‘Tis the season for gingerbread houses of all sizes and shapes. Everything from mansions and log cabins to yurts and street scenes has been made out of gingerbread and embellished with fanciful candy and icing decorations. Ginger has been highly prized since ancient times - employed by Confucius as well as Greeks and Romans for its calming and digestive relief – but the blending of spices into decorative “cookies” became popular much later, during medieval times when elaborately decorated gingerbread was the snack of choice at faires throughout Europe.
Decorating gingerbread became an art form, and was so popular that Queen Elizabeth I had her own gingerbread baker to supply the royal family with these beautiful – and often gilded – treats. It was in Germany that the idea of building houses out of gingerbread originated. The fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, in which two children happen upon a house built of gingerbread and sweets, was the impetus for creating elaborate structures and decorating them with icing, candies, and sugar.
Baking and building your own gingerbread house is a project that requires precision, patience, and time, and if you have the inclination to do it, it’s a worthwhile project for a weekend. Me? I like to get right to the fun stuff – decorating. Oh, I used to bake gingerbread houses, but ever since the arrival of pre-made gingerbread houses (and my daughter), I leave that to others. Truth be told, I’d rather invest my time and energy in other types of baking and holiday activities this time of year. The pre-fab gingerbread houses (available at Sur La Table and craft stores) let me and my daughter have all the fun of decorating – and over-decorating – without the time-consuming process of mixing, rolling, cutting, shaping, and building.
We set aside a night by the fire, I bake a gingerbread cake and make hot apple cider, put on some Christmas music, then we go to town on decorating. I make some royal icing with meringue powder and fill a couple of disposable piping bags with some of it, then set the rest aside to use as inspiration strikes. I also pick up some food coloring markers, which allow us to draw on the house and the decorations, such as outlining bricks or shingles, or writing our name on the mailbox. The gingerbread house kits sometimes come with candy, but I scour grocery stores, cake decorating stores and candy shops looking for fun and unusual candies to add to the house. I find candy rocks for the garden, little royal icing wreaths for the doors and windows, tiny candles, pine trees and all manner of fun details. A bit of royal icing acts as glue to attach them to the house or garden. The finished house goes on display, and it’s fun to see how my daughter’s creativity and artistic capabilities improve year by year. While you can save the houses in an airtight container, I prefer to take pictures and have one less thing to pack away. Besides, there’s always time for a new house next year.
Tools of the Trade:
- Wilton® Ultimate Gingerbread House Kit
- Nordic Ware® Gingerbread House Mold
- The Gingerbread Architect
- Hand-Painted Gingerbread Ornament
Recipes and Photos are reprinted with permission from Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. The Art and Soul of Baking © copyright 2008 by Sur La Table, Inc.