December 17: Gingerbread Houses

DSC03771When I was young, making gingerbread houses involved sticking six graham crackers to the sides and top of a milk carton, covering the outside with gumdrops and redhots, and then surreptitiously picking them off and eating them as the days ticked down to Christmas.

No more.

Our friends are really great about holiday traditions like the carving of the pumpkin, the choosing of the tree, and the building of the gingerbread house. And so now we are really great at going along with holiday traditions like the carving of the pumpkin, the choosing of the tree, and the building of the gingerbread house.

The first year, I asked if we should be saving boxes/cartons etc. to use in our structures, and was punched in the face by a contemptuous scoff. Cartons, it seems, are cheating. (Although it’s worth noting that using graham crackers instead of gingerbread is apparently not cheating. I understand that they used real gingerbread one year with disastrous results, so they don’t do that anymore. Also, you kind of have to know what you’re building ahead of time, so you can bake enough pieces in the right shapes).

And in this house, one does not always know what one is building ahead of time. The first year, we arrived and were greeted with, “In case you were thinking of doing the Eiffel Tower, I tried to do it last year and it was a disaster. The Great Pyramids are also really hard.”

Ah. Oooohkay. Among our people, coming up with the most ridiculous plan is half the fun. In the last three years I have seen the following creations:

That is how we roll.

But I am getting ahead of myself. In the weeks leading up to your gingerbread adventure, you will want to build up your stash of supplies. Here are some essentials:

  • Graham crackers, obviously. It’s important to be aware that some off-brand grahams (*cough* *cough* Aldi *cough*) come packaged already broken into squares. For obvious reasons, these are virtually useless when building large structures. It’s worth investing in graham crackers that come in long rectangles.
  • Eggs and powdered sugar for the royal icing, which will be your mortar (recipe below)
  • Any kind of candy/snack you want to use. Most people will gravitate naturally toward gumdrops, peppermints, candy canes, red and black licorice and Hershey’s kisses, but here are some you might not have considered in the past, and which I have found to be indispensable:
    • Frosted miniwheats (or just shredded wheat)–excellent for creating thatched rooves
    • Twizzler pull ‘n’ peel–vital for ropes, string, curtains, borders, garage doors…
    • Fruit roll ups or fruit by the foot. Have seen them used for stained glass windows, sails, and JumboTron screens (seriously). Would never try to make a ginger bread house without them again.
    • Pretzels in various shapes and sizes. The rods are great for tall structures, or for log cabins. The square or round ones make great windows, and the matchstick kind have all kinds of uses. The small regular loopy shapes are great for fences and, I am sure, other things.
    • Sticks of gum make great windows and doors.
    • Ice cream cones for the spires and steeples of your fortress, castle, or church
    • Swedish fish, sour patch kids, and gummi bears for any people or animals you need to represent
    • This year root beer barrels were utterly essential to two of our creations–but that’s atypical.

Rule of thumb? Keep your eyes out and your mind open for weeks in advance so you can load up on any unique shapes and colors that may help you in a pinch.

OK, you’ve got your stuff. Next up, royal icing, which will serve as your mortar. This is my friend’s recipe, and bear in mind that I have never actually tried making it so don’t ask me any questions. You will need:

  • 2 large egg whites
  • 2 2/3 c. powdered sugar, divided.

First, whisk together until smooth the egg whites and 1 1/3 c. powdered sugar. Apparently if you are concerned about raw eggs, you may now microwave the mixture for 30-40 seconds (up to 160 degrees, but not above 175 degrees, the recipe says. Don’t ask me why.)

Now, add the remaining powdered sugar and beat on high with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. If it’s not stiff enough, add extra powdered sugar.

VERY IMPORTANT: Cover the bowl with a damp towel until you are ready to begin, or even while you’re working. This stuff dries out, and then it is useless.

You can use a piping bag, or a sandwich bag with the corner cut off, to apply, if you are very precise. Or you can be like me and slop it everywhere.

Choose a sheet of cardboard for your base, and pencil out the footprint of your structure. And then….let the fun begin!

DSC03749

The first graham in my 2013 tall ship

Remember to think about structure and support. In 2012, a poorly supported cathedral broke my heart. It was like Pillars of the Earth, only no people were crushed in the disaster. Pretzel rods are vital for this kind of thing:

Note: flying buttresses made of graham crackers are largely ineffective

Note: flying buttresses made of graham crackers are largely ineffective

I wanted to avoid a similar disaster in 2013, so I carefully laid a sturdy foundation for the deck of my ship:

Sam: I don't understand why you're building a deck like that. Why don't you just put the people and cannons and stuff down inside the ship? Me: ......Because that is now how ships are.

Sam: I don’t understand why you’re building a deck like that. Why don’t you just leave it open and put the people and cannons and stuff down inside?
Me: ……Because that is not how ships are.

Inevitably in the middle of this venture, there will come a moment when you are exhausted, the kitchen is destroyed, and it seems that all hope is lost. Take a deep breath, take a sip of your beer, sit down for a few minutes to watch a bit of Love Actually, and carry on:

DSC01301And finally, neglect not your finishing touches. Last year, I thought I was done, and then I went back to add gummi bear gargoyles. This year, I had finished when I decided to add a sea monster, which turned out to be my favorite part of the whole thing:

"You mean that four-humped snail?" Lara asked.

“You mean that four-humped snail?” Lara asked.

Now, just find an out-of-the-way, and yet still visible, place to display them. And remember to throw them away come April.

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