Creating a gingerbread house is a time honored tradition. I wanted to see if making one with the help of a laser cutter would be an improvement over the standard kitchen-only versions.
Baking and making was a lot of fun and a good bonding activity at Fablab London!
Step 1: Bake Gingerbread
I used this recipe from the BBC for the gingerbread house. Different from gingerbread men, you want a thin, rigid sheet in the end and this recipe worked like a charm.
For the gingerbread:
250g unsalted butter
200g dark muscovado sugar
7 tbsp golden syrup
600g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 tsp ground ginger**
Process (Modified for laser cutting from BBC recipe):
1. Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan. Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ground ginger into a large bowl, then stir in the butter mixture to make a stiff dough. If it won’t quite come together, add a tiny splash of water.
2. Put a sheet of baking paper on your work surface and roll about one quarter of the dough to the thickness of two thick coins. Side the gingerbread, still on its baking paper, onto a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, re-rolling the trimmings, until you have enough for two side walls, a front and back wall and two roof panels. Any leftover dough can be cut into Christmas trees, if you like.
3. Bake all the sections for 12 mins or until firm and just a little darker at the edges. Leave to cool for a few minutes to firm up. Leave to cool completely.
**Laser cutting your gingerbread will make it look beautiful but taste terrible. I left the ginger out because it doesn't add any color or texture and we didn't end up eating it in the end. Your call.
Step 2: Whip Up Icing
For the icing 'cement':
2 egg whites
500g icing sugar, plus extra to dust
Put the egg whites in a large bowl, sift in the icing sugar, then stir to make a thick, smooth icing. Spoon into a piping bag with a medium nozzle. Pipe generous snakes of icing along the wall edges, one by one, to join the walls together. Use a small bowl to support the walls from the inside, then allow to dry, ideally for a few hours.
Icing acts as cement in gingerbread construction. You can make this ahead of time but anything exposed to air will harden so I recommend putting it in a piping bag or a ziplock that you can sacrifice. When you're ready to build, snip off the corner of the bag to allow the right amount of icing out at a time.
Step 3: Set Up House Cut Files
I adapted a gingerbread house file I found on Thingiverse to include a scalloped roof, some extra decoration, and the Fablab logo. I'll upload my files shortly so you can take them and continue to build off of what I started!
The tabs in this file made constructing the house much easier as I was able to dry-fit the entire thing. I added icing for strength and decoration, but it really wasn't necessary to keep the walls up! Pretty neat.
TIP: I recommend a cardboard prototype before cutting the gingerbread. Cardboard is cheap and will show you any construction errors while messing up on the baked gingerbread could send you back to the kitchen to start over.
Step 4: Laser the Gingerbread
Cutting the gingerbread was fun and in the end smelled like burnt sugar. Like I said before, the stuff tastes terrible but the benefit is building precision and structural stability even before you add icing cement.
The video in this step shows multiple passes of the laser over each line and is done via Hyperlapse so the video shows this process 10x faster than real life for demonstration.
I made gingerbread men and little trees before making the house to learn how to work with this material on the laser cutter and looked for a recipe that would make the best cookie type to work with. These pieces ended up adding decoration to my winter laser cut scene!
I think it would out well that I could only create small sheets of gingerbread (tiny oven!) because they were each big enough for one wall or panel and larger pieces may have baked unevenly. Please experiment and tell me what you try that works and doesn't work :-)
Laser Cutter Settings:
Please note I used a Trotec Speedy 300 Laser and these were my best settings. A different machine or even a different gingerbread recipe could require very different power/speed/frequency settings :-)
Passes (really experiment with your sample here): 3
Step 5: Assemble Your House
Without question, assembling the house was the most satisfying part of this process. The tabs held the house up and I made a cardboard base (also included in the files) which helped support the house as I went.
Step 6: Decorate!
A variety of colorful candy is best when decorating. We used the icing as glue and started the decorations but left it for others in Fablab to add on to.
Even with the laser cutter, some things are best done the old school way ;-)
Step 7: Make It Glow!
We did this in a few ways.
I cut out the center of the cardboard base which allows me to pick up the decorated house and swap different lighting treatments in and out.
We played with LEDs on a simple Arduino with a simple blinking pattern. Nice beginner project for someone looking to get started with micro processors as you can grow it out with sensors (change the lights when someone gets closer, for example) or just keep it simple with LEDs.
For a lower tech option, any small light can add some warm glow to the house. I popped and iPhone with the flashlight feature on inside to capture a few of these images.
Step 8: Build Out the Winter Scene
Add on with whatever else you can think of! Extra ends of gingerbread can make for great trees, people, bricks for walkways and whatever else you can dream up!
I had a lot of fun building this year's house with the help of the laser cutter and it was much more precise than previous attempts, but I think I prefer the tried'n'true method of making it by hand. It's just the kind of thing I want to get messy and do with friends, plus it's fun to eat the house when you'd done. Glad I tried this year as an experiment!