Bringing the tradition from Europe to your house
Creators News Service
Icicles hang from a snowy rooftop, brightly colored bulbs shimmer from frosty eaves and candy cane decorations line a curving sidewalk.
This isn't a scene from a holiday greeting card. It's what you can create with a good gingerbread recipe and a touch of creativity.
MADE FROM SCRATCH
For centuries, European bakeries have turned out gingerbread houses using molds created by master craftsmen. In France, a special guild was formed for these bakers of "pain d'epices" and an annual fair ran for 800 years to celebrate their special breads. But it was the Brothers Grimm tale "Hansel and Gretel" that earned these sweet houses their spot in history.
"They were very popular in Switzerland, where I grew up," Guido Landolt, the executive pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, said. "We used beautiful molds that were hundreds and hundreds of years old and carved into hard wood."
Those antique molds are no longer available, but don't let that stifle your creativity. There are many other ways to make this tasty seasonal centerpiece.
The most traditional way is first to bake the gingerbread that will become the walls, doors, chimney and roof. Here is a recipe from Betty Crocker to help you get started:
1-2-3 GINGERBREAD HOUSES
1 cup sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup full-flavor (dark) molasses
4 cups Gold Medal all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
Heat oven to 350?F. Line jelly roll pan, 15 1/2 x 10, 1/2 x 1 inch, with heavy-duty foil, leaving 1 inch of foil overhanging at each end of pan. In large bowl, mix sugar, shortening, molasses and egg with spoon. Stir in all remaining ingredients. Divide dough in half. Press half of dough in pan.
Bake gingerbread about 15 minutes or until no indentation remains when touched in center. Cool 5 minutes; carefully lift foil and gingerbread from pan.
Cut gingerbread lengthwise in 1/2, then crosswise 2 times to make 6 rectangles. Cut angles from 2 corners of each rectangle to form roof of house. (The corners make good nibbles.) Cool completely, about 1 hour. Repeat with remaining dough. Decorate houses with frosting and candies.
After the gingerbread cools, decorate the exterior walls while they are flat on a work surface, but be sure to frost the interior as well as exterior corners for added strength when you assemble the cottage.
Landolt, who still makes gingerbread houses, suggests royal frosting as the best glue, claiming it's stronger than liquid nails. Here is his recipe:
3 egg whites
1 pound powdered sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar
Mix ingredients slowly with a paddle for 7 to 10 minutes. This will avoid incorporating any air bubbles.
Cover icing with damp towel until ready to begin gluing and decorating. Have plenty of pastry bags and frosting tips on hand to create different textures.
USE A KIT
If baking isn't your forte, start with a kit. John and Janet D'Orsi have been making this possible since 1981 at the Gingerbread Construction Co. in New England. Using their website, gingerbreadusa.com, they ship undecorated kit houses as well as fully finished houses anywhere in the 48 continental United States.
Don Granger, a retired construction worker in New Auburn, Wis., appreciates the particulars of construction and enjoys building gingerbread kit houses with his grandchildren. For him, it's not about putting it all together.
"Making a gingerbread house with youngsters gives them an experience they couldn't have without an adult," Granger said, "and at the same time it teaches them where things go and why."
Granger's experience has taught him that creativity in decoration is part of the fun. He has used green frosting on overturned ice cream cones for trees, cotton candy for smoke and jelly beans for festive lights. To create a landscape, he covers a board with foil and paints it with diluted royal frosting. A path of chocolate bars lined with candy canes finishes the scene.
THE YOUNGER CROWD
Very young children might not have the skills or patience to make a gingerbread house, but that doesn't need to stop them. Beverly Cavanaugh, coordinator of the Early Childhood Center at Joliet Junior College in Joilet, Ill. offers this kid-friendly tip.
Use empty half-pint milk cartons to create a base for a graham cracker "gingerbread" house. Adhere crackers to the sides and top of the cleaned milk carton with royal frosting. Horizontally place graham cracker sticks for a log cabin effect, and make shingles from colorful gum or flat nuts.
To create a special gift, leave the spine of the container poking up between the graham cracker roof pieces. "If you punch a hole in the ridge, you can hang it as an ornament," Cavanaugh said. "Pipe more royal icing around the hole to make it look like snow on the roof."
A picture slipped into the door or window can appear to peek out of the ornament, which is easily preserved with a layer of shellac or a light wash of glue.
"After the frosting sets up, mix some craft glue and a few drops of water to make a thin wash for the child to paint onto the ornament," she said. "Embellish after the glue wash with iridescent sequins or other decorations for added sparkle."