I can’t write this post without first making a confession: I have been through both architecture school and pastry school. For a long time I tried to avoid the obvious gingerbread-construction shaped overlap in my fields of study. (I was, I think, afraid of being pigeon-holed into the crafty side of pastry). Sometimes, the shoe just fits and there is nothing to do but wear it. I have made my peace. And, yes, I have also made gingerbread.
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. As the scope of this post was reaching epic proportions, I decided to divide it into two separate sections. Keep reading right here to get the full story of how the house is made and put together. To get my recipes for gingerbread dough, royal icing and poured sugar, head over to my post on gingerbread house basics.
Enjoy, and have a very happy holidays!
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. I’m attaching templates for my design right here, 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 ⅜”). 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, ⅛” 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.
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.
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.
Make Base Recipes (Gingerbread Dough & Royal Icing)
Now you’ve made your design, and maybe even a few textured molds. Time to get your hands dirty! I have a whole separate post with the base recipes for gingerbread dough, royal icing and poured sugar (that’s what the glass windows in my house are made of). These recipes make plenty of gingerbread and icing to create my brownstone design. You could halve these recipes, if you’re making a smaller house. Mix your big batches of gingerbread dough and royal icing first, and then you’ll be all set when it comes time to assemble and decorate your house. If you decide to use poured sugar, wait until you’re ready to assemble the house to cook it. Then you can use it, not just as glass for the windows, but as glue to hold the walls up.
Cut & Shape Gingerbread
Roll your gingerbread out to the specified thickness on a piece of parchment paper. My pattern uses 3/16” thickness for the walls, and ⅛” 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.
Pipe Freestanding Royal Icing Pieces
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.
Again, I have more detailed instructions for baking gingerbread at my post on gingerbread house basics. You want to bake the gingerbread for a long time (1 hour+) at a very low temperature.
Decorate Building 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.
Cook Poured Sugar & Cut Windows (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. First pour the windows and cut them into the proper shape. Then you can use the leftover sugar as glue.
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.
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.