Introduction: Constructing a Gingerbread House
We've all been there. You finally have the pieces all made and the icing whipped up for the perfect gingerbread house but you just can't get it to stay together. One roof starts to fall off and then another side and then finally you're left with a mangled heap of gingerbread and icing. Sound familiar? Well then let me show you the best way to eliminate that from ever happening again.
These are not instructions for the perfectionist. I think the most important part of gingerbread houses is that they shouldn't be perfect. Each should be a little unique whether it's a lopsided roof or a missing door. So don't get discouraged if your house doesn't look perfect. I've been making gingerbread houses since I was 12 and every single year without fail I have a few stubborn ones that will fall down. Just like in life though, the most important thing to do when your gingerbread house falls down is to pick the pieces up and start again.
Note: This guide provides simple instructions on how to construct a gingerbread house starting with cutting out the pieces for the house. You don't need any previous skills except that you need to have already made the gingerbread (ready to be rolled out) and the royal icing. One word of caution for the royal icing: make sure to get a recipe that has a stiff icing since that will be your "glue" for the rest of the project. I recommend something like this one. Start to finish, this project should take about 40 minutes, maybe more maybe less depending on the consistency of your frosting and how fast it hardens.
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Step 1: Roll Out the Dough
Lay down a sheet of parchment paper and then roll out the Dough to about a 1/4" thick or less. Cook it a few minutes more than the recommended time on the recipe.
This might seem like a fairly easy step, but trust me this can make or break your gingerbread house. You want your dough to be thin for a few reasons: 1. It makes the gingerbread harder so it won't bend or break during construction, and 2. It makes the gingerbread lighter and easier to stick together. Thick and heavy gingerbread, especially when dealing with roofs, will quickly turn your beautiful house into a deconstructed, sagging pile. For these same reasons, I usually over cook my gingerbread just a few minutes to make sure it is construction ready.
Step 2: Cut Out the House Pieces
Use stencils (I recommend a simple pattern like this) and a paring knife to make exact cuts for house pieces. Pick up excess gingerbread and then carefully cut out the parchment paper around the house pieces. Transfer to baking sheet.
Parchment paper is a life saver in this step. Your gingerbread will quickly get deformed (causing some major problems down the road) if you try to pick it up off of the parchment paper with your hands or even with a spatula. For this reason, use scissors to give each house piece it's own parchment paper backing and use that to transfer over to the baking sheet.
Step 3: Prep for Construction
After the gingerbread is out of the oven, you'll need to prep with a few things before diving into the construction:
gingerbread pieces, at least partially cooled
royal icing (stiff)
10" cake circle covered in foil
a pastry bag with a medium Wilton round tip (like #8 or 9)
(optional) a medium Wilton star tip
Fill your pastry bag (with the round tip on) with icing. Also before you start building, be sure to cover any excess royal icing with a damp paper towel so it doesn't stiffen up while you are working on your house.
Step 4: Icing the Back
Use your pastry bag to put a generous line of icing on the bottom of the back house piece. Stick the piece onto the foil covered cake circle and lean the back against something to help it stand up.
Step 5: Icing the Sides
Grab one house side and use the pastry bag to generously pipe a line of icing ONLY on the bottom and on the side that will attach to the back of the house. Hold in place for a minute. Then, do the same process to the other side, remembering only to ice the bottom and the side that will attach to the back of the house.
This is the first place where houses usually start to fall down for me. You have a few options to prevent that from happening. The first is to use books or boxes on all sides to help the house in standing up until the icing hardens up. The second is to patiently hold all the pieces up for a few minutes before moving on. Adding the next step tends to help stabilize the entire structure.
Step 6: Icing the Front
Pipe a line of icing on the sides and the bottom of the front house piece and attach to the sides.
After this point, I usually let the roofless gingerbread houses sit for about 20 or so minutes to firm up the icing. The roofs are the heaviest pieces and so they need a stable structure underneath.
Step 7: Icing the First Roof
After waiting 20 or so minutes, pipe 3 lines of icing on the structure you just made as shown in the picture. Gently press one of the roofs onto the structure. Let sit for 5 minutes.
This is the second place where my gingerbread houses usually fall apart. You may have to hold the roof on for a minute or two before letting the structure underneath support all of it's weight. If I'm really worried that it's about to collapse, I'll pull the roof off and wait a little bit longer for my understructure to harden. Trust me, it will get strong enough to handle both the roofs.
Step 8: Icing the Second Roof
Similar to the first roof, pipe 4 lines of icing on the structure to attach the second roof. Again, gently press the last roof onto structure. Let sit for 5 minutes.
Again if I'm really worried that it's about to collapse, I'll pull the roof off and wait a little bit longer for my understructure to harden. Trust me, it will get strong enough to handle both the roofs.
Step 9: Attaching Door and Shutters
Ice the remaining pieces and attach to house.
Depending on what pieces template you are following, you may have a few more pieces to add on to your house. For example I had to attach the shutters and the door to finish up my house.
Step 10: Decorative Icing Around the Edges
Switch tips on your pastry bags to a small to medium star tip (I used a Wilton #32). Ice a squiggle pattern by squeezing and moving the bag up and down over every exposed edge to cover up any unwanted extra frosting.
Although this step is optional, it makes a big difference in the appearance of your final gingerbread house. I highly recommend piping some kind of pattern over your exposed edges to give them a more uniform look. It also has the added bonus of stabilizing your house with one extra layer of icing support.
Step 11: Voilà!
Congratulations! You've constructed a beautiful house and now here comes the fun part! After you wait 3-4 hours or so, your icing should be stiffened enough for you to decorate to your heart's content. The beauty of the traditional gingerbread house is that it's a blank canvas, so be as creative as you can be!