Intro: Build a Gingerbread Brownstone
We’ve all seen a million gaudy little gumdrop-studded gingerbread cottages. (Yawn.) If I’m going to the trouble of making my own darn gingerbread house, then I’m going to make whatever type I want. So I thought I’d celebrate the house type in my adopted home, Brooklyn. And everyone knows New Yorkers spend a fair amount of their time coveting both real estate and fancy foodstuffs, so the whole thing just seemed to make sense.
My gingerbread house is, admittedly, a little bit on the involved side. So I’ve written instructions that you can use either to recreate my design, or to make your gingerbread creation, whether it is much simpler, or even more involved. (If you do want to recreate my brownstone design, I have the templates that I created for this design attached in the images for this step.)
The gingerbread recipe I made is technically edible, but it really is not meant for eating. Which explains why I call for shortening (I just can’t stand to put perfectly good butter into something that isn’t going to be eaten). The ideal gingerbread for making a house bakes up hard as a rock. The texture and flavor are rather similar to a thin plywood. I make gingerbread cookies for eating with good butter, and a delicate balance of spices. This dough, on the other hand, was a good opportunity to get rid of some old, stale cinnamon. Royal icing is both the glue and the snow, and it is made of just egg whites and powdered sugar. With these two recipes at your disposal, you’ll be ready tackle just about any gingerbread project. And if you're really feeling ambitious, you can make poured sugar "glass" for the windows. I have the base recipes for gingergbread dough, royal icing and poured sugar attached in one printer friendly pdf called Gingerbread Basics. These recipes make more than enough icing and gingerbread to make this house. If you're making a smaller (or larger) project, you can adjust accordingly.
This project, along with lots of other food-related nonsense is also posted on my blog, www.kitchentablescraps.com. Enjoy, and have a very happy holidays!
- Design your house
- Carve Templates (Optional)
- Make Royal Icing
- Mix Gingerbread Dough
- Roll, Cut & Shape Gingerbread*
- Pipe Freestanding Royal Icing Pieces*
- Bake Gingerbread
- Decorate Sides
- Cook Poured Sugar Windows/Glue (optional)
- Assemble House
Step 1: Design Your House
At the risk of sounding obvious, the design of your gingerbread house might be the most important step. Sure, a handy decorator can turn a plain design into something lovely, but if you have an interesting design to start with (and one that is easy to put together) then you’re already halfway to having a beautiful gingerbread house. The templates for my design are attached to the first step, so if you want to build this exact design, you can skip all the design stuff and go to the next step.
What size will it be? One of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make is what size your house will be. The bigger the house gets, the trickier the construction is. I decided to make my design small enough that I could print out all the templates on a standard 8½ x 11 sheet of paper. For this size house, 3/16” thick gingerbread works quite well. But if you scaled up the design to make a 2 foot tall house, you’d need to use a thicker gingerbread (at least ¼”, maybe een \”). Likewise, if you made a much smaller gingerbread house, you could make do with a thinner dough. I’d say a house smaller than 9” high, [” thick gingerbread would be fine. But the thickness is not the only tricky thing about making a big gingerbread house. It will also be more challenging to glue the pieces into place securely without breaking your giant pieces of gingerbread.
Draw a template for each gingerbread piece. I’ve posted my design template, in case anyone wants to use it to make their own brownstone. But you can use the same techniques and recipes to make your own design– whether it is simpler or more complicated. If you are comfortable with designing and building stuff, and adjusting for the thickness of your gingerbread seems obvious, then go ahead and draw up a design straight from your imagination. If you’re not quite so confident, I’d recommend building a dummy house out of cardboard. Most corrugated cardboard is about the right thickness, and it will be much easier for you to make adjustments (and catch any mistakes) in a cardboard model. Whether you build a dummy model first or not, you’ll want to have a paper or cardboard template for each piece of gingerbread in your house.
I have one interior support piece in my design. This piece helps hold up the first wall and helps hold the roof up while the project is under construction. I also clipped a strand of led Christmas lights to this support, to have interior lighting. If you are making your own design, consider adding an interior support, or even more than one, depending on the shape of your house.
Don’t forget a base! I used a scrap piece of wood for a base to my gingerbread house. You can build one out of gingerbread, but I prefer having a stronger piece of material holding up all my hard work. Remember to drill a hole in the base, if you'll be adding lights.
Add relief. It is possible to bake gingerbread on surfaces that are not entirely flat (like the rounded projection of bay windows on my house). To get this effect, you’ll need to find (or build) something in the right shape to give the gingerbread depth. And then you’ll need to cover that thing in parchment paper so that it doesn’t stick while baking. I made a support for the bay window projection with a double thick piece of brown paper stapled and folded into the right shape and then sheathed in parchment paper. (The pattern for the support is in the pdf of my design as well). If you’re making your own design, you can obviously make your own supports. I would strongly suggest sticking to pretty basic shapes. Removing just the simple rounded paper template was a delicate operation, and more complicated shapes would be even trickier.
Step 2: Carve Templates (Optional)
I knew that for my brownstone, I’d want to add a stone patterned texture. In previous years, I have used a butter knife to make an impression and draw in the lines of stones. As you’d expect, this can get a little tedious. So this year I decided to try a different technique– carving a template out of wood, and then pressing the gingerbread into the mold. Sure, carving takes a little longer than forming the gingerbread. BUT, if you carve a design that you can repeat (such as the frieze pieces on the projecting bay windows) you can save yourself lots of time and produce multiple textured pieces. You certainly don’t have to carve anything to make a beautiful gingerbread house. I have made many houses, and this is the first one that I used carving as a technique. But if you happen to be one of those folks who likes carving (or if you know someone who is) then making your own templates can take your gingerbread sculpting to another level.
For this house, I made three carved templates: a simple carved cornice, a decorated frieze, and a dowel carved to make a stone pattern when it is rolled. If you chose to make a carved design, make sure that the design has a deep enough relief– anything less than 1/16” will likely disappear during baking.
Step 3: Make Royal Icing
Royal Icing Ingredients:
6 egg whites
9 c. powdered sugar
Pour egg whites into a large mixer bowl. If you are using a stand mixer, fit it with the paddle attachment. Sift powdered sugar. (You can skip this step if you are using a stand mixer. ) Add 2 c. of the powdered sugar to the egg whites. Mix. Keep adding powdered sugar a cup at a time, mixing until the icing is smooth after each addition. Once you add the final powdered sugar addition, the mixture should be thick, almost like a buttercream. If you are using a stand mixer, turn the speed up to medium and beat for a few minutes. This will beat out any remaining little chunks of powdered sugar that could trip you up later on. If you are not planning to use the icing right away, transfer it immediately to a plastic container and cover. The surface of the icing dries out very quickly, so always plan to keep it covered. I know it has egg whites, but it is fine to keep this icing out at room temperature. The sugar concentration is so high, that it is not at risk for harboring nasty little microbes.
You can also color royal icing. I added a few tablespoons of cocoa powder and a little cinnamon to make a portion of my icing roughly the same shade as my baked gingerbread. Of course you can use food coloring to color royal icing too. Just make sure that you don’t add so much that the consistency of the royal icing becomes runny.
Tips for Working With Royal Icing
Adjusting the Consistency
To minimize frustration and gingerbread induced despair, it is essential that your icing be at the proper consistency. If it is too stiff, it won’t stick and will be impossibly hard to pipe. If it is too runny, it will run right off the gingerbread or turn your intricate designs into a puddle. Too stiff and you can add a few drops of water, to runny and you can add powdered sugar. I prefer to make a big batch of royal icing, (as my recipe indicates) and make sure that it’s on the stiff side. It’s much easier to add a few drops of water and loosen things up than to add more powdered sugar (it takes a surprising quantity of powdered sugar to stiffen things up). At the right texture, the surface of the icing will look shiny, but it will still hold its shape when you grab a spoonful. You’ll want to use either a cornet or a piping bag to get your icing where you want it. Cornets work best for small quantities of royal icing– for this gingerbread house I only used cornets.
1. Cut paper: Roll out and cut a section of parchment paper that is about square, or just slightly rectangular, with the width of the roll being the longer side. Cut the rectangle along the diagonal.
2. Roll into a cone: Roll the triangle into a cone, with the tip of the cone at the center of the longest side. There are three corners that you want to align: the bottom, the middle corner and the top. Line up these three layers, and your cornet will have the right proportions.
3. Tighten: Tighten the cone by pulling down on the outermost layer of paper while pushing up on the innermost layer with your thumb. The tip of the cone should close completely.
4. Lock: Fold over the flaps of the cone to lock the cornet together. I like to pinch a little vertical fold along the locked overlap on the base of the cornet (where you have the most layers of overlapping paper). This helps keep the slippery parchment paper from slipping and becoming loose. Make a few cornets at a time and have them ready to go before you start. For this project, you’ll want to have at least three or four ready to go once you start assembling and decorating your house.
Place a cornet tip down into a narrow-mouthed jar. Use a spatula to carefully scoop and a few tablespoons of icing into your cornet– try to avoid getting any icing on the top 2 “ of the cornet. (If you pour straight from the bowl you’re much more likely to make a mess.) Do not overfill- it might seem like it will save you time, but your icing will start to ooze out the back of the cornet later. Pick up the cornet and hold it with the seam facing you. Gently squeeze the icing down toward the base of the cornet. Try to get all of the icing out of the top two inches of the cornet. Fold over the ends of the cornet away from you. Then begin rolling the end of the cornet away from you, like you would a toothpaste tube. Snip the tip off your cornet and start squeezing from the end. Try to cut an even tip- no diagonals or wonky edges. When you are piping with the cornet, keep using the same toothpaste tube rolling motion to squeeze the icing out. (Ignore the fact that the photos show filling the cornet with chocolate… the technique is identical no matter what you are filling it with.)
Royal Icing For Structural Connections
When it is completely dry, royal icing is quite firm. Hard enough to hold up a big gingerbread house. But, the icing has to be completely dry for it to be strong. And disturbing it while it dries can ruin the hold and even collapse a gingerbread house. The thicker the icing is applied, the more weight it will hold. But the thicker the icing is applied, the longer it will take to dry. Royal icing connections work best when the joint is well coated with royal icing– a smear of icing between two gingerbread pieces will not hold any weight. . If you want a neat looking connection on the front of your building, I suggest loading the back of the connection with a thick bead of royal icing. My summation: use enough icing, and let it dry completely without disturbing it. Sometimes this means gluing a few pieces together, and then leaving them for a while. Gingerbread building is an exercise in patience.
Royal Icing For Decoration
You can make a stunning gingerbread house using just royal icing decorations. Traditional decorations are piped directly onto the gingerbread pieces. But if you’re feeling ambitious, you can also pipe freestanding pieces onto a piece of parchment paper, then (when they are completely dry) you can carefully peel them off. I used this technique to make the fire escape and the bicycle. Remember that the thinner your piping the more fragile your finished pieces will be, so larger pieces will need to be thicker to stay in one piece.
Step 4: Mix Gingerbread Dough
Gingerbread Dough Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup shortening
1 1/2c. sugar
2 T cinnamon
1 t. ground nutmeg
9 cups flour
½ c. corn starch
2 cups dark corn syrup or molasses
¼ c. water
In a large mixer bowl, cream the shortening together with the sugar and spices. Scrape down the sides of the bowl until the shortening mixture is completely homogeneous. Add the flour a few cups at a time, mixing after each addition. (If you are using an electric mixer use the slowest speed) Eventually the shortening will mix completely into the flour and it will resemble just-barely-damp sand. Pour in the molasses and water and mix until the liquid is distributed throughout the dough. The dough is very stiff, so you’ll need to knead it just to get the whole mass to come together. Turn the dough out onto a counter top and divide it into three parts. One by one knead each portion of dough until it is smooth and homogeneous. Press the dough into 1” thick rectangles and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Let rest an hour or so before you roll it (just leaving it out at room temperature is fine). If you won’t be using it that day, store the dough in the refrigerator, but bring it up to room temperature before you roll and shape it.
Step 5: Roll, Cut & Shape Gingerbread Pieces
Roll your gingerbread out to the specified thickness on a piece of parchment paper. My pattern uses 3/16” thickness for the walls, and 1/8” thickness for the stairs. Carefully cut all the pieces, leaving them on the parchment paper. If you are rolling a pattern onto your dough (like my stone pattern) first roll the pattern into the dough then cut the pieces out. You can re-roll scraps and trimmings right away, just be sure to wrap them up so they don’t dry out. Attach any sculpted or decorative pieces of gingerbread by first brushing on a little water. Once your gingerbread pieces are all cut out and textured the way you’d like them, leave them out overnight to dry.
Tips for rolling and shaping gingerbread
It is always a challenge to roll your gingerbread uniformly, but an even thickness makes your house much easier to assemble. I glued a few strips of balsa wood together to make guides for rolling the gingerbread dough. This way I knew that all of my gingerbread pieces were rolled to exactly 3/16” thick. (See the section on designing a gingerbread house for more information on thickness). Take a few minutes and make (or just buy) guides for rolling your dough. Trust me, it will be much easier to roll your gingerbread, and you’ll get a better end result. And most importantly, you won’t have any thin, weak spots liable to break during assembly.
Once the gingerbread is rolled out, you can use a number of techniques to give your gingerbread pieces some texture. You can roll them into a mold (like I did with the decorated friezes on the front of the house). Or you can use a butter knife or stamps to press a design into the surface. Remember that the gingerbread will puff up when it bakes, so don’t make your designs too subtle. It’s better to make them a little too deep than too shallow.
You can also sculpt little pieces of gingerbread and add them to a flat piece of dough to make a pattern. (See the pilasters on the front of the brownstone. Brush a little water on the surface where you want to attach a decorative piece, and use it to stick the pieces together. You don’t want to let your designs get too thick, though. Thicker pieces take longer to bake and are more likely to deform. Stick to mostly thin designs– a half inch would be the absolute thickest that I’d try to bake.
Step 6: Pipe Freestanding Royal Icing Pieces (Optional)
My design for the fire escape uses royal icing not just as a surface decoration, but as its own structure. This technique works well for railings and other delicate pieces. Pipe the pieces out onto a piece of parchment and leave them to dry overnight before touching them.
Step 7: Bake Gingerbread
Just about everything deforms when you bake it. After all the work cutting pieces and impressing designs in them, we want to try to minimize the puffy swelling that happens in the oven. First, I specify letting your cut & molded gingerbread pieces dry overnight. This helps set the surface texture up, so that we’ll see more of it after baking. Then when the pieces actually go in the oven, you’ll want to cook them at a very low heat (I used 250°F) with the oven door propped open with a wooden spoon. All this results in drying the gingerbread and cooking it very slowly. It will likely take an hour until your gingerbread is done (maybe longer depending on altitude, moisture, thickness…) Just keep checking it every 15 minutes or so, and eventually you will see it turn a slightly darker shade of brown. If you touch the surface of a piece, it will feel mostly firm, and your fingers will not easily leave an indentation. Try to group your gingerbread pieces with other pieces that are a similar size. Smaller and thinner pieces will bake more quickly, and it will be easier to remove a whole sheet of small pieces together. Let all gingerbread pieces cool completely before assembling.
Step 8: Decorate Sides & Assemble Stairs
It is much easier to pipe onto flat gingerbread pieces than onto an already assembled house. So if you have any intricate designs you’ll be adding to the side of your house, think about piping them before the house is assembled. I mixed up some royal icing so that it is the same color as the gingerbread (colored with cocoa powder and cinnamon) and piped window frames, all before any of the gingerbread pieces were put together.
To build the fire escape, use royal icing to attach the bottoms and sides of each level to the building side, just below the middle set of windows. Let these pieces set up for a while. Finally, attach the big front piece of the fire escape to the side supports. I’ll be honest– mine cracked, but I was able to put the pieces together neatly enough that it didn’t matter. Let this piece dry overnight before you try to turn the wall upright.
Even though you’re not ready to put the main walls up, you can still assemble any smaller freestanding structures (like the stairs). Because the stair pieces are so small, I don’t recommend using poured sugar as glue to construct the staircase. Start by gluing a few stairs to the center support, and then tacking that to one of the side supports. Continue working your way down the stairs until you’ve rounded the corner and attached all the side pieces. Stairs are a bit tricky and fussy to assemble, but if you take the time to make them look nice, they really add a lot to the house. Just be patient, and if the whole stair starts to wobble and seem out of control, take a break and let the icing set up.
Step 9: Cook Poured Sugar for Windows/Glue (optional)
Now the sides are decorated, and your house is ready to assemble! If you are using poured sugar, either for windows or for glue, you’ll be working with the sugar and house assembly at the same time, so have your sides and base ready to go.
Poured Sugar Ingredients:
1 c. sugar
½ c. water
1 T white vinegar
Cooking sugar is not difficult, but it can be dangerous. Boiled sugar reaches much higher temperatures than boiling water, so little spatters of this stuff can really burn. If you do happen to get a spatter on you (don’t!) do not rip it off, immediately run the area under cold water, then once it has cooled, remove the sugar. A clean, uncluttered work space is also essential to safely work with this hot, sticky stuff.
Cooking Poured Sugar
Once the cooked sugar is ready to pour, it needs to be used immediately, so before you cook your sugar, prepare the surface where you will pour your sugar. I like to pour the sugar on to a silpat, directly on a countertop. (You can also use parchment paper) Make sure that your silpat/parchment paper is completely clean of specks and oil– if you’re in doubt rub it clean with a little white vinegar. If you are worried about the heat coming in to contact with your counter, use a cutting board or pizza stone as a base surface. (Metal sheet pans will buckle with the heat, I don’t recommend them.)
Place sugar in a saucepan. Pour the water around the edge of the pan to wash any rogue sugar crystals into the center of the pan. Draw a clean finger through the center of the sugar pile to moisten any dry sugar in the center of the pan. Cover and place the saucepan over high heat. Grab a bowl and a pastry brush. Fill the bowl with cool water. Once the sugar mixture has come to a boil, remove the lid. Keep an eye on the sugar as it cooks. If necessary, use your pastry brush to clean any sugar buildup off of the sides of the pan. Take the damp brush and squeeze a little water onto the side of the pan directly above the sugary area. As the water drizzles down, it will dissolve the sugary gunk. It is important to dissolve sugar buildup or crystals, otherwise the sugar might crystalize. But you don’t want to be overzealous with the pastry brush, adding water cools off and dilutes your sugar, which will make it take longer to cook. So use your water and brush judiciously.
Let the sugar boil. Do not stir. (I know you want to stir it– don’t! ) The sugar will boil very rapidly as it heats up. If you want the “glass” to be clear, cook the sugar to 320°F. If you’d like it to be golden (like mine) cook the sugar until it just barely starts to color. (You don’t need to use a candy thermometer for this option– once the sugar has started to caramelize, it is hot enough). Remove the pan from the heat and gently swirl the sugar mixture to even out the coloring. Hold the pan off the heat for a minute or so until the mixture cools to the consistency of honey.
Poured Sugar Windows
Start pouring slowly, the mixture will cool quickly once it is out of the pan. Keep pouring in the center of the sugar mixture, the cooler, firmer sugar at the edges will form something of a dam, so that the sugar you are pouring won’t run all over your counter. Pour the sugar out into the desired shape and thickness. As the sugar cools on the counter, use a butter knife to test and see if you can cut the sugar without it sticking. Once the sugar is cool enough, cut/shape it into the desired shapes. Let the sugar pieces cool completely, then snap them apart. If you have failed pieces, keep them clean and free of other crumbs. Then you can throw these cooked sugar scraps back into your saucepan and re-melt them. If you are using the caramel as a coloring (like I did) each time you remelt the sugar, it will get a little darker. I didn’t mind the slight variation in color, but it is something to keep in mind.
Poured Sugar Glue
You can also use hot poured sugar as glue to almost instantly set up the sides of the building. First pour the windows that you will need, then carefully dip the edge of the gingerbread piece in the hot “glue”. Immediately transfer it to where you need to attach it. Hold in place for about 30 seconds or until the sugar sets up. Once your glue cools down too much, it will be useless for sticking things together. If it starts leaving strands of sugar trailing behind, it is too cool. Just heat the pan up enough to bring the sugar back to a honey-like consistency. Again, don’t stir! Just tilt and swirl the pan to mix the sugar.
Using cooked sugar, it is much easier to get the building together in the first place, but it does have some disadvantages. Cooked sugar is very susceptible to damage from moisture– even just moisture in the air. So a poured sugar creation that looks pristine one day, might melt the next day into a sticky mess. And if that mess is the glue holding your house together… well, you see the problem. I like to use poured sugar as glue to initially get things together. And then (afterward) go back over the seam with a thick bead of royal icing. The royal icing will set up over time, and hopefully do the job even if the poured sugar should start to melt.
Step 10: Assemble the House
Trim the building front so that it lays flat against the base. Mark on the base where you want the building to be located. Apply glue to the bottom of the building front, and to two sides of the building support. (Either royal icing or cooked sugar.) Glue the support in place (on my design it is right between the door and the bay window). If you are adding poured sugar windows, then attach them to the back of the window holes.
Now on to the second wall. Add glue to the bottom and side of the second wall, and glue it in place. If you are making interior lights, attach the light fixture now. Turn it on to make sure that the light will reach the windows you want it to shine out of. Next glue the roof in place, making sure to add glue to the top of the wall support. Continue adding walls, gluing and trimming them as necessary. If your house starts to feel wobbly, then leave it for a few hours. Don’t try to add pieces to an unstable structure– no good will come of it.
Tips For Trimming Gingerbread Pieces
In spite of all the efforts, the gingerbread pieces will still deform a bit during baking. You can either use royal icing to fill in the gaps, or you can very, very carefully trim the gingerbread pieces back to straight lines and perfect right angles. The risk with trimming is that you could break your gingerbread piece. On the other hand, trying to piece together distorted pieces can require using a lot of royal icing, and this will make your connections not look as tidy. You’ve got to make the call. This gingerbread recipe cuts very well when the pieces are at least 3/16” thick. Thinner, more delicate pieces are prone to shattering.
To trim the gingerbread, start with a serrated bread knife and gradually shave away at the excess until you have the shape you want. Once you have a few pieces assembled, you’ll want to trim your pieces to fit together with the other (imperfect) pieces. So test each piece before assembly and trim as necessary.
Step 11: Decorate
Now that the building is all together, it’s time to add final decorations. With a little royal icing to hold them in place, you can add all manner of confections for decoration. I chose a muted, more or less realistic palate– adding royal icing snow and just a few decorations. Don’t be afraid to think beyond the usual gumdrops and candy canes either– I used fresh thyme to make garlands, and studded them with whole pink peppercorns. All sorts of pretty dried fruits, nuts, herbs and spices can make lovely gingerbread ornaments. Now you can light up your gingerbread house and show it off. If you’ve used poured sugar windows, try to keep it in a dry place (not a steamy kitchen) so that your windows won’t melt.
Grand Prize in the