Say gingerbread houses and most kids think “Yay, gingerbread houses! Let’s make ‘em!” (Thinking straight away of the sweet icing and candy.) And wouldn’t it be more fun for you to cut to the chase with fast-drying icing, colorful decorating fun and minimal prep and clean up?
I thought there had to be a better way after years of trying to do the authentic gingerbread house thing too. After the mixing, the rolling, the cutting and the baking—not to mention coming up with a work-able pattern … Then it would finally be time for the fun part, the assembly. But then the pieces didn’t fit quite right (of course, they had swelled a bit when baking, and perhaps our cuts weren’t exactly spot on), and the icing didn’t harden fast enough. You get the picture. Or perhaps you’ve had a similar experience?
While we ultimately did have a good time making all of our own gingerbread, the best part of all—the designing and decorating and building with the icing and candies—was just too far at the end of the road. And the whole process was too labor intensive; for young kids, trying to get authentic Martha Stewart-esque slabs of gingerbread to stay upright while the icing dried was more than Mom’s patience needed. And that put the most fun (and anticipated) part at the long-awaited end—and by then much of the kids’ enthusiasm had withered and dwindled away.
Well, thankfully a friend enlightened me to a much better way to make gingerbread houses. We’ve been doing it for years now. And it all relies upon the common and ordinary graham cracker. Yep, using graham crackers and royal icing that hardens in less than a minute brought gingerbread houses back into our fun-for-kids realm again.
Of course, there are gingerbread house kits in so many craft stores now that it’s not too hard to find a way to make one. But something never seemed quite right to me about buying a gingerbread house kit. There’s something about using up those frosted mini wheats in the cupboard, the M&Ms from Halloween, and the mish-mash of interesting and unique finds around the kitchen that truly helps to make it a kids-in-the-kitchen creative activity. (Not to mention getting those cupboards and candy drawers cleaned out.)
After we tweaked and discovered the best icing recipe, along with a pattern for the side panels of the house (using cardboard from cereal box panels), we had fun, fun, fun. And the following year we invited some friends over for an afternoon gingerbread making house party too. My daughter and I went to the bulk grocery mart, and we came home with the best red and green candies for decorating: M&Ms, string licorice, foil-wrapped bells, jimmies and gumdrops.
The trick to cutting the graham crackers is to saw very gently with a sharp and finely toothed serrated knife. No pressure necessary, really! Just the light even sawing will wear away the cracker until it breaks along the desired line. We had the graham crackers prepped ahead of time, along with square and rectangular pieces of cardboard covered with foil, and we divvied up the candies between some bowls so that we could all spread out and work at a couple different tables.
After all, works of such artistic creativity take time. And you just never know what you’ll end up with: from teepees and two-stories to cozy cottages and chalets, there’s even the chance that an outhouse may turn up when you get together to hold a gingerbread house building party!
Is it your year to have a gingerbread house party? Not only is it just plain fun to create and decorate, it also gives kids a chance to use those pesky pastry bags and icing, which (if your house is like ours) doesn’t happen too often. And best of all, it’s a very enjoyable afternoon with friends that ends with some beautifully creative, fully edible creations.
Next week: Welcome the New Year with Fondue
NOTE: We mixed this icing up about an hour before we expected to do the actual construction. We closed the bags with rubber bands and laid all the supplies on the kitchen counter so each person could choose their panels, candies and icing and then get creative.
Allow one pastry bag per person to build a complete house.
Royal Icing Recipe
Serves/Makes: 1 pastry bag
Ready in: under 30 minutes
* 3 3/4 cups confectioner's sugar
* 3 tablespoons meringue powder
* 10 tablespoons water, more if needed
Using an electric mixer, blend the water into the sugar and meringue powder until icing is creamy and smooth but not too stiff. Add water by tablespoon as necessary.
When ready, immediately spoon icing into pastry bag and close tightly with a rubber band.
Note: Icing will harden quickly if exposed to the air. One batch will fill two pastry bags