hundreds of them).
It’s important to know, before you read any further, that you are almost certainly already behind on the steps needed to create a pristine gingerbread house. You also almost certainly need several days to prepare. This is your new life.
According to Julia Moskin, staff reporter for The New York Times and author of their gingerbread guide, the biggest mistake new bakers make is, “not starting far enough in advance. This is not something you want to begin Christmas Eve.”
For your own sanity, you’ll want a few days to build your house. You are an architect of cookies, a holiday cheer summoner, a defier of physics. Time to become a Christmas Elf:
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Set a good foundation
Gingerbread houses are hard — and nerve wracking — to move, so pick a stable platform that can be moved easily, or build directly on your display surface. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, Fred Johnson, District Executive Chef for the U.S. House of Representatives, made a six-foot long, 25cm-tall gingerbread rendering of the U.S. Capitol this year.
To keep it stable, Johnson built his massive structure on a conference table, but for your smaller-scale creation, anything stable and flat will work. I used a metal cookie sheet, but a solid cutting board would also work.
Even once you’re building on a good foundation, it’s possible you’ll end up needing reinforcements. This is the secret all professional gingerbread house makers know that we lowly newcomers do not: your cookies do not have to support themselves! Johnson, for example, used a wooden support structure to help his gingerbread house stand up.
If you want to cheat by putting a bunch of canned goods inside your house to prop up that one tilt-y wall, that’s fine. And if you want it to still be all edible, you can even use rice krispie treats as your stabilizer.
You can use whatever you want. Johnson built a wooden frame! No one has to know. The cookie covers all flaws.
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Pick the best possible blueprint
“I think a simple house shape with straight sides is the best for a beginner,” Colette Peters, of Colette’s Cakes, says. “You can definitely fancy it up with candies, cookies and other treats.”
Stella Parks (of Bravetart fame) made a very easy-to-understand video for Serious Eats about how to roll out your dough, make the most of your space, and score the pieces before you bake them. But here are the basics you need to know:
Roll your dough out to about 1/8th of an inch thick. If you have a fancy rolling pin, you can use attachments, or you can just eyeball it; it’s fine. I rolled my dough on my single counter space, and then moved it carefully (gingerly… you might say) onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper so it would be easy to pick up later.
I then put my stencil on top of the cookie and traced it with a knife so that I could cut it out easily later. For the sake of clarity, I also tried cutting out some of my pieces and baking them individually but found that they spread more and also somehow curled, which must have been the result of an error on my part. This was easy enough to fix.
For one wall, I could easily trim a half-inch off (and then also trim its compatriot on the other side of the house). One curled cookie, though, I simply covered up with icing and told no one about until right now.
“I used a pizza cutter half way [through the] baking process to clean up against my stencil because there is some growth that happens, and plus it gives a nice clean edge,” Johnson suggests. (This would have been a good tip for me to follow, but I forgot.)
For Johnson’s gingerbread house, he used a blueprint of the Capitol, scaled it down, and then printed out pieces and pieced them together on a conference table. This is impossible in my opinion, and more work than a first time builder should take on. But it is good to have a stencil to work with. You can make one out of paper and tape it gently together to make sure everything is the right size, and then take it apart and use those papers to trace out your pieces.
Two of the experts I spoke with recommended staying away from curved walls (who are you, Corbusier?) and very narrow pieces which will snap in two when you try to stick them together. In short: keep the design simple.
I went with a super classic regular house shape: two pentagon pieces for the front and back, two rectangular side walls, and two slightly larger rectangular roof pieces. I also made these in smaller sizes for my dog house.
Choose your materials — and recipe — wisely
Once you know what your house, or sleigh, or tree, is going to look like and you’ve made your traceable paper stencils, it’s time to make your gingerbread. Pick a recipe that corresponds with how much effort you’re willing to put in. The New York Times recipe, for example, takes at least five days to do right.
Some only take an afternoon. Most want you to at least let the pieces dry out for a few hours. I gave myself 18 hours so that I could make the cookie dough and bake it and then have a break before doing anything else. At the least, you’ll need a full work day of attention.
If you’re working quickly (in an afternoon) try baking your gingerbread low and slow at around 250° for longer so that the cookie will be drier and more stable. I baked my fairly big cookie walls at 250° for 30 minutes, and it worked well.
If you bake at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time, your gingerbread will be softer, which tastes better but is harder to work with. Everyone taking five days to make a house is in pursuit of incredibly dry gingerbread. If your cookies are dry enough you can just cheat (as mentioned above) and spend less time waiting.
The other crucial thing to keep in mind with materials: You must. Use. Royal. Icing. This is not negotiable. “It’s the only thing strong enough to keep the house stable,” Moskin says. “And since it looks like snow, you can always add more!” Do not use buttercream or that delicious frosting in a can. It won’t harden, and while it will still taste delicious, your house won’t stay properly glued together.
I did not even do a particularly good job making my royal icing and it was not glossy, but it held together and that’s what the Christmas Spirit is all about.
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Some notes on decoration
Just as it’s crucial to use royal icing — and no other kind of icing! — as the glue for your house, it’s also essential to let that (royal) icing dry before you start the rest of your decorations. Start too soon, and your house will fall apart when you start pushing candy onto it.
As far as what you should use for that decoration,, “Most beginners should start with candy,” Peters says, as opposed to more intricate icing work. The royal icing you already mixed up to hold the house together will work to glue the candies to your house, as well. I found particular success with red hots, peppermints, spiced gumdrops, and white chocolate Reese’s cups. Very festive.
If you want to make things fancier, you can cut a window in your wall before the dough goes in the oven, and place some hard candies inside so that when you bake it it turns into a stained glass window you can eat. Moskin recommends Jolly Ranchers. I did not try this myself, because I was scared.
“I love to put a snow-covered log pile on the side of the house,” Moskin adds. “It’s just pretzel rods stuck together with royal icing but it looks so real.” I did this. It was easy and I am impressed with myself. I also consumed it before any photos were taken.
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The cheat option
I had never made a gingerbread house from scratch before this year. I do not come from a family of bakers and it seemed like a lot of work, which it absolutely was. Growing up, we did decorate gingerbread houses, however, but of the easier, pre-made variety.
If the steps laid out above seem like more than you could conceive of taking on, there’s currently a $15 kit available from Target that comes with pre-baked cookies.
A word of caution, though: the kit is fun for fifteen minutes, but mostly it depends on having a delicate hand at icing and good design sense. By comparison, my gingerbread house is not the most beautiful thing in the world, but I made all of it.
I kept it incredibly simple and didn’t do anything risky, and in the end, my gingerbread house is adorable, thank you. The suspense of whether it would fall kept me on my toes for the hours while it dried, and there was a lot of extra gingerbread leftover to eat while I waited.
It was time consuming, but also more rewarding, when, in the end, my gingerbread house stood up, which is more than I could have asked for. I thank the Royal Icing. Congrats, we’re all architects now!