I know what you're thinking. That gingerbread house couldn’t be the worst gingerbread house ever. It's actually quite nice. Well, that's not our family’s gingerbread house. That's the gingerbread house our friends' family created during our annual afternoon of gingerbread houses. Ours didn’t turn out this way at all.
Let me start by saying that I know something about gingerbread. I don't enter gingerbread competitions (too much work), but in addition to our annual afternoon with friends, I made houses with both of my sons’ preschool and Kindergarten classes. And I’m not talking about those stupid creations involving graham crackers stuck to milk cartons with canned frosting. I’m talking the real stuff, redolent with spices, stuck together with rock-hard royal icing.
From my experience, the critical element in successfully constructing and decorating a gingerbread house is royal icing. My tried-and-true recipe, from Martha Stewart, is like super glue for gingerbread. The recipe is at the end of this post.
The kids and I prepared for our afternoon of gingerbread. We visited the gingerbread houses at the Eastman House. We watched the Gingerbread Championships on Food TV. During the TV program, we spotted a quick shot of Snoopy's doghouse, decorated as in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” We agreed that that was what we wanted to make this year. I thought it would be pretty simple -- red walls, a white house, some Christmas lights, maybe a few assorted trees. We could even include Snoopy and Woodstock.
Our friend, Mike, is a financial planner, but he’s freakishly talented at making characters and animals out of things like Tootsie Rolls, Starburst fruit chews, caramels, etc. His wife – she’s an art director, so we’ll call her AD here – doesn’t always appreciate Mike’s efforts. She usually has a firm, clear vision of what the family will create, and his creatures and critters often don’t fit the theme. Since I try to follow a “process, not product” philosophy of family gingerbread creations, Mike’s creations often wind up on our houses. That’s his Spongebob and Patrick in front of the house we created last year. Cute, huh?
My husband, Tom, isn’t quite as talented as Mike in the creatures department but he’s no slouch either. I figured out one of those guys could fashion a reasonable Snoopy and Woodstock, and I even spent $3.99 on a can of marzipan for them to use. (Marzipan is what’s used by professional cake decorators – or, at least I think it is. I figured it would be easier to work with than Tootsie Rolls.
The one thing I didn’t do, which I usually do, is to assemble the house ahead of time and let it dry before decorating it. Looking back, I think it was my fatal flaw.
When we arrived at AD’s house, I made the royal icing, but noticed it wasn’t quite as stiff as usual. I probably didn’t beat it long enough, but we were running late and everyone was anxious to get started. Cocky with the fact that I’ve never had a problem making a gingerbread house before, I put the pieces together. (The pieces, by the way, were purchased at Wegmans for $4.99.) The house held together reasonably well, so it was on to decorating the house.
I divided out some of the royal icing and dumped in all of the red gel color I had with me. The icing was pink, not red. I decided “good enough” and sons and I proceeded to slather it all over the walls of the house. When AD saw the color, she suggested we sprinkle the walls with lots of red sugar to make them look really red. Now I should know from my years at ad agencies that the ideas of art directors are often more time consuming then they seem, but I forged ahead. We tilted the doghouse slightly to put the red sugar all over the walls. The first wall went fine, and it did look redder. B.(age 11) decided to help tilt the house, and before I could say “be sure to support the house as you tip it,” the whole doghouse fell apart.
I took a deep breath. No problem, I said, this will make it easier to put the sugar on the walls. We laid the walls flat, sprinkled all the red sugar we had on the walls, then put the house back together again, leaving fingerprint indentations in the icing. Once it was back together, we slapped white icing on the roof to resemble snow. At that, AD said “isn’t one of your walls sloping inward?” Sure enough, the house was ready to implode again. So I carefully repositioned the walls yet again, leaving more fingerprint indentations on the house.
While all this was going on, Tom worked on a marzipan Snoopy, and did a pretty good job. Since the marzipan had a brownish color, he used his fingers to spread white royal icing all over the marzipan. The icing didn’t go on smoothly, so Snoopy looked like he was part poodle – kind of a cross between Snoopy, and our dog, Charlie (left). Tom fashioned ears out of Tootsie rolls and put on an M&M nose and placed Snoopy/Charlie on top of his house.
At that, I noticed that the top of the roof had a gap and looked like it could slide off the house. I put some waffle-shaped pretzels across the top to give us a base for filling it in with icing.
B made a path out of caramel creams. D. iced some sugar cones to make them resemble snow-covered trees. He also made a dog dish and a wreath for the house. I colored the rest of the marzipan yellow and molded a Woodstock. I did an ok job on the body but couldn’t figure out how to make his feathers.
At this point, I was sick of the whole process, and it was clear that the house was going to take a long time to dry. We decided to call it quits for the day, let it dry and finish it later. Here’s what it looked like at the end of that day. We got it home in one piece and put it on the dining room table to dry.
The next morning, I decided to finish it. I went to Wegmans and brought some strawberry fruit roll-ups, which I thought would make for even better red walls. I also bought some shoestring licorice to make the Christmas lights that Snoopy hung.
When I got home, our house looked different. All but one of the caramel creams in the path was gone. So was one of the trees. It dawned on me that we left it where Charlie, also known as BD, for Bad Dog, or FD, for ... well, you can figure it out, could get at it. The stinker had snacked on our house.
Now I was in a quandary. The tradition in our family is that the kids eat the gingerbread house on New Year’s Day. Yes, I let them eat the stale, dusty candy off the house, and yes, I admit that it’s a completely gross tradition. I dreamed it up the first year we made a gingerbread house. I wanted the boys to keep our gingerbread creation intact throughout the holiday season, and I figured that if they knew they’d get to eat it eventually, they’d stay away from it. I was right. I also figured the old dusty candy would be yucky enough that they wouldn’t really eat it. I was wrong.
When the boys got home from school that day, I proposed pitching the gingerbread house in the trash and forgetting it until next year.
“What would we eat on New Year’s Day?” they protested.
“Guys, it was a gross tradition to start with, and now the house has lots of dog germs on it! I’ll put out a big bowl of candy, and you can eat it fresh out of the wrappers!” I said.
“It won’t be the saaaame,” they moaned.
The next day, I decided to finish the house – even though I’d stand firm on not letting them eat it. I fixed the snow on the roof and adhered some shoestring licorice and mini M&Ms to make Christmas lights around the roof. I ran out of royal icing and set it aside for awhile.
A few hours later, the rest of the trees were gone, Woodstock was gone, and Snoopy was missing an ear. FD.
I’m done. The damn dog house sits on a shelf in my dining room, half finished. I refuse to finish it, but can’t bring myself to pitch it either. It’s emblematic of the way this Christmas season has gone – I put up half of the Christmas lights, but didn’t finish when I couldn’t find any more extension cords. The snowmen and Santas are on display, but the Nativity scenes are still in a box (no, this isn’t about priorities ... it’s just about what boxes I randomly opened first). The gifts are half wrapped in a variety of places, and I’m not entirely sure what I’ve purchased for whom.
I think I have my solution to the whole gingerbread house/New Year's Day dilemma. I’m going to buy some graham crackers, store bought frosting, little milk cartons, and some more candy. The boys can make and eat their own houses on New Years Day. Suddenly those graham cracker houses don’t seem so stupid after all.
Martha Stewart's Eggless Royal Icing
Makes about 2 1/2 cups -
1 pound confectioners' sugar (aka powdered sugar)
5 tablespoons meringue powder (powdered egg whites also work)
Liquid or gel-paste food coloring (optional)
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine sugar, meringue powder, and a scant 1/2 cup water on low speed. Beat until mixture is fluffy yet dense, 7 to 8 minutes.
Test the consistency by lifting a spoonful of icing and letting it drip back into the bowl; a ribbon should remain on the surface for 5-7 seconds. If not using immediately, transfer to an airtight container (icing hardens quickly when exposed to air), and store at room temperature for up to one week. Beat with a rubber spatula before using.