Introduction: Gingerbread Greenhouse
I recently joined a community for a cryptocurrency yield farming platform. They had a challenge in November that asked for creations (of any artistic form) that followed the theme of preparing a farm for a tough winter ahead. The platform uses farm and produce related metaphors on their site. Since yield farming continues year round, however, I thought a greenhouse would be a good way to illustrate the fact that winter doesn't mean abundant yields have to stop completely.
I figured that since the holidays were approaching, a gingerbread greenhouse would be a good way of doing that - and decided to make the entire thing edible (except for the lights).
I ended up placing last (as in 50th) for about 40 hours of work, but I figure it's still worthwhile if I can show others how I made it, in case they want to make something similar.
There were a lot of steps! I've condensed them as best I could for this, though. Feel free to message me or leave a comment if you have a question about any parts of this. Thanks for reading!
Granulated, Powdered, & Brown Sugar
Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger
Semisweet & Milk Chocolate Chips
Salt, Baking Soda & Baking Powder
White chocolate chips (or white with blue stripes, since I couldn't find the white ones)
Crisp Rice Cereal
Powdered Egg Whites
Food coloring - powdered and gel (including white)
Gray & Black Sprinkles
Edible Shimmer Powder & Edible Glitter
Edible Wafer Paper
Other Materials & Tools:
Parchment Paper, Nonstick Foil, and Waxed Paper
Frosting bags with tips
Food Safe Paintbrush
Toothpicks & Food Safe Clay tools
Tiny Leaf Punch
Step 1: Make the Gingerbread Pieces
I started by making a template for the gingerbread house on cardboard. I knew I wanted lots of big windows, so the gingerbread part would really be just a frame. I left the supports about a quarter inch wide, and with the recipe I used, they weren't too fragile. I started with a rough sketch, then used a ruler to mark out the pieces on cardboard from a cereal box. I had to use trigonometry to figure out the angle I'd have to cut two roof pieces so that they'd join properly, but a simpler design wouldn't need it. The gables I used were 45 degrees, and the roof pieces connecting the door area to the rest of the roof were cut at about 55 degrees.
The gingerbread recipe I used was from https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2016/10/constr... and doesn't use eggs. It was nice and sturdy, and didn't spread in the oven. You can use your own recipe if you have another one you prefer, but here's what's in this one:
2 oz brown sugar
2 t cinnamon
1/4 t cloves
1 1/4 t ginger
1 pinch salt
4 oz corn syrup
1 1/2 oz butter
6 1/4 oz flour
Mix ingredients well in a mixer. Feel free to chill the dough if it needs it, but I was impatient and worked with it right away. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, roll out the dough on parchment paper, and trace your gingerbread house template. I tried both cutting the dough before and after baking, when I wasn't sure if it would spread. Cutting after baking is more difficult, I learned, and it wasn't necessary for this recipe. The pieces kept their shape just fine. I baked the pieces for about 15 minutes. Some got slightly darker than others, but none tasted burned.
Step 2: Attach Window Panes & Assemble Gingerbread House
I used a royal icing recipe from the back of my package of egg white powder.
They say to beat the egg white powder with water first, but that takes so long to incorporate the little lumps of powder into the water to make egg whites. I do prefer the powder, though, since my kids like to eat the royal icing. I don't like letting them eat raw egg.
4 t powdered egg white
1/4 C water
3 C powdered sugar
1/4 t cream of tartar
Instead of mixing the egg white powder with water, I sifted it with the powdered sugar, added a bit of salt and a pinch of cream of tartar, then added water to the mixture and beat it until it was well mixed. I added a bit of extra water to thin it to the right consistency. I didn't want the white frosting to stand out against the greenhouse frame, so I colored it brown to match the gingerbread.
I used about 10 sheets of gelatin (I'm not sure what silver gelatin is, but that's the type I bought from Amazon - even though I really hate giving Bezos more money; I can't really shop around locally during a pandemic).
I first cut out the shape of gelatin I needed for the window pane, then piped around the frame, smoothed it with a knife, then stuck the gelatin sheet onto the royal icing. Protip: gelatin sheets are made of gelatin (ridiculous, I know). So they... start to curl and distort when exposed to moisture, say... in royal icing.
This was honestly difficult. I should've used tempered chocolate or something to adhere it, but I guess I wasn't thinking. The panes did start to curl away from the frames, but I piped on extra royal icing to secure them, and it's dry enough here that it wasn't too much of an issue (just time consuming and a bit fiddly).
When you start to put gingerbread walls together, I suggest piping a squiggly line on them instead of a straight, solid line. It seems to help the surfaces adhere better. Use things to prop up the walls and let them dry before adding more. You don't want this to collapse after all the hard work you've done so far. Leave a panel open in the roof if you want one of the windows open.
I realized about this time that I hadn't accounted for the extra space at the corners for the royal icing, and the two top roof panels had a bit of a gap. I still had more gingerbread dough, so I rolled out a strip of it, folded it and pinched one side to make a sort of V with the dough, then baked it on a ridge of foil so it would keep its shape. I then attached it to the roof with royal icing and it worked just fine. It probably would've been noticeable if I'd used white icing instead of brown.
I used foil to hold up the window prop while the icing set, then attached the open window to the roof.
The leftover royal icing was the perfect shade to make broken corn stalks for the edge of the cornfield, so I piped several onto parchment and let them dry overnight along with the gingerbread house.
I then traced the gingerbread house onto paper so that I could plan out the layout of the veggies inside the greenhouse. I wanted to make sure things were at least on a believable scale... no tomatoes the size of beach balls or anything. Having the outline on paper helped me keep the scale while I was sculpting the marzipan veggies.
Step 3: Bake Landscape Cake
I found a great recipe for a chocolate cake that holds up to structural stuff without being hard or dry. I needed it to hold a gingerbread house, after all.
I used the one here: https://sugargeekshow.com/recipe/chocolate-cake-re...
8 oz butter
14 oz granulated sugar
15 oz flour
1/2 t baking powder
2 1/2 t baking soda
4 oz cocoa powder
1 t salt
2 t vanilla extract
16 oz water
2 oz vegetable oil
I buttered & lined two sheet pans with parchment, then buttered the parchment to make extra sure the cake wouldn't stick (the butter on the pan keeps the parchment in place while you're spreading out the cake batter).
I then mixed dry ingredients (other than sugar) in a bowl. Whip the butter with sugar, add eggs 1 at a time, add oil & vanilla, then alternate adding the dry ingredients with the water, a third at a time. Fold it with a spatula so you don't overmix, then spread evenly in the prepared sheet pans using an offset spatula.
Bake at 335 degrees until a toothpick inserted comes out clean; mine took about 20 minutes because the batter was spread so thin.
Once cake is cool, carefully invert one of the layers onto the board you'll be using for your landscape. I used a large white cutting board.
Step 4: Fill & Crumb Coat the Cake
From the start, I wanted the landscape to show an early winter scene with some dirt showing through the snow, so I made sure the cake and the crumb coat (and filling) were chocolate.
I didn't measure the chocolate chips or the cream for this. Put chocolate chips in a bowl, then add cream until it nearly (but doesn't quite) cover the chocolate chips. Microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between. When all the chocolate chips are melted, stir until the ganache is smooth and glossy.
Soften an 8 ounce package of cream cheese, then whip it until fluffy. Pour in the ganache, a little at a time, and mix until well incorporated. Place the bowl over a larger bowl with ice water in it and whip until the filling is thick and fluffy.
Spread the filling on the first layer of cake, then carefully place the second layer on top. If you're doing a large, thin layer of cake, keep the cake on the pan and tip it onto the first, rather than trying to slide it.
At this point, I set the assembled gingerbread house onto the cake to get a feel for where I wanted it to be, then used a long knife to carve it. I wanted part of the landscape flat where the greenhouse would be, then sloping downward toward a cornfield that was just barely visible at the edge of the cake.
Keep the chunks of extra cake in a bowl for using inside the greenhouse.
Once the cake is carved, make another smaller batch of ganache (without cream cheese). Microwave chocolate chips with cream, stir until smooth, and spread it in a thin layer over the cake. This helps seal in the crumbs, as well as keeping it from drying out. Set aside to let the ganache set up overnight.
Step 5: Make the Marzipan Veggies
Put equal parts (by volume) almond flour and powdered sugar into a food processor. Mix well until they're a fine powder. Add a pinch of salt, a splash of vanilla extract, and a spoonful of water and mix again. Add a little more water if needed and mix until the marzipan starts to come together. You could add rose water or almond extract, but I didn't want to.
Color bits of marzipan with concentrated food coloring gel; use gloves if you don't want technicolor fingertips. Keep marzipan covered if you're not actively working on it, since the outside can dry out fast. If it does dry a bit, you can spritz it with vodka to help make it workable. Keep some marzipan set aside to color brown for the planters and the lemon tree trunk.
Shape the marzipan into whatever fruits or veggies you want, keeping in mind the scale of the greenhouse. I used toothpicks and clean clay tools for this. It honestly took several hours. I pulled up images of various pumpkins, heirloom tomato varieties, cabbages, lemons, and peppers to reference while sculpting. I may need to review my life priorities, considering how long I spent on this thing.
Set these aside to dry and stiffen overnight.
Dilute gel food coloring with a bit of vodka (I keep mine in a spray bottle so I don't spill too much on my plate), then carefully paint details on the veggies. Make sure to at least paint the stem end of the veggies so that the isomalt stems and leaves will blend better once you attach them.
For the cabbages, I started with a small ball of marzipan, then added pale green leaves around it. I added darker green leaves as I moved further outwards. After it was dry, I used diluted white food coloring to add touches to the edges of the cabbage leaves.
Step 6: Frost the Cake
I was originally planning on doing a seven minute icing because it's so fluffy and might make good snowdrifts, but I worried how the moisture in it would react with the gingerbread and gelatin windows. Instead, I opted for simple American buttercream. It'd be whiter if I used shortening instead of butter, but that's gross.
Whip 1 stick of softened butter, then add 2 cups powdered sugar. Mix well, and add cream or milk a spoonful at a time, mixing in between, until the consistency is smooth and spreadable. Add some vanilla and a bit of salt to taste, but be careful not to add so much vanilla that it darkens the color further. My homemade vanilla extract doesn't have coloring, but some commercial extract does have extra caramel coloring in it.
I added some white food coloring to help lighten the pale yellow, then added a tiny touch of violet and deep blue. When people dye their hair a pale color, they generally need toner (which adds a blue-purple tone over the brassy blonde) to balance the color. It doesn't actually make the color lighter, but it does help make it look less yellow. I probably could've added more, but I was content with the frosting being a soft off-white.
I tried the greenhouse in a couple positions, then placed the paper tracing beneath it and removed the greenhouse from the cake. I sifted powdered sugar onto the paper to mark where not to pipe buttercream. I didn't want snow inside the greenhouse, after all. Be careful when you lift the paper off the cake not to dump the excess powdered sugar onto the clear area like I did. (whoops)
Pipe the buttercream onto the cake and spread it into a thin layer with an offset spatula. American buttercream is obnoxiously sweet, so keep it thin if you want to actually eat a piece of this cake.
Step 7: Make the Various Foliage
I might've gone overboard here, but I wanted a variety of green textures inside the greenhouse. The types of foliage I made were:
edible wafer paper leaves
royal icing touch ups
For the tuile, I used the recipe here: https://chefiso.com/p/tuiles-recipe/ because the tuile were lighter and more delicate than some of the other recipes that make sturdier, fortune cookie-type tuile. Combine 1 T melted butter with 2 T sugar, 1 1/2 T water, and 2 T flour. Divide the batter if desired, and mix in various shades of green food coloring. Spread the batter very thinly onto crinkled foil, and bake at 350 for about 4 minutes, until set and just barely starting to darken around the edges.
For the wafer paper leaves, mix a small amount of vegetable oil with powdered food coloring. Use a brush to paint the pigment onto the wafer paper. I suggest wearing gloves, since the pigment won't fully dry on the paper. Use a leaf shaped cutter to cut small leaves, and use small scissors to cut other shapes from the green wafer paper.
I used isomalt for the vines because it doesn't crystallize so easily like sugar does. I now wish I'd added more food coloring than I did, since the vines turn paler when they're such thin strands. Melt some isomalt granules in a pan on the stove (I didn't bother with water). Once it's melted, pull the pan off the heat and let it cool slightly so that it's not bubbling any more. Stir in some food coloring with a toothpick.
I'd hoped to pull the isomalt and sculpt it while wearing gloves, but it was difficult without a sugar lamp. Instead, I ended up reheating some of the cooled green isomalt, and pulled small strands of it with a wooden skewer, twisting them in coils. The strands are incredibly fragile and cool quickly, so work fast and make a lot of extras. I made sure to have a variety of thick and thin strands for the vines and stems on the vegetables.
Step 8: Prepare the Greenhouse Interior
The interior requires cake pop dough for the border and planter interiors, melted chocolate for stability on the bottom of the planters, ganache for the main ground, candy gravel for a path, and marzipan for the outside of the planters.
For the cake pop dough, mix some of the extra cake scraps with a large spoonful of buttercream. Microwave for a few seconds to warm it, then mix with a fork. If it's too wet, add more cake scraps. If it's too crumbly, add a little more buttercream. Mold the dough into the planter shapes, then paint the bottoms with melted chocolate and let cool.
For the candy gravel, melt white chocolate chips (or blue striped ones, since that's all I could find). Add powdered food coloring to make it grayish brown. I had to add a good deal of orange and red food coloring, with a pinch of cocoa powder. Once it looks the color you want, add crisp rice cereal, chopped nuts, and some black and gray sprinkles. You'll want the candy mixture to just barely coat the cereal without being runny. Spread it out on waxed paper to cool. Once dry, sprinkle the gravel bits inside the greenhouse where the path will be. Add some crumbs from a crushed graham cracker to the path. I used a clay blade to "shovel" a path through the buttercream snow outside the greenhouse, then added the gravel and sand to that path, as well.
I made both wood grain and terracotta marzipan for the outside of the planters. Once you color it the way you want, roll it thin and cut it to fit around the cake pop planter insides.
Step 9: Make the Trees
Melt some marshmallows in a bowl in the microwave with a small amount of butter. I didn't follow a recipe for this or measure.
Add a bit of peanut butter and green food coloring. Mix in crisp rice cereal, then shape the rice crispy treats into cone shapes. I also shaped a small ball for the lemon tree.
Shove the tree shapes onto wooden dowels and poke the ends into foam or cardboard so they can stand upright while they harden.
Color some of the royal icing from earlier a deep green shade. Put it into a frosting bag and pipe royal icing leaves onto the cones. I had to first coat the cones with a thin layer of royal icing using a knife because it was difficult to pipe, even though the icing wasn't too stiff.
I suggest holding the tree upside down in front of a fan while piping the branches so that they bend upwards. Once they're dry enough to hold their form, put the dowel back into the foam and pipe the next tree.
Step 10: Assemble the Plants
Stick the rice crispy ball onto a piece of uncooked pasta. Cover the spaghetti noodle with brown marzipan, then add a couple marzipan branches. Cover the rice crispy ball with green royal icing, then use a tweezers to stick on the marzipan lemons. Add foliage from green wafer paper, then make a hole in the cake pop planter to insert the lemon stem. Place the potted lemon tree in a corner so that it's visible, cuz it was a royal pain to put all those leaves on and get the lemons to stick.
Carefully insert isomalt stems into the pumpkins, tomatoes, and peppers. Add leaves to the planters from the wafer paper and tuile foliage you made, using royal icing to help fill in gaps and adhere things. Place the pumpkins in or near the planter. We're... gonna pretend that this pumpkin vine was amazingly productive without having to spread leaves all over the entire interior of the greenhouse. Magical pumpkin vine, all right? Good.
Pipe royal icing leaves into a round planter, then add the marzipan chilis.
Add a thin coating of royal icing to uncooked thin spaghetti noodles to make stakes for the heirloom tomatoes and the bell pepper plant. Place the tomatoes on and near their planters, making sure the stems look like they're attached. Place the cabbage, and arrange the extra veggies on the low shelves near the greenhouse entrance.
I'd hoped to make tiered shelves for those, but they fell apart, so I had to make do.
I tested the greenhouse fit several times while arranging the plants so that the walls wouldn't crush the veggies when I assembled it.
Step 11: Final Touches & Assembly
I wanted the greenhouse to be lit, so I used a strand of fairy lights. I first coiled the wire so that the lights wouldn't be so far apart.
I measured the corners I wanted the lights to be strung on, then figured out how many lights I wanted in each section. I flattened the coil and stretched it out slightly so that the lights would fit where I wanted them to. This process was really annoying and fiddly, and took quite awhile.
I attached the fairy lights with royal icing, but it took awhile. I could only do one edge at a time. Otherwise, the coil would pull up from the previous area. Let it dry between each edge. Once you're done attaching the lights, make sure to touch up any spots with royal icing, and let the wire to the switch lead out of the greenhouse and behind the cake.
Carefully set the greenhouse onto the cake, then use an offset spatula to fill in any gaps in the buttercream snow around the outside edges.
Pull the rice crispy trees from their dowels (making sure the royal icing branches have set fully) and place them around the scene, using buttercream to hold them. Sift on powdered sugar all over the scene. I had to use a fan while sifting the powdered sugar to get it into all the sides of the trees and greenhouse. Of course... I ended up with powdered sugar all over my kitchen, but... small price to pay for better looking snow, right? ...Yeah, probably not. Oh, well.
Make sure the powdered sugar doesn't block too much of the gravel path. Use a clean, dry brush to clean the excess powdered sugar from the greenhouse windows so you can still see the interior that you worked so hard on and lost too many nights of sleep to finish.
Arrange the dried royal icing broken corn stalks in the corner, making sure they're approximately in rows (it might help to look up images of corn fields in winter if you didn't grow up near farms like I did).
Add a bit of edible shimmer powder and edible glitter if you want a bit more sparkle in your landscape. Stand back, turn off the kitchen lights, and turn on the greenhouse!
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