Gingerbread House Construction Tips

It’s that time of year again!  Gingerbread house making!

There are a lot of people out there who make gingerbread houses every year around this time, and they are just doing it because it’s fun and festive.  I am not one of those people.  Growing up around a bunch of boys, I developed a bit of a competitive streak.  My friends who are reading this right now are laughing at how much I just downplayed that statement.  Ok… so I live for competition.  Gingerbread houses not excluded.

Two years ago, I entered the first annual Raleigh Winterfest Gingerbread House Competition.  I took home first place and was totally hooked.  I honestly thought I went a little overboard on my Victorian-style house.  I showed up to drop off my entry and was floored by the level of game that the other competitors brought.  So I spent the whole next day fretting over the outcome and stalking the gingerbread tent.  In the end, my house got the most votes and my obsession began.

2014-winner

So last year I decided to defend my title and enter the Raleigh Winterfest competition again.  I got second place.  I was pretty mad for a hot sec.  I worked really hard on my Cardinal Birdhouse, but I just don’t think it had the same curb appeal as the winner.  The kids just weren’t into it.  Gotta make the kids happy…

2015-2nd-place

This year I decided to switch it up and do the Cary Heart of the Holidays contest.  I live in Cary, so it made more sense.  I cannot begin to explain how stressful it was trying to transport a house made of food to downtown Raleigh.  Yikes!

Once I entered the Cary contest, I found out that the judging was done by a panel instead of by popular vote like the Raleigh contest.  I was super pumped!  I love focusing on the details instead of the overall curb appeal, and no need to please the kids!  So I went with a very basic house structure and fancied it up as best I could with some fun confectionery treats.  I called it the “Nut House”. It was voted first place!

2016-winner

While the judges panel selected my house as the overall winner, I lost the popular vote.  People’s Choice went to the Woodsy Nut House made by Susan Hickman.  I must admit, it is much more whimsical than mine.  I would have voted for it, too.  I love that our themes were very similar, but the results were drastically different.

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If you take a look at my entries from the last 3 years, you will notice some patterns.  I have a few go-to methods that I like to use when constructing my houses.  They’ve served me well.  I will start with my shopping list.  There are several items that I either already have at the house or will go out and buy that I use almost every year.

“Must Haves” List:

Powdered Sugar – you can never have enough; you need it for the icing that you will use in almost every aspect of building

Ice Cream Cones – preferably the sugar cones; easiest way to make trees and can be used for things like turrets and planters

Candy Canes – the perfect thing for columns, fence posts, street lamps, etc

Sprinkles – will give you the texture you need on almost anything – I love the holiday themed ones

Nuts – peanuts, pecans, almonds and slivered almonds are my favorite; they make for great roofing materials

Pretzel Rods – can be used as logs, columns, firewood, sign posts, etc; also great for helping hold up your structure

Graham Crackers – can be used for anything requiring a flat surface – stairs, signs, decks, roofs; can also help hold up your structure

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Over the years, I have also tried to perfect the recipes I use when making and baking the various parts of my house.

RECIPES

White House Gingerbread Recipe – This is the recipe I use to bake the actual gingerbread.  It is amazing and has served me well for years.  I have some great tips that I will share with you about the actual process, but this is THE recipe.

Icing “Glue” or “Cement” Recipe – This is the recipe for the icing I use to do all of my gluing and decorating.  It dries hard, colors easily, and looks great on its own.

Edible “Glass” Windows Recipe – This is the recipe I use to make clear “glass” windows for my houses.  This year was the first time I used it, but I really liked the results.  I included a few tips and tricks that I learned from some failed attempts.

TIPS & TRICKS

Raw Gingerbread Rolling Instructions:  Before rolling out your raw gingerbread, figure out how thick you want each piece to be.  Then find something to use in order to keep the gingerbread at that thickness.  For example, I use thick poster board that I cut into two long thin strips.  I place a strip on either side of my rolling surface and place the rolling pin on top of them.  That way the gingerbread will never be thinner than the poster board.  Just keep rolling until you have a smooth surface.  I roll the mix right onto parchment paper so I can cut it out and bake it without having to move it.  I just slide a cookie sheet under it to transfer it to the oven.

Raw Gingerbread Cutting Instructions:  Before baking the gingerbread, draw out all the pieces you will need to build your house.  I generally do a rough sketch of the structure then I draw one to scale on a big sketch pad.  Then I draw out each individual piece to scale and label them to keep track of which piece goes where.  Then I cover one side of the sketch paper with packing tape and cut each piece out.  The packing tape allows me to lay one side of the paper cutouts down on the raw gingerbread without it getting stuck.  I use a small Wilton Cutter Embosser to do my cutting.  It’s like a small plastic pizza cutter.
nut-house-roll

Cooked Gingerbread Cutting Instructions:  After you’ve baked your gingerbread, you will want to trim the edges of your pieces.  The baking process will cause your gingerbread to expand ever so slightly, and that makes it harder to glue the pieces of your house together.  I use a paring knife to slice off the edges of each piece within seconds of it coming out of the oven.  It must be done immediately or the gingerbread will harden and crack.  Clean, straight edges are so much easier to glue.  I keep all the extra gingerbread scraps as well.  They come in handy when making decorations.

Cooked Gingerbread Cooling Instructions:  When allowing your gingerbread to cool, I suggest using a cooling rack.  Keep the gingerbread on the parchment paper you baked it on.  That way you don’t have to handle the gingerbread every time you want to move it and risk breaking it.  Avoid stacking the pieces on top of one another if you can.  If you need to stack them, wait until they are completely cool before doing so.

Decorating the Gingerbread Walls:  It may seem logical to glue all of your pieces together and then start decorating.  But I actually suggest that you do as much decorating as possible before creating your structure.  It is much easier to glue little tiny parts onto a flat surface.  For example, if you want to put shutters or windows on your house, you could either glue them on flat all at the same time and leave them to dry on their own… or you could wait until the walls are up, glue them on one at a time and hold them individually in place until they dry.  Trust me… I’ve made this mistake before.  Glue them on first.

Create the Gingerbread House Structure:  This is the nerve-racking part.  If you are just doing this for fun, you can use cardboard, wood, boxes, styrofoam, etc to aide in the construction of your walls.  However, if you’re entering your house into a contest, there is usually a rule that you cannot use anything but edible materials.  So I like to use a combination of things to help hold the structure up: pretzel rods, graham crackers, and/or candy bars.  Use the Glue Icing Recipe to glue down the edges and add your supports.

Adding the Roof:  This part should be rather easy to do if you followed all my other tips.  The edges should be straight and even, and the glue icing should harden rather quickly.  Use an icing bag with a Wilton tip that has a round opening between a number 6 and 12.  I find that to be the most effective.  If the icing overflows anywhere, you can always add some extra to make it look like mounds of snow.

Decorating the Roof:  There are so many options when decorating the roof of a gingerbread house.  I almost always use some sort of nut.  Pecans are my favorite because they take up a lot of space and thus less of them are required.  Slivered almonds are what I like to use for chimneys.  They make for a great “stone” look.

That about does it for my gingerbread house tips and tricks.  I have a few photos of the process I used for making my house this time around that I will share with you.

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I created clear “glass” windows for the first time this year.  I was really impressed with the way the came out. nut-house-6

I used the icing to glue them on to the inside of the front and back of my house.
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I glued graham crackers to the sides of my house and covered them in icing and slivered almonds for two great chimneys.

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I colored some fondant, rolled it out, and cut it into tiny little rectangles that looked like bricks.  I added them to the sides of the house to cover up some of the empty space.nut-house-11

I added some more slivered almonds above my windows to give them some character.  I also used some gingerbread scraps, icing and holiday sprinkles to give my windows some flower boxes.  The shutters are made from fondant.

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I used the same icing and holiday sprinkles to decorate some sugar ice cream cones to look like trees.

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The slivered almonds also went into decorating the front of the house.  It gave the edges a scalloped look.

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I crushed up some of those slivered almonds and used them to form a walkway to the front steps.  The steps are made from graham crackers.  The flowers are icing and sprinkles.  The columns are candy canes.  The planters are sugar ice cream cones.

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I covered a graham cracker in fondant and cut out little letters.  Then I glued a peanut border on and used some pretzel rods as supports for a sign.nut-house-18

I used fondant to create a little squirrel for the front lawn.  I even glued a peanut in his hands.

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I used the gingerbread scraps to make a few little extras for the yard.  (They are also great for dipping in milk and eating as you work!)nut-house-20

I glued some scraps to a pretzel rod to create a flower stand.

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Then I glued some big holiday sprinkles to the tops of the pretzel rods.

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I glued my icing flowers to the sprinkles for a great little plant.

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I placed some of the gingerbread scraps in a pile to look like firewood.  Then I made an ax out of fondant and a stump out of a pretzel rod.  Fun!

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Here’s a close-up of the front of the house.  Details make all the difference.

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The last thing I did was add an icing border to all the edges of the house.  It covered up all the messy edges and gave the appearance of snow and icicles.

I was very pleased with my house this year.  My techniques are improving and I’m getting faster every year.  My goal is to one day enter the National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville.  Despite my competitive nature, I know better than to hope for a win at a competition like that.  I just want to be a part of it.  Professionals from all over the country enter that contest.  To give you an idea of the level of talent, I will leave you with this…

national-winner-2016

The 2016 National Gingerbread House Competition Winner (Holy frickin smokes!)

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