The Christmas season wouldn’t be complete without gingerbread and the culinary engineering feat of building gingerbread houses.
The aromatic sweet can trace to beginning in ancient Greece and Egypt where a form of it was used for ceremonial purposes. It’s been known in Europe since about the 11th century, and by 1444, it had made its way to Sweden where Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to remedy indigestion.
Gingerbread really caught on when the spice that gives it its name became more readily available and less expensive for common people.
Among the oldest recipes is one that combines stale breadcrumbs, ground almonds, sugar, rosewater and ginger. The mix was pressed into carved wood molds that depicted items of importance like royalty or religious symbols and the resulting cookie might have been decorated with a thin layer of golden or white icing.
Later on, breadcrumbs were replaced with flour, which made a lighter product.
After the Brothers Grimm published their book of fairy tales in 1812, gingerbread houses became popular. In some countries, baking and building with gingerbread has evolved into an art form and gingerbread-baking guilds have resulted.
Building a gingerbread house uses many of the same concepts used in building a real house. Plans are drawn up and templates are sometimes made out of cardboard and pieced together with tape to test the design. You can create your own pattern or find one of many that are on the Internet.
The next step is to make your dough and roll it out on a piece of parchment paper to an even thickness of one-quarter inch.
Dust it with flour and place the pattern pieces on the surface, then with a sharp utility knife, cut out the pieces.
Doors and windows can be cut before baking or immediately after the gingerbread comes out of the oven, when it is still warm and soft.
Pieces should be baked at 350 F for 11-15 minutes for large pieces and six-eight minutes for small pieces.
When out of the oven, lay the pattern pieces back down on the gingerbread and trim everything back to size.
For your glue, make royal icing out of the whites of two large eggs and 2 2/3 cups icing sugar.
Use a cookie sheet, piece of Styrofoam or sturdy cardboard for your base and begin by piping a thick line of icing along the vertical edges of the house walls.
Hold the walls in place until the icing is partially set and then pipe icing along the bottom of the house where it meets the base and leave for about an hour before commencing with the roof.
All seams should also receive a thickly piped line of icing on the outside.
After adding the roof, it’s recommended that the house be left for an hour or longer to set before decorating. The roof can be finished with cookie or cracker wafers for shingles. Popular candies for trimming the rest of the house and yard include small gumdrops, peppermints, candy canes, Smarties and cinnamon hearts.
Norbert Boos, a certified pastry chef and co-owner of Panino’s Bakery, has been making gingerbread houses for more than two decades. Every Christmas, he comes up with an elaborate new design and this year’s creation is a tree house with Santa and a reindeer enjoying the view outside.
Building the annual gingerbread house has become a tradition for Norbert and his daughter, Angela, who helps him with cutting out the pieces. This year, it took them 1 1/2 hours to cut the pieces and four hours to put it all together.
Their creation is on display at Panino’s until Christmas when it will be raffled off to one of the store’s customers.
Basic gingerbread recipe
6 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 teaspoons ground ginger
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves or allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (12 Tbsp) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup dark molasses
1 Tablespoon water
Make the gingerbread dough
1. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.
2. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed the butter and brown sugar until fluffy and well blended. Beat in the eggs, molasses and water until well combined.
3. Beat half of the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until well blended and smooth. Stir in the remaining flour. Knead (or use your mixer’s dough hook) until well blended. If dough is too soft, add a little more flour.
4. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours, preferably overnight. You can make it up to three days ahead of time. Let it sit at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before rolling it out.