This post is going to strike most of you as being totally bizarre. What? Gingerbread Houses in June? So let me first explainâ€¦ several months ago, one of my readers contacted me and she had an incredibly touching story. She was working abroad for financial reasons and had to leave her monthsâ€™ old son at home with her parents. Her son had been diagnosed with a form of cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy as she toiled abroad. She missed him greatly and hoped that she would be home in time for his first birthday. And she so wanted to make the gingerbread house that I featured on Christmas Eve 2005 for her son. She reminded me about this as I was careening through Europe and I promised to forward it as soon as I got home. One thing led to another and I didnâ€™t get a chance to send it. But this morning, for some odd reason, I woke up, bolted upright, dug out the stained and creased recipe after much hunting and searching and promised myself that I would re-type the three page wonder and post it for her. Guess what? After readying the post and searching for her original email (3 hours all together), I realized her sonâ€™s birthday was today, June 5, 2006. I am sorry I didnâ€™t get this out earlier and I have privately emailed to alert her that I finally got my act togetherâ€¦but I hope you have a wonderful reunion (yes, she made it home to San Mateo, Rizal), that your sonâ€™s birthday is brilliant, that he gets better soon and that you have some time in the days ahead to try this recipe. My apologies for the delay and from the bottom of my heart, Merry Christmas!
A FEW WORDS FOR THE TIMID OR AMATEUR BAKERSâ€¦
Do not freak out. Gingerbread is actually very easy to make. A gingerbread house is a little bit more complicated but you should be able to handle it if you passed high school and did reasonably well in collegeâ€¦ The project is a superb family holiday tradition if you are all in the right frame of mind. However, it does take some time and will not take kindly to being rushed. Count on some work over at least three days to do this right. One day shopping for the ingredients and making a base mold (2-3 hours), a second day to make the dough (1 hour) and a third day to bake and put the house together (range from 2 hours for a simple home to 12 hours for really complicated structures, some of them in the photographs here).
I have tinkered with this recipe to try and get a harder dough, better for house construction rather than eating outright. Living in Manila, one of the most humid places on the planet, any gingerbread house will eventually moisten and get softer. However, a few tricks will keep the gingerbread harder and last at least 6-8 weeks long:
– use a cardboard box or styrofoam form as a base, a freestanding gingerbread house is nearly impossible here unless you use very very thick walls. The humidity here is just not good for the walls.
– make sure the dough is not too sticky to begin with and you must refrigerate it before rolling; roll using copious amounts of flour sprinkled on the rolling pin.
– roll the dough relatively thinly and evenly, say Â¼ inch, and cook it thoroughly, but do not burn it
– use serious amounts of â€œglueâ€ made out of confectioners sugar and egg whites
– keep the gingerbread house in a less humid part of your home, airconditioning would be nice but highly impractical
– fret not, any minor changes or imperfections in the gingerbread can be hidden by the icing and some imagination
THE RECIPE â€“ MARKETMANâ€™S GINGERBREAD DOUGH
1 Â½ cups solid shortening such as Crisco
1 Â¼ cups granulated white sugar
1 cup brown sugar, packed down
1 Â½ teaspoons salt (fine iodized salt, not rock salt)
1 Â½ teaspoons baking soda (Arm and Hammer is good, extras can be used to clean your toilet bowl and hasten decomposition in your septic tank)
7-7.5 teaspoons of ground ginger (dried ground ginger, say McCormick in the bottle at the grocery, not grated fresh ginger root, more is better for fragrance reasons)
5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves (this is a spice, not garlic as one person thought when they read an earlier version of this recipe!)
2 teaspoons grated nutmeg (freshly grated nutmeg is very chic but bottled nutmeg powder will do just fine for this recipe)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (what the heck is that, you ask? A tropical Asian plant having capsular fruits whose seeds are ground up and sold in bottles)
1 Â½ cups molasses (I use Brer Rabbit brand full flavor or mild flavor molasses, available in large groceries)
1/3 cup water (tap water is fine unless you have 1/3 cup of leftover Evian and you feel it will give your house that competitive edgeâ€¦heehee, Iâ€™m joking)
8 cups of all purpose flour (not sifted, straight out of the bag, okay if bag says pre-sifted as they are probably just jiving you) this amount may vary if dough is too sticky or too dry
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. Make sure they are mixed well and set aside to ensure that spices infuse the flour. This will be your first whiff of the good things to comeâ€¦
In another bowl, blend together the shortening and white and brown sugars. Add molasses and water and mix thoroughly. Add Â½ of the flour mixture and slowly mix until flour is incorporated. Slowly add remaining flour until you have a fairly substantial and not too sticky dough.
Ideally, you would have a heavy duty mixer such as a Kitchen Aid. If not, the recipe can be done up to the first stage of flour with a hand mixer, then additional flour inputs may have to be mixed in by hand.
Divide dough into four segments, flatten into rectangular shapes and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours overnight.
BAKING THE DOUGH
After the dough has chilled for a few hours or best overnight, take one of the cold rectangular shapes of dough out of the fridge. Remove the plastic wrap. Roll on a hard flat surface with lots of sprinkled flour. I often cheat and roll over wax or baking paper to ensure easy transfer to baking pans, particularly for large panels of gingerbread. Once the dough is rolled out relatively evenly, you are ready to cut out shapes.
Cut out paper patterns of sections of the house based on your mold. Total precision is not critical as icing will cover any imperfections. But if you are anal, it does work to the centimeter. This dough does not move or grown too much once you have cut it for baking.
On wax paper or better yet on â€œGlad Bakeâ€ parchment paper available at Landmark, sprinkle some flour, place one section of dough, sprinkle with flour, cover with another sheet of parchment paper, and roll slowly to achieve a large flat roughly Â¼ inch thick panel of gingerbread. Cut out appropriate patterns leaving parchment paper under the gingerbread to easily transfer dough to baking sheet. Once on a baking sheet, place in a 350 degree oven that has been pre-heated and bake for 10-20 minutes depending on the size of the sections and thickness of the dough. You will know it is done when the edges are slightly darker but NOT burned. Try to bake large pieces on their own; placing small pieces with large ones will result in some burned smaller pieces. Take baked pieces out of the oven and cool on a flat surface such as a stone or marble counter or on a cookie rack. Do not assemble until all of the pieces are at room temperature.
More adventurous folks can start to get more creative with extra dough and make window shutters, doors, attic windows, chimneys, etc. Just remember to keep features fairly bold as finesse will be lost after all the candy is slopped on. If you are really driven, you can attempt to make glass like windows by cracking up life savers candies into cut-outs in the gingerbread and baking them until the life savers melts into a window-like consistency. Of course you can skip this paragraph entirely if you are currently thinking â€œis he out of his !&%$@?! Mind?â€ Heeheehee.
ASSEMBLING THE HOUSE
Readers concerned about salmonella and other brilliant egg-dwelling bacteria could make this recipe with meringue powder or powdered egg whites â€“ actually available at Cookâ€™s Exchange with branches in Mega Mall and Rockwell. However, since the icing is not likely to be consumed in big gobs and in 9 years baking here I have not contracted salmonella poisoning, I suggest the easier and cheaper fresh egg white route. So here is my recipe for seriously hard white cement icing:
4 large egg whites (no trace of egg yolk or egg shell please)
7 to 7 Â½ cups of powdered confectionerâ€™s sugar (you can sift after measuring if you like, but itâ€™s not necessary)
Â½ teaspoon cream of tartar (if you have it, use it, if not, you can do without it)
With an electric mixer, beat the egg white until foamy. Add Â½ cup of the powdered sugar until well blended. Slowly add the remaining suguar until mixed thoroughly. Scrape the sides of the bowl to ensure a well mixed icing. Keep mixing until thick and stiff, about 4-6 minutes, depending on your mixer. It should be very white at this stage. Keep covered with a damp towel while you assemble the house.
Note: You will need at least two batches of icing. The first batch to assemble the house, and the second batch to attach the candies and goodies if you wait for the structure to set first.
Itâ€™s best to find a solid base like a thick styrofoam or cardboard or plywood base for your house. Glue the baked gingerbread sections to your mold with the white icing. Use a good amount to ensure strength and stability. Be careful when attaching the roof pieces as they may slide off before the icing dries. Use your imagination when you attach the candies, cookies, etc.
I think thatâ€™s it. Now wasnâ€™t that easy??? Good luck!