You all loved Jenny’s kitchen and well, her whole house! when she shared a while back. She’ll be sharing her beautiful style here regularly (hooray!) and today she has some amazing inspiration, tips, tricks, and recipes for your annual gingerbread house tradition!
Gingerbread houses don’t have to be fancy (think graham crackers on empty cardboard milk cartons), but if you want them to, they can be elegant, frilly, or even gaudy. You simply can’t go wrong. They’re an expression of your creativity and your mood—an incarnation of what the season means to you.
For nearly thirty years, I’ve been making gingerbread houses at Christmas time. Small ones. Big ones. Red and green ones. Pink and blue ones. Ones covered only in frosting and ones dripping in candy canes and gum drops.
You don’t have to be an expert to make a gingerbread house! Don’t be intimidated by the elaborate gingerbread houses you see on magazine covers. Gingerbread houses—both baking and decorating them—should be fun! No keeping up with the Joneses here. Just do your thing! Here are some tips and tricks to help you on your way . . .
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Gingerbread houses take time! Even if you’re buying a ready-made kit from your local grocery store, the icing takes hours to set up, just as it does when you’re building from scratch. If you’re baking the gingerbread, you want to give it anywhere from a full day to even 2 weeks to dry out completely before you start building with it. And once construction is under way, the icing takes several hours to dry, requiring that you work in steps over a number of days.
To make a gingerbread house from scratch, this is what you’ll need:
- A sturdy base (such as heavy-duty cardboard or plywood, depending on the projected size and weight of your gingerbread house). If you plan on having landscaping surrounding your house, the base should be several inches larger than the footprint of your house.
- A pattern or template for your house or church or train or whatever it is that you’re making from gingerbread. Search the Internet! There are a ton of free, as well as for-a-fee, options out there. You can also design your own. I’ve even used the pieces from a dollhouse kit as a template for a gingerbread house.
- A reliable gingerbread dough recipe (I share a great one later in this post) and all the necessary ingredients.
- Cookie or baking sheets that are not warped, but that lie flat so that your gingerbread does not end up misshapen as it bakes. You’ll need a rolling pin, too, and if you’ve got a stand mixer, use it!
- The ingredients for the “glue” needed to assemble your house. I prefer to use royal icing (I buy Wilton Meringue Powder and add water and powdered sugar according to the recipe on the can). But some people use a hot sugar syrup, which works, too. (I’ve even heard of people who don’t plan on eating the house who use a glue gun and hot glue sticks to get the job done—nobody can see the glue under all the frosting and candy and apparently it does a great job of holding your house together).If you want to tint your icing different colors, you’ll also need food coloring.
- Candy and sprinkles and edible delights of all colors, shapes, and sizes! I have made 2 or 3 gingerbread houses over the years decorated entirely with frosting, which can be beautiful, but more traditional houses incorporate candy in to the design.
Inspiration is everywhere! In store windows, in magazines, on the Internet. And I’m not talking just gingerbread houses here, but anything that attracts your eye that could be translated in to gingerbread. For example, the first time I drove by the house featured below, I just knew I had to make it into a gingerbread house. And so I did.
This red-and-white house below was inspired by some wrapping paper I saw that had a white background with red snowflakes all over it. I loved it so much that I wanted it to be a gingerbread house! It’s one of my favorite houses of all time and yet it’s not terribly traditional. Think outside the box! Make your house what you want it to be!
I’ve been making gingerbread houses long enough that I have a sixth sense for gingerbread inspiration that stays with me 365 days/year. For example, when walking down the Halloween clearance aisles at Wal-Mart, I spotted black decorating sugar for $0.40/bottle. I knew as soon as I saw it that it would add great texture and shimmer to a candy-shingle roof on a gingerbread house. I used the sugar on the Victorian-style house I built this year. (The picture below shows a section of roof covered in watered-down royal icing that I colored black with food coloring gel. The picture below that shows the shingle-like texture I achieved by sprinkling black sanding sugar all over it while the icing was still wet).
Now it’s time for my very favorite construction gingerbread recipe. It’s remarkable stuff. It works in humid climates or dry ones. If dried out properly after baking, it can withstand a significant amount of weight in icing and candy. It rolls out smoothly and bakes evenly. It smells heavenly. It’s heavy-duty and sturdy. It can be used for 2- and 3-story houses. My family and I have collectively made what may amount to hundreds of batches of the stuff over the years and it’s never failed us. Not once. Oh, and the spices make it smell incredible!
This is a picture of me and my two sisters posing in front of 2 gingerbread houses we made together with our Mom for Christmas 1993. We used the wonderful recipe you’ll find below!
My family got the recipe from Mary Comstock and her daughters Karen, Lauren, and Katie (I have featured some of Mary’s and Lauren’s beautiful gingerbread houses towards the end of this post). They in turn got it from a high school German teacher, Frau Em, who told them it is an authentic German recipe. The recipe has been in the Comstock family for over 40 years. And they make one or more gingerbread houses with it each Christmas (and sometimes for other holidays, like Halloween).
Even if you have your own gingerbread construction recipe, I recommend reading through this one, as I’ve included tips that would apply no matter what recipe you use.
And, yes, that really is the name of the recipe.
or, The Never-Fail Gingerbread Recipe
(click here for a printable version of the recipe)
Each recipe makes about 1 baking sheet of dough.
- 1 cup shortening
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 cup molasses
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon cloves
- 5 cups pre-sifted white all-purpose flour
Cream shortening and sugar in a stand mixer. Add egg and molasses.
Add vinegar, baking soda, salt, and spices. Add flour gradually. (You may need to knead in the last cups of flour by hand.)
Pour 1/4 cup or so of vegetable oil on a large, heavy baking sheet with sides (a half-sheet pan — about 18″x 13″ by 1″ high — is perfect). Roll out dough with rolling pin until it fills the baking sheet on all sides and meets the corners. (A standard size rolling pin will fit perfectly across the width of the baking sheet.) You should keep adding vegetable oil to the top of the dough as necessary to help it roll out slick and smooth. Remove any excess dough that does not disappear beneath the rolling pin and mesh flatly into the pan. Use that dough in another pan of gingerbread.
Place your pattern pieces on top of the gingerbread and cut gingerbread house pieces in gingerbread using the tip of a knife (wipe the knife clean in between cuts, if necessary) and leave them in the pan. Cut your pieces to maximize the available space just like you would if you were using cookie cutters to cut sugar cookie dough. Pieces can share sides without space in between. You don’t need to separate the pieces out from the surrounding scraps at this time (in fact, it’s better to leave them in to keep the gingerbread from spreading). Just be sure to cut all the way through to the pan as cleanly and precisely as possible.
Bake at 350 degrees F until very well done (remember, this is for building, not for eating, and you want it dry). Depending on your oven and other factors, this can take as little as 20 minutes or as much as 35 minutes or more.
When you pull the pans out of the oven, re-trace your design cuts in the gingerbread (if you don’t, you won’t be able to separate your house pieces from the surrounding scraps when the gingerbread has dried).
Let gingerbread cool in the baking sheets until it’s no longer too hot to handle. Carefully remove the house pieces and set on cooling racks to cool completely. Ensure the pieces do not touch each other as you want the air to be able to circulate freely to dry everything out. Now is the time to pop out the ‘scraps,’ before they become hard. ‘Scraps’ are the insides of windows or the spaces between fence rails, etc. Remove the door, but don’t throw it away because you can include it later when you assemble your house — a front door can be a fun part of your house to decorate!
Leave the gingerbread out to try. (Leaving it on cooling racks is ideal so that the air can circulate on all sides.) Gingerbread used for building should “season” about 2 weeks before being used to build with so it can dry out. Dry gingerbread is stronger and will support more weight. If you’re pressed for time, or if you’re building a small house, you can get away with letting it dry overnight, just be sure to limit exposure to moisture and humidity by carefully choosing where you leave the pieces to dry.
Once you have your dried pieces, it’s time to build!
Take a hard look at your base (heavy cardboard or plywood). Will you be adding landscaping around your house? A pretzel fence perhaps? Or maybe some sugar cone pine trees? A candy rock walkway? Calculate roughly where your house needs to be on the board in relation to what you plan to put around it.
Inspect your gingerbread pieces. Are your edges straight? If you need to do a little trimming, I prefer a bread knife and a light hand. Be very careful as you trim, though, as you don’t want the gingerbread to crack or crumble. You may want to label your pieces as you prepare to proceed so that you don’t accidentally use a roof piece as a side wall, for example. You can just write on a small piece of paper and set it on top of the pieces.
If you’re making a multi-story gingerbread house, I strongly recommend cutting pieces of heavy-duty cardboard to support the interior walls and roof(s). Just ‘glue’ it with icing inside your gingerbread house like you ‘glue’ the gingerbread together . . . run a bead of icing on all sides of the cardboard and position it in place, straight up and down, in the interior of your gingerbread house so that it comes in to direct contact with at least 2 of the inside walls and the roof.
Prepare a batch of royal icing. Cover the bowl tightly with Saran wrap or throw a damp towel over the bowl to keep the icing from drying out until you’re ready to use it. (Once you start using the icing, be sure to keep what you’re not using covered).
Grab a couple of cans of food or sturdy cups or something else that can be used as supports for your gingerbread walls.
Fit a pastry bag with a medium to large circle tip. Fill the bag with a cup or two of icing. (You don’t want to fill it too full or it will be difficult to hold and squeeze). If you don’t have a pastry or piping bag, use a heavy-duty Ziploc bag (just cut a hole in one of the corners to fit your piping tip through).
If you’re going to be doing intricate piping work or decorating on your walls, it’s much easier to do it before you assemble the house while your gingerbread pieces are flat. Keep that in mind so you can decide whether you want to decorate before or after assembly. The pictures below show decorating I did prior to assembly.
Also, if you’ll be doing a royal icing wash (like I did both on the red-and-white gingerbread house pieces above, as well as on the large black-and-white Victorian house featured at the top of this post), you’ll want to do that to the individual gingerbread pieces before you assemble them.
To make a royal icing ‘wash,’ prepare a batch of royal icing. Slowly add a little warm water at a time to thin the icing until it runs freely. You don’t want it too runny or it won’t provide sufficient coverage. When it’s ready, use a silicone pastry brush to brush it on to your walls. It takes hours and hours to dry, even longer than royal icing of regular consistency. Plan accordingly. Sometimes, after the frosting has dried, you may want to add a second coat for really thorough coverage—just be certain the first coast has dried completely before you do. Up to you.
Start with a side wall (generally longer than a front or back wall). Run a bead of icing on your base board the length of your wall. Put your gingerbread wall on top of the icing. Put a can on the outside of the wall to support it so that it remains upright and perpendicular to the base board. Run an additional bead of icing on the inside bottom of the wall for reinforcement.
Grab a front or back wall piece. These pieces will go inside of the side walls (this will make the gingerbread house stronger and more stable). Run a bead of icing on the board the length of your front or back piece. Put the piece on top of the icing. Put a can on the outside of the wall to support it so that it remains upright and perpendicular to the base board. Run an additional bead of icing on the inside bottom of the wall for reinforcement.
Add the second side wall as you did the first and finish with the final wall (either the front or back piece depending on what piece you already placed). Make sure you’ve got your supports in place and allow the icing to dry completely (overnight) before attaching the roof.
Royal icing can take forever to dry. An electric hair dryer can be used to speed up the process, but nothing works better than good old fashioned time. Usually waiting overnight will do the trick, but drying time depends on the humidity in the air, how wet your icing is, and how much icing you’ve used.
If you have leftover icing after this first stage of assembly, the icing can be put in an airtight container and refrigerated. You can leave a filled piping bag overnight as long as you cover your piping tip with a wet paper towel to keep the icing from drying out.
When the icing securing the bottom section of your house has completely dried (preferably overnight), it’s time to add the roof. I like to keep my supports in place against the side walls and have additional supports ready to go to hold my roof up while the icing dries.
Using your piping bag of royal icing, run a bead of icing around the top sides of the front, back, and side wall pieces. Put one roof piece in place on top and immediately prop it with supports (canned food works well). Place your second roof piece, aligning it carefully and immediately pipe another large bead of icing where there two roof pieces meet in the center. Prop with supports. Allow to dry overnight.
As you can see in the picture below, I used straws and canned food to rig a support system for my gingerbread pieces as they dried (I attached the gingerbread pieces using royal icing, which takes time to set up).
The sky’s the limit here. So many possibilities. Use royal icing as your glue to secure candy pieces, sprinkles, and whatever else your heart desires.
To make stained glass windows, crush hard sugar candies (like LifeSavers) and arrange them in clusters (sized a little bigger than your window openings) on a parchment- or Silpat-lined baking sheet. Bake at 250 degrees F for six to eight minutes or until they run together. Allow them to cool, remove from the baking sheet and use royal icing to attach on the back/interior side of your window openings in the gingerbread. Alternatively, melt the stained glass windows directly in your gingerbread house window openings by following the same steps as above, but instead of melting the candy by itself, put the crushed candy in the window openings in your gingerbread house walls and put everything directly in to the oven. The candy will melt to fill the openings and as it cools and solidifies, will self-attach to your gingerbread walls.
Photo credit: Lauren Comstock
Layered Necco wafer candies (as seen below) make for a great tile-like roof. You can cover them with frosting to make them all one color or add sprinkles for dimension and texture or additional candy pieces for depth. Other great roof options include crushed or whole Oreos (especially the mini size), shredded wheat or Life cereal (for the look of a thatched roof), squares of chocolate, round candies like peppermints or Lifesavers, gumdrops, sticks of gum, pretzels, M&Ms, marshmallows, and on and on.
Royal icing works great for not only for ‘gluing’ your gingerbread house together, but for making custom decorations, as well. Below, I used royal icing that I had watered down to about the consistency of Elmer’s White School Glue to make accents for the roof line of my gingerbread house. I piped the designs out on parchment paper using a small, round piping tip and let them set-up over night. Once dry, I carefully peeled back the parchment paper and peeled off the design, which I attached to my gingerbread house using more royal icing.
Don’t forget that while you’re decorating, sometimes you need a little extra help (i.e. support) to hold candy or gingerbread in place while the royal icing sets up. In the picture below, you can see that I cut a plastic drinking straw into pieces to use as supports for the awning above my window. When the icing set, I removed the straw supports.
The easiest pine trees in the world are those made out of upside down sugar cones. Cover in frosting, candy, and sprinkles. You can use different piping tips to achieve a wide variety of styles and effects.
Decorated gingerbread houses can make great gifts! Just wrap in cellophane and put a bow on it. I’ve also made homemade gingerbread kits before as gifts, too. I stack the gingerbread house pieces on a base board along with bags of candy and tie everything up together in cellophane. Kids love it!
Don’t forget the kids! When I was growing up, my mom and sisters and I would make two large gingerbread churches each Christmas. We’d work on decorating them together a little each day after school over a couple of weeks. With my own kids, I let them each have and decorate their own gingerbread house anyway they like. We have a tradition of decorating our individual gingerbread houses the day after Thanksgiving. We display them as a gingerbread village table centerpiece.
There’s even more inspiration and eye candy to come! All of the houses below are the work of the very talented Mary Comstock and her daughter, Lauren Comstock Bishop. These ladies know how to decorate a gingerbread house! A great big “thank you” to both of them for permitting me to feature their lovely work in this post!
This article was originally published on Nov 25, 2015. Updated Nov 12, 2017.