By Sara Chodosh
Gingerbread houses are not unlike human egos: fragile and easily crumbled. Building one that doesn’t collapse into dust when you breathe on it requires a... let’s call it a substance known as “structural gingerbread.” You may want your walls to taste like a frosted cookie, but if you’re constructing the candy home from a grocery-store kit, you’ll be stuck with vaguely ginger-flavored cardboard.
You can do better. While your house will never taste quite as delicious as it looks, you can still bake your very own structural gingerbread. You’ll get a relatively tasty product, and gosh darnit, this thing will stay standing until Valentine’s Day as a testament to your craft skills.
Choose a gingerbread recipe
Start by looking to an expert who knows more than you do about baking. Namely, the folks at Serious Eats. We tested their phenomenal recipe for so-called construction gingerbread, and found it makes a strong yet edible frame. Their serving size will produce enough dough to make one standard house, or you can easily double the ingredients for a more palatial structure.
This version of gingerbread isn’t like the kind you usually eat. It contains no leavening agents or egg, so it won’t puff up like a normal cookie. In addition, it substitutes corn syrup for the more traditional molasses, which allows the pastry to maintain its pliability when it’s warm out of the oven.
These changes make it easier for bakers to cut shapes out of the dough without worrying that the components will grow into big, fluffy versions of themselves when they bake. If you’re not crazy about the taste, just remind yourself that gingerbread houses aren’t really for eating: They’re for display — and for showing off your skills to your holiday guests.
Draft the blueprint
Before you start mixing ingredients, make sure you’ll have enough dough. The Serious Eats recipe makes enough gingerbread for one 11-by-15-inch baking sheet, so get that out now, along with some paper.
You’ll need to draw and then cut out guides for the walls, roof, and sides of your house. If you make these now, you’ll be able to see how the pieces all fit together andyou can lay the guides out in the baking sheet to make sure you’ll have enough dough for your design.
Bake and cut
Once you’ve plotted out your shapes, whip up the dough (careful, this stuff is seriously stiff). Then roll it out on a piece of parchment paper to make it easier to transfer to the baking sheet. Place the raw dough on the sheet and lay out your guides on top.
Use a paring knife or x-acto blade to cut out the shapes. Make sure to leave some of the excess dough around the edges, since this will help prevent the straight edges from spreading. Pop them in the oven at 350°F for 25 minutes.
When the cookies come out, you’ll still be able to see the lines where you cut them, but the edges will have sealed up a bit. Re-cut the cookies along those lines right away, then leave them on the tray to cool.
Cement the pieces together
Here’s the real problem with gingerbread house construction. Everyone wants to slap together a house and glue the pieces in place with the snow-white confection called royal icing, but that edible cement simply takes too long to dry. The traits that make it great for decoration — it’s flimsy and crumbly — do not work so well for holding walls together.
Enter: white chocolate. Unlike icing, white chocolate dries into a very firm solid — namely, back into solid chocolate. (Yes, we know, it’s not really chocolate. But nobody wants to eat dark-chocolate-colored snow.)
To use white chocolate as gingerbread sealant, you do have to melt it down, which means you’ll need to work fairly quickly once you start gluing, but if it hardens, you can always pop it back in the microwave. Once it’s smeared between gingerbread slabs, you can also throw the structure in the fridge to firm up more quickly, which gives chocolate a big advantage over royal icing.
Your other option is something called sturdy royal icing, which works either in addition to the white chocolate or instead of it. To whip up normal royal icing, you can just mix powdered sugar with water or lemon juice, or add egg whites to the mix. To make the sturdy variety, you only use egg whites and powdered sugar (plus maybe a few drops of water to thin it enough to push through a piping bag).
Sturdy royal icing feels unbelievably thick, but it actually doesn’t bind to the cookie edges as well as melted white chocolate does because it’s too bulky. Still, even if you don’t use it for construction, you should definitely make some form of royal icing to decorate your house.
Once the gingerbread has cooled, start spooning dollops of melted white chocolate onto the edges of the walls, roof, and sides, working bit-by-bit. Assemble one corner, put it in the fridge to set, then add another wall, and so on. The roof goes on last, and needs plenty of chocolate along the peak to bind it all together.
Make it look pretty
Use a piping bag of royal icing to decorate your house however you like. If you intend to eat it, remember that the more icing you add now, the better the cookie will taste later.
Plan to do the bulk of your decoration the day after you cut and bake the house — because at that point, you won’t care enough to use more than just icing.
When you’ve rested, you’ll be ready to add more creative decorations. Peppermint candies are always festive, as are gumdrops. Inventive bakers can construct piles of logs from Tootsie rolls, pine trees from green icing and upside-down ice cream cones, and snow folks from marshmallows, among other flourishes.
That’s right. You won’t be able to fully appreciate how solid a house you’ve built unless you try to tear it down. It’s a basic engineering principle that any joining material should be stronger than the things its holding together, so if you try to pull two steel beams apart, the steel should break before whatever is binding the two beams comes apart.
In our experience, the method detailed here produces a house that meets that standard: The cookie shattered long before the chocolate gave way, and mostly we ended up with crumbs all over the kitchen. It actually required a knife to break through. The house didn’t taste great, but the effort we put it made it all the sweeter.