Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gingerbread Christmas Dollhouse

 [I apologize in advance for this article being longer than usual. It was shortened where possible, but making a gingerbread house, while fun and accessible to all, can’t be fully described in 500 words, especially if all the helpful tips and tricks I learned along the way are included. The time spent reading the extra paragraphs will be well worth it!]

Introduction: Why a Gingerbread Doll House?
“Do you know what I want to do this year?”

My wife has endured this Ralph Kramden-like wait-till-you-hear-my-latest-great-idea thing for enough years to now take it in stride. “What do you want to do this year?”

“I want to build a gingerbread house. Ever since the first one we tried didn’t work, it’s bothered me.”

“That was thirty years ago.”

“Well, it’s bothered me for thirty years.”

It’s true. In December of 1980, we’d been dating for a few months and decided, for some reason, to make a gingerbread house. And so, armed with a gingerbread recipe and, in those pre-internet days, nothing else, we forged ahead. I’ll spare you the details, dear readers, and will say only that to call the results a disaster would be generous.

Fast forward to December 2010. Having now had actual cooking experience, I was ready try again. Of course, true cosmic vengeance against the failure demons was not going to come from a kit. It would require something different, and special. Something like…a gingerbread dollhouse. This meant an open-faced house built to dollhouse scale, where 1 inch equals one foot. For the simple house I used – one room with an attic – this would end up being about 11” wide, 10” deep, and about 16” high. And while the large (by gingerbread house standards) dimensions made for a challenge, the same process also applies to normal size gingerbread houses. I hope that by setting down the pieces and steps that go into making a gingerbread house, this article will encourage readers to give this old, wonderful art form a try.

The Gingerbread
There are countless gingerbread recipes available on the internet, in cookbooks, etc. You may even already have one you like to use. Any will do. (I use a lemon gingerbread recipe that I can’t publish here since it doesn’t belong to me. But I’ll be happy to send it along to anyone who asks.)

The Icing
The icing you’ll use is critical, both for general decorating and as glue for holding the pieces together. I’ve found royal icing to be the best choice. I recommend learning royal icing even if you’re not planning on making anything with gingerbread. It’s easy to make and handle, tastes lovely, and takes flavors and food coloring well. You’ll find it to be a powerful multi-purpose tool in your baking arsenal. It’s used on a wide range of items, including cookies and cupcakes.

The ingredients are simple: 2 egg whites (from real eggs, not from a carton), the juice of ½ lemon, and three cups of confectioner’s sugar. (For added firmness, you can also add a pinch of cream of tartar.) Since you won’t be cooking the egg whites, it’s necessary to prepare the icing in a way that addresses the very remote possibility of salmonella. This is easier than it sounds. You can either just make the icing using powdered egg whites, or, if you’re using real eggs, combine the egg whites, lemon juice, and one cup of the confectioner’s sugar, and microwave the mixture until it reaches a temperature of 160 to 170 degrees F. (The time will vary with the microwave; it takes about a minute in mine.) Then add the remaining two cups of confectioner’s sugar (and the cream of tartar if you’re using it), and beat well until stiff peaks form. (This can be done with either a hand mixer or a stand mixer, though you’ll find the stand mixer to be a good bit faster.) Put the mix into a sealed plastic bag and clip off a corner (or use a regular piping bag) and you’ve got a delicious icing that will dry hard when left in the open, and that will stay soft in the plastic bag for several days.

The Design
I recommend keeping the basic (undecorated) design simple and of normal dimensions. The dollhouse scale idea ultimately worked, but it did make the project quite a lot harder to do, and I would not do a gingerbread house to that large scale again. It’s possible to buy kits, but if you look at gingerbread house pictures on the internet you’ll find many you can do without a kit using simple, straight cuts.

The Model
Working things out ahead of time is the key to making a gingerbread structure that works. A big help will be to measure the pieces out on cardboard first and cut them out for use as templates when working with the gingerbread. You can also fit the cardboard pieces together first to make sure the overall design works. I found it helpful to use foam-board for this, since it’s about the thickness of the gingerbread and so makes for an especially good model.

Decorating Your House
Just have fun with this. I started out planning a design for the decorations, but found it was easier – and more enjoyable – to just walk in the candy section of the food store and get anything that looked like it might be good on a gingerbread house. (When your house is finished you’ll have a lot of extra candy this way, but that’s a good thing.) When decorating time came, I sat with the piles of different candies and improvised. A couple of candies in particular that I’d recommend you include are fruit roll-ups, which were useful for the floor tiles, roof shingles, and the curtains on the windows; and fruit flavored Tootsie Rolls, which not only have good colors but also are soft enough to be molded like clay to fit around corners, into tight spaces, etc.

Making the Gingerbread Parts
After making the gingerbread dough as per whatever recipe you’re using, roll it out to about 3/16”, cut the pieces out using your cardboard templates, and bake on parchment on a baking sheet at about 350 degrees for 7 to 14 minutes (depending on the size of the pieces), turning the tray around half-way for more even baking. When it’s baked, but still hot and soft, use the templates to trim the pieces, since they’ll expand a bit while baking. (Helpful trick: when you first cut the raw dough, cut it just a bit large, so that when you trim the pieces after baking, you’ll have nice squared edges to work with.) Let the pieces cool on a rack and harden thoroughly before assembling them. And don’t forget to set aside the trimmed-off parts for eating. It’s still gingerbread, you know!

Assemble the pieces using the icing as glue. To do this, apply a thin coat to one surface to be joined, and a generous bead on the other surface. Press them together and hold for about 30 seconds before releasing. (Depending on the pieces, you may in some cases need to reapply the icing.) Even after it starts to get firm, it can take several hours (think overnight) for the icing to get really hard. In some cases, it may be necessary to glue over a couple of days, waiting until the icing is hardened before attaching other pieces to it. Assemble the pieces on a base (a tray, cardboard, etc.) for ease of handling, transporting, etc. Having someone to help will make assembling the pieces much easier. If necessary, use cans of food or something similar to hold the pieces in place while the icing glue hardens.

Should a piece of gingerbread break, the icing makes good glue to repair it. Just let the patch harden before using the piece.

Applying the Decorations
Attaching all that wonderful candy is the most fun part of all. You might even consider sharing the fun with other family members, especially younger ones! For technique, you’ll just apply a generous amount of icing to either the gingerbread or to the candy, and press it on, wiping away any excess, then press down for a few seconds to set it. (For some candies, you’ll find it necessary to turn the house so that the side you’re working on is horizontal; if you apply candies to a vertical surface, gravity will be working against you.) Just make sure you use enough icing, and let the icing firm up before you turn the house upright again.

One other tip about decorating: use plenty of candy, but not so much that the whole surface of the gingerbread is covered. Let the gingerbread be the gingerbread.

So there it is! I hope you’ll give this a try, though I recommend making a normal small house before trying something large. You’ll have a great Willy Wonka feeling in no time, lost in a wonderful world of cookies and candies.

In the days ahead I’ll get some additional photos onto the Kissing the Cook Facebook page. Come check them out!

See you next week! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)

Merry Christmas, everybody!


  1. ben, this is baddddddasssssss! i have two weeks off, we may have to try something similar on a smaller scale!


  2. Damn. This puts any gingerbread house I've ever constructed to shame. Lovely.

  3. I am hugely flattered. Heartfelt thanks to you both. Alaina, it doesn't get better than baddddddassssss. If you decide to make one, I hope you'll post pictures! And Mary, I greatly appreciate your kindness. Knowing how so much of your heart goes into whatever you do, I'm thinking the houses you've made are pretty wonderful.

  4. WHOA!!!!!!!!! That is amazing!!! Wonderful job, Ben, seriously!!

  5. Keri, thank you. You've made my morning!

  6. What? You had all that candy lying around and you didn't call me? Harumph! Seriously, though, it really is baddddddassssss. Doesn't get any better than that. Can you send me the lemon gingerbread recipe? Thanks.

    - Gitana, the Creative Diva

  7. I'm glad you liked it, Gitana! Honestly, as I was decorating the house with the candies, I was remembering your work and wondering what amazing things the Creative Diva could have done with it. (Readers can see some of Gitana's fantastic creations at Prepare to be impressed.)Have you ever thought about working with this medium? Needless to say, the recipe will be to you momentarily.

  8. Here's what the Creative Diva might have done: I might have cut and scalloped lengths of fruit rollups to use as roof shingles. I might have cut some straight lengths to use as siding. M&M minis could have been used for some of the detailing. I might have also used a tea biscuit for the door, allowing me to decorate it separately and just glue it into place with the frosting and edge it to hide the construction lines. Shoestring licorice could have been used to create swirly details.
    There's a lot of things I would have done differently because that's who I am but I don't think my gingerbread house would be nearly as beautiful and from the heart as Kiss-the-Cook Ben's house. Having worked in 1:12 scale I am very familiar with the challenges it presents. You've done a wonderful job and should be justifiable proud of yourself.

    So when can I come over to help you eat that thing? My sweet tooth is talking to me. (and thanks for the plug.)

    - Gitana, the Creative Diva.

  9. See? Tea biscuit door...licorice string swirls...that's just the kind of thinking I had in mind. I really do hope you do one of these some time, Gitana. There's no doubt in my mind it could stand side-by-side with the best creative work you've ever done.