I have made a gingerbread house almost every year since I was about 10, and every year at some point during the process I have a minor meltdown and think “why the heck did i put myself through this again!!?” as my candy-laden roof begins to buckle under the weight. I seem incapable of taking this annual activity lightly and its only getting worse, but in my defense that first gingerbread house I made with my Mom and Grandma was a Martha Stewart castle (i wish i had a picture but i think you can imagine what we are talkin’ about here) so the bar was set pretty high. No more pre-baked kits, gumdrop landscaping or randomly placed marshmallows (see below).
Amateur hour was over.
This year I was quite ambitious in my attempt to recreate the Ghostbusters firehouse (which I walk by almost daily) in addition to a row of townhouses and an intricate brownstone – the meltdown was inevitable. But one deep breath in of that molassesy spice-filled aroma reminded me that there is really nothing better than making gingerbread while
listening dancing to Mariah’s christmas album (or just this song on repeat).
So it is in the interest of spreading holiday cheer that I have compiled a how-to guide with the recipes and tools you will need, links to templates or tips on making your own, as well as all of the things I have learned over the years.
I hope you are inspired to make your own gingerbread wonderland!
Tools – most are pretty standard items that you probably already have, some are less common so I have gone over those in more detail below (with links to where you can get them).
- Rolling Rings: a genius invention that take the guesswork out of just how thick 1/16 of an inch really is aaaand all of your dough will come out exactly the same thickness!! Trust me, once you have these you will not know how you lived without them.
- Stencils: i have an old school Martha set that is probably 20 years old but these days you can find a million different designs online. You can also make them yourself quite easily with an exacto knife – I would only recommend keeping it simple and remember to measure twice and cut once.
- Piping bags & tips: i like to use these disposable piping bags so I can have multiple colors of icing going at once – as for the tips, they are not necessarily essential if you are just using the royal icing as a glue to stick things on the gingerbread but if you want some decorative flourishes I would highly recommend having a few, like these that come with a coupler (that white thing next to the tips) which allows you to switch tips without having to change bags or take all the icing out of the one your are using. Another “how did I ever live without this” kind of item.
In case you are new to piping bags and such, here’s a quick video to help you!!
Templates/Stencils – These days it might be harder to find a physical template kit at a craft store than it is to download and print one but before you head out there into the great big interwebs abyss, here are a few recommendations based on my experience:
- If making your own template, keep it simple and make it obvious which piece is which – I made the sides similar to but not exactly the same size as the front/back and when it came time to assemble I used the back on the side so my whole firehouse was wonky (and the roof did not fit!) – you dont want this to happen after all the work you put in. Trust me.
- When it comes to finding a template online or at a craft store, just keep it simple!! Like this one or here are some of Martha’s simpler designs.
- Don’t try to do too much at once – use the same template for a few houses and just decorate them differently because having multiple templates creates a lot of different pieces that have to fit in a lot of different places and it is almost impossible to keep everything straight.
The Dough – Every year at the end of our Christmas party, the (slightly over-served) hoards descend upon my beautiful creation and devour anything their teeth will sink into. This year, as a defensive strategy, I made the houses out of dough that was technically “edible” but is meant to withstand such natural disasters (and will likely crack the tooth of anyone who does not heed my warning). So even after the party, my house is still standing but I realized eating it is half the fun and a much more fitting destruction than sliding into the trash come february. So the recipe below is back to my tried-and-true tasty gingerbread dough (which is also perfect for holiday sugar cookies).
- 8 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ cup honey or molasses (or a mixture of the two)
- 3 eggs
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- ⅛ tsp ground cloves
- ⅛ tsp ground allspice
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the honey or molasses and beat again until fluffy.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each and scraping the sides of the bowl.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients.
- With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients and mix just until combined.
- Divide dough into three discs, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes (and up to several days).
- Preheat oven to 350˚F.
- Roll dough out between two sheets of parchment paper to about ⅛ inch (using your rolling rings), chill in the fridge again until firm, about 15 minutes.
- Cut out as many pieces from each rolled sheet as possible, placing these on a parchment lined baking sheet and setting aside scraps to reroll.
- Bake pieces for 15-20 minutes, until edges are golden brown and center looks completely set.
Royal Icing – I still find it amazing just how rock hard this stuff gets. I like to make a lot, usually starting with 2x the recipe so my creativity is not constrained while decorating – well actually its because despite my perfect plan things get wonky so having some extra icing to fill in those gaps is key. The recipe makes a thick icing (like the pic above) that is best for glueing parts together as it will harden fastest.
- Coloring the icing – gel food color is best because it does not affect the consistency of the icing as much and it gives you more vibrant colors.
- Consistency – as i said before, keep the icing thick for glueing the house together but to prevent major hand cramping i suggest thinning the icing out just a bit. To do this add ** 1/2 – 3/4 tsp of water per 1 cup of icing ** – that is teaspoons people, we are talking a very small amount of water. I like to actually spoon the water using a 1/2 tsp measure and mix with a spatula before adding more.
- Storing – while using always keep icing covered with a damp cloth and plastic wrap. For storing overnight – if it is already in a pastry bag, no need to take it out just put the whole thing in a sealed plastic bag – or for the stuff still in the mixing bowl, put in an airtight tupperware container.
- 6 tbl meringue powder (or dried egg whites)
- ¾ cup warm water
- 2 lbs (2 boxes) confectioners sugar
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the meringue powder and warm water and whisk by hand just to break up any clumps. Let this sit 1-2 minutes.
- Using the paddle attachment, begin beating the water/meringue powder on slowest speed. Gradually add the confectioners sugar, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Once all of the sugar has been added, increase the speed to med-high and beat for two minutes - the icing should whiten in color and thicken.
- Color the icing while it is nice and thick in small batches then thin it out as necessary for decorating.
- Facade and roof decorations should be completely dry before starting to build.
- Build on a sturdy piece of cardboard or plastic.
- Start with the front and side wall – pipe along the bottom of the two walls and along the edges where they will connect – let these set a minute before moving on and repeating the process.
- Allow walls to fully set before adding the roof – for a big roof i would recommend overnight, for something smaller like these townhouses I think an hour or two should be ok.
- Trees: I used a set of star cookie cutters and stacked them on top of each other from biggest to smallest. I love how they turned out (thanks to my Mom for these beauties!!). Oh and the tree toppers are cupcake toppers which you can find pretty much anywhere these days (i think mine are from amazon) – or make your own with some glittery paper and a toothpick!
- Sprinkles are a great addition to any gingerbread house – if you are in nyc i recommend checking out this place, if not amazon is always an excellent choice.
- Candy is a great way to add different colors and textures, my only advice is to go easy on the roof, especially if slanted.