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Sunday, November 29, 2015

How to Build a Gingerbread House

Or, rather, how I built mine.

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it's time to haul out the holly and celebrate the arguably most-prominent holiday in America, Christmas! I celebrate both Christmas and Yule, it's Pagan ancestor, and building gingerbread houses has become a new tradition for me!

Last year, I recreated (perhaps a bit haphazardly, I'll admit) the Garney Mansion, a historic and beautiful landmark of Kansas City that tragically burned down in March of 2014. The family was exceptionally gracious in their allowing me to recreate their beloved home out of gingerbread, and were even more gracious to buy it from the fundraiser, Gingerbread Lane.

Gingerbread Lane is a wonderful fundraiser held by the Children's Center for the Visually Impaired, located in Midtown Kansas City. Local bakeries and pastry chefs gather to create staggering creations out of gingerbread, in hopes that they'll be auctioned off to help further fund the CCVI. This was my entry last year.

While this looks like there's a lot more decoration on it, I assure you that it's more flash and less substance. It was a bit ramshackled, in my honest opinion, but it truly wasn't bad for my first try!

This year's entry, called "Steve", is a bit improved!

Notice the windows? They're made from melted jolly rancher candies, and piped over with royal icing! The house originally had a half-timbered look fashioned from hand-painted Twizzlers, but they were so waxy and bent that they just wouldn't stay on. I ended up knocking all of them off and instead hand-panted each and every little bit of royal icing that was on there. I almost wish that I'd been smart enough to stick a little battery-powered light on the inside of that house before I'd attached the roof. Still, I'm quite proud of it.

The shutters on the windows were made from chocolate bar sections, and then piped over with royal icing. I was really proud of how they turned out!

The roof was, by far, the most-daunting part of the entire house! The roof was painted green using gel coloring with egg whites, and then left to dry. I then piped medium-consistency icing to create the shingles. It wasn't perfect, but I ended up being proud of the final result. I know that it has no chance of winning anything, but I hope that someone ends up buying Steve, if only to have an extra $50 or something to the CCVI's name!

My amazing boyfriend, B, (who happens to be a fantastic architect) was good enough to stick by me through the process, and even design the templates for my houses for both years. My dear friend Jay(of whom I've written several times) was also good enough to break away for several hours and help with the construction. Her hands are steady and her handwriting is far better than mine, so she did quite a bit of the piping and even wrote "willkommen" on the door mat for me.

Structure was the scariest part of this endeavor for me, just because I knew that the creation had to be 18" tall. The chimney went all the way through the house and offered as a sort of support beam. It was the scariest part of construction because it'd actually cracked in a few places while we were assembling it. Quick-thinking and calm Jay simply smeared it all back together with icing. Fortunately, it was able to be hidden within the structure of the house and wouldn't affect it cosmetically.

The house was finished with mere hours to spare and only had a few touches here and there in my mind. I was also exhausted from a sheer lack of sleep, so I honestly figured it was better to just stand on what I'd done rather than adding more things after the fact. The delivery was set for 9 am and I meant to deliver on time. I didn't really have the time nor energy to do my sugar cone trees. I did, however, make a "stone" path to and from the house using chocolates and a fresh coat of snow that's actually homemade marshmallow. You can find the recipe for marshmallows here; a single batch is all that was needed to cover this entire creation, but you can double-up if you want a really high pile of "snow"!

I also used oven-tried coconut flakes to add a little extra texture, just around the house and front porch. A few well-placed candies on the roof's pitch gave an extra splash of color, and a few peppermint candies here and there didn't hurt, either. I just wanted it to be simple, you know? After such a hard and stressful week, I wanted to make something simple, something that I could live with. Will it win any awards? It's likely not, considering this is only my second year doing the fundraiser, and all of the others were so beautifully done and heavily-decorated. I can hope for people's choice, sure, by asking friends to vote for me, but I can live with the fact that I'll not win anything.

Being a chef has taught me that it's sometimes not about glory, but about accomplishing something.

With little-to-no sleep on a 48-hour time frame, I build a gingerbread house from scratch. You can, too, using this recipe for gingerbread dough:

Gingerbread Dough
yields: 3 lb dough

  • 8 oz shortening
  • 7 oz sugar
  • 0.6 oz baking powder
  • 0.3 oz baking soda
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 8 fl oz molasses
  • 2 eggs
  • 38 oz AP flour

This is a basic cookie method. 

Preheat the oven to 350 farenheit, low fan. Sift your dry ingredients together. Cream your fats together with your sugars, then add the eggs one at a time, all using the paddle attachment. Switch to the dough hook and add in your flour. Don't worry about gluten development too much, as you're not really making this to be eaten. Chill for about an hour before rolling and cutting your shapes, which should be greased, for good measure.

For precision, roll out in large sheets, cut your pieces, bake halfway through, then cut AGAIN for trim while still warm. The initial bake should take about 10 minutes, and then an extra 8 minutes for the final set. I suggest cutting out the windows before the initial bake, then trimming away for straight lines, should you desire.

Royal Icing
yields about a pound

  • 12 oz powdered sugar
  • ½ tsp lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 2 oz egg whites

Sift the sugar and set aside. Place the egg white and lemon juice in the standing mixer with the whisk attachment. Add about half the sugar and begin whisking on  medium low until incorporated. Increase the speed and check consistency. Add sugar as needed to correct.

I doubled the recipe on the gingerbread dough to create an 18" tall house with a chimney and a giant high-pitched roof. You can save the leftover dough and use it to create holiday ornaments for your friends and family. Simply roll out and cut using the desired shapes, and pipe designs in royal icing. These are wonderful gifts for family members, and they're truly a sentimental.

Word to the wise: make sure you drill that hole
BEFORE it's baked!
I visited B's family just this evening and saw their Christmas tree, fully decorated, complete with two of my hand-made gingerbread ornaments from last year. They truly do stand the test of time! You can write the names of your loved ones on the ornament to customize it further, and decorate it using different colored icings.

For any questions regarding these techniques, please don't be afraid to comment, because I can't bite you through a screen!

If you like "Steve", please come out to Webster House in Kansas City to vote for it, or any other house you like! Voting jars are placed at each house, and each dollar counts as a vote. Even if you don't vote for mine, you'll be voting/donating to a very worthy cause.

Happy holidays from WannaBGourmande.com!

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