Whether your holiday memories focus on the sound of laughter around the dinner table or giving a tin of freshly baked cookies to a loved one, for many people, traditions often revolve around food and family. So it is no surprise then that building a gingerbread house is a long-standing holiday tradition. Although kits have made the process much easier, the resulting gingerbread house often lacks unique details, and it is often not as tasty as it could be. This year, try making a gingerbread house from scratch. Odds are, the results will be far more pleasing -- to your eyes and your stomach.
The first step is not to bake gingerbread. Instead, build a model home out of spare cardboard or manila folders. These model walls, roof pieces, chimney, and other accessories will ensure a more stable gingerbread house. Only after you have settled on a plan, should you bake.
Many gingerbread dough recipes are available online. Pick one that you like, and assemble the dough. Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured surface until it is 1/4-inch thick. Use your cardboard pieces to cut matching pieces from your dough. Bake the pieces according to the recipe and let them cool thoroughly. In fact, it is best to bake your pieces the day before assembling your gingerbread houses in order to make you gingerbread as firm as possible. This will give you time to gather all your candy decorations and to assemble a stable base for the house. Use a piece of plywood or an inverted baking sheet covered in wax paper or foil for a smooth, level surface.
Next, you will need to make a batch of royal icing to act as a glue or mortar that will hold your pieces together. Using your stand mixer, combine three ounces of pasteurized egg whites (found in most grocery stores near the eggs) and one teaspoon of vanilla extract and beat until frothy. With your mixer on low, slowly add four cups of confectioners' sugar until incorporated. Then mix on high until the icing forms stiff peaks (approximately five to seven minutes). If you don't have a pastry bag, use a zip-top storage bag. Simply clip off a little or a lot of a bag's corner for a narrow or wide stream of icing.
Using your icing, join two wall pieces together and let them set for 15 minutes, using cans to prop up your walls. Repeat this process with the other two wall pieces before joining all four walls together. While you wait for the walls to set, decorate your roof. It is important to decorate the roof before joining it to the walls so that your walls won't crack or crumble under the added weight of pressing down the decorations.
Which brings us to the fun part: decorating. Use gumdrops, candies, peppermints, candy canes, licorice, cinnamon candies, chocolate chips, marshmallows, jellybeans, sprinkles, or whatever else you like the look -- and taste -- of. Make it colorful and eye-catching. And don't forget to take a picture before you eat it.
If you follow the above directions, you will build a very traditional gingerbread house. But sometimes, starting new traditions can be just as fun. Instead of gingerbread, feel free to use graham crackers (use a knife warmed in hot water to cut the crackers into the appropriate shape). If working with small children, try rice krispie treats, which are more forgiving than gingerbread. And instead of building a freestanding house, try using your icing to glue your walls to an empty milk or juice carton. You could also use pretzel sticks and peanut butter to build a cabin instead of a gingerbread house. Or, since the holidays are often a time of indulgence, consider using healthier decorations such as cereal, dried fruit, shredded coconut, or small pretzels.
The great thing about gingerbread houses is that there is no wrong way to build or decorate them. The point is to be creative and to have fun doing it. Not only will you have a delicious treat at the end of the process, but you will also have a memory you and your family can share for years to come.