gmtoday_small.gif

 


Gingerbread construction zone

December 14, 2015

Gingerbread house pieces.

For many of us, gingerbread houses are as much a part of Christmas as decorated trees and candy canes. Whereas some people vary the traditional ski chalet or wood cabin by turning their gingerbread houses into cathedrals, castles, Hogwarts or Downton Abbey, we decided to make a gingerbread surf shack this year.

Never made a gingerbread house? No worries. It can be a lot of fun. However simple or intricate you decide to make it is your decision, just adjust the project to suit your skill level and OCD tendencies — we certainly won’t judge. And even though the components are technically edible, remember that a gingerbread house is mostly for decoration — nobody really wants to eat something that’s sat out on display for days, or longer.

There are a few things to keep in mind before constructing your gingerbread house. First, look for a durable cookie recipe that won’t crumble — you will want something stronger than your average gingerbread cookie. For an industrial-strength dough, add additional flour, as much as twice what the standard cookie recipe calls for, or more. And because these cookies won’t be eaten, you can save money by skipping some of the more expensive ingredients. Substitute shortening for butter and skip the eggs. If you want your gingerbread house to double as a holiday air freshener, bump up the spices — a lot.

Next, plan to make plenty of royal icing — it’s nothing more than a basic combination of powdered sugar and egg whites. Simple as it may sound, royal icing has the strength of glue when it dries; this is no ordinary frosting. Use plenty of icing to construct the house; it will act as your cement and help hold everything together. Then continue to use it to pipe decorations or glue on candies or other embellishments. Just be sure to keep the icing covered when it’s not in use. Royal icing dries quickly, so keep the surface covered with a layer of plastic wrap or store the icing in sealed piping bags.

If you’re worried about stability, and you may be if you’ve seen the meme on social media of a destroyed gingerbread house with a toy dinosaur (the caption usually reads: "When your gingerbread house fails … add dinosaur"), then consider building your house around a structural support. You could use a repurposed tissue box or cereal box when building a basic house. Or consider using craft foam sheets, available at arts and crafts supply stores, for more elaborate creations. The internal framing will help carry the weight — so you don’t need to worry about sci-fi elements.

Finally, don’t rush it — give yourself plenty of space and time. Because this should be fun. Have any available older kids help with the construction while the younger kids (or obsessive adults) can focus on fine-tuning the decorations. Gingerbread houses can never have too much confectionary bling. Built right, your gingerbread house could last for years. And if anyone starts nibbling a little too much on your pretzel porch or fondant beer cooler, you can always add that dinosaur.

———

INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH GINGERBREAD DOUGH

20 minutes, plus baking and cooling time. Makes about 2 1/2 pounds dough.

1/2 cup shortening

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

2 tablespoons water, more if desired

3/4 cup molasses

5 cups (21.25 ounces) flour

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut several sheets of parchment paper large enough to fit your baking sheets.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the shortening, sugar, salt, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Beat to fully combine.

3. Add the water and molasses and beat over low speed until combined. With the mixer running at low speed, slowly add the flour, a spoonful at a time. The dough will become very thick as the flour is added. If desired, turn the dough out into a large bowl and add the last of the flour by hand, mixing until fully combined. If the dough feels too thick to work with, add water, a tablespoon or so at a time, until it becomes more pliable.

4. Roll a piece of dough between two sheets of parchment until it is 1/4-inch thick (if you roll the dough between parchment, you will not need to flour the dough). Cut the dough to size using cardboard cutouts but being sure to leave at least 1 inch between each of the pieces. Remove and save the excess dough to roll again.

5. Carefully grab the parchment and transfer it to a baking sheet. Bake until the pieces are fully set and there are no dark patches of underdone dough anywhere on the pieces. Remove the sheet to a cooling rack and set aside until completely cooled before removing from the sheets.

Note: Even though there is no leavening in the dough, it might expand a little as it bakes. If needed, carefully sand the pieces before assembling your structure for a more exact fit.

ROYAL ICING

7 minutes. Makes a generous 3 cups icing.

3 egg whites, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 pound powdered sugar

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until the whites are fluffy and have formed soft peaks. With the mixer running, begin beating in the powdered sugar. Continue beating until all of the sugar has been added and the icing holds stiff peaks when the beater is raised. If not using immediately, cover the surface of the icing with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying and hardening.

Note: Consuming raw eggs can pose potential health problems. If the icing is to be consumed, consider using pasteurized egg whites or substituting powdered egg whites or meringue powder (consult the packaging for proper substitutions).

———

DRAWING UP THE BLUEPRINT

By Noelle Carter

There are many ways to trick out your gingerbread house. Here’s what we did:

Step 1

Construct your structural support. Purchase craft foam sheets from your local craft store, which you can cut using a box cutter and assemble with a hot-glue gun. Add a string of clear LED lights to the inside of the structure so the windows can light up after the shack is constructed.

Step 2

Cardboard cutouts. To make sure you have the desired shapes, make cardboard cookie cutouts. These include four rectangles: No. 1 (13 by 10 inches), No. 2 (13 by 12 inches), No. 3 (15 by 10 inches), No. 4 (15 by 7 3/4 inches); and two triangles: No. 5 (15 by 8 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches), No. 6 (13 by 8 1/2 inches by 8 1/2 inches).

Step 3

Bake the cookies. Bake three of No. 1, two of No. 2, one of No. 3, one of No. 4 (we also cut out two windows for this piece), and one each of Nos. 5 and 6. You will go through almost 6 batches of dough to construct the shack, along with extra to bake a door, a strip for the top of the roof, and surfboard and boogie board decorations.

Step 4

Make the sugar windows. Cook about 3 cups of sugar with some water (enough to give the sugar a wet sand consistency) and a teaspoon of corn syrup on the stove-top until the sugar reaches "hard crack" stage (300 degrees). As soon as the sugar reaches the right temperature, add a little blue food coloring and pour it into the "windows" of the baked No. 4 cookie.

Step 5

Assemble the house. Glue the cookie pieces over the craft foam structure using either royal icing or a hot glue gun (use the hot glue gun only if the finished piece will not be eaten). If the pieces are a little mismatched, they can be filed using a Microplane or sandpaper. Seal corners and gaps between pieces using pretzel rods.

Step 6

Decorate. Use original Shredded Wheat cereal squares to construct the "thatch" roof and sesame candy pieces for the porch roof. The porch can be constructed of pretzel rods, and the fake "rocks" on the side walls can be added using Raisinets and royal icing. Chocolate and royal icing are used for the detail work, and prepared rolled fondant is molded into the cooler and life preservers. Saltwater toffee candies are molded into the shellfish and starfish on the back wall of the shack, as well as the cans on the porch. The "sand" can be created using ground sugar cookies.

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services