My brother and I used to make gingerbread houses out of graham crackers when we were little and we had a great time doing it! I only remember one time when I ever saw a true gingerbread house and that was one my Mom made with a co-worker at our house when I was little.
So I figured it was about time we made one. My brother had apparently "grown out" of that phase so he wasn't interested in making a gingerbread house, but my Mom and my fiancée were eager to help out and so we all pitched in to get the job done. Even though it was a lot of work I learned a lot about gingerbread houses and I found out a lot of tips and techniques for making a successful one.
Gingerbread5-1/2 c flour
1 c molasses
¾ c packed dark brown sugar
½ c butter or margarine
1 Tb baking soda
2 tsp ginger
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp cloves
½ tsp nutmeg
With mixer at low speed, beat 3 cups flour and all other ingredients until just
mixed. Increase speed to medium and beat 3 minutes. With wooden spoon, stir in remaining 2-1/2 c flour until well mixed. Wrap dough in waxed paper and refrigerate until firm and easy to handle, about 3 hours. Roll portions of the dough about ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured cookie sheet with a lightly floured rolling pin. Bake at 350° for 15-20 minutes until gingerbread springs back when lightly touched with finger.
While it’s baking, prepare glaze: ¼ c light corn syrup and 2 Tb water. When gingerbread is done, carefully remove to wire rack, and brush top of warm gingerbread with some glaze using a pastry brush.
Into large bowl, measure two 16-oz packages confectioners’ sugar, 2/3 c milk, 2/3 c shortening, 1 Tb vanilla extract, ¼ tsp salt and one 8-oz package unsweetened chocolate (8 squares), melted. With mixer at low speed, beat ingredients until just mixes; increase speed to medium and beat until smooth, occasionally scraping bowl with rubber spatula. Always keep bowl covered with plastic wrap to keep icing from drying.
For a standard gingerbread house pattern, this amount of chocolate and two batches of the gingerbread made one large house with a base. I think we made about 7 batches of gingerbread for the cathedral, and probably 3 batches of icing.
The chocolate icing is used to secure pieces to each other and to the base. It can be rolled into rope shapes for a smoother appearance.
Another house pattern I’ve used instructs you to prepare a soft frosting to glaze the dry pieces, then assemble with colored ornamental frosting that hardens. The recipes for the two consistencies of frosting are:
In large bowl, with mixer at low speed, beat 6-1/4 c confectioners’ sugar, ¾ tsp cream of tartar, 5 egg whites, and food color paste to your preference of color. Keep bowl covered with plastic wrap to prevent frosting from drying out. With spatula, quickly and evenly spread a thin layer of frosting to the back surfaces of baked pieces and allow to dry on wire racks.
In large bowl, with mixer at low speed, beat 6-1/4 c confectioners’ sugar, ¾ tsp cream of tartar, 5 egg whites and food color paste as desired. Increase speed to high and beat until mixture is stiff and knife drawn through mixture leaves clean-cut path. Keep bowl covered with plastic wrap to prevent frosting from drying out. Use this to attach pieces to each other and to affix candy to the house. It can be used for decorating pieces also. You can make a smaller batch with 3-3/4 c sugar, ½ tsp cream of tartar and 3 egg whites.
Notes: These recipes are for a specific pattern again so the amounts are designed to cover a certain amount of gingerbread. Adjust as needed and make fresh batches if frosting dries out.
This is just sugar water used to glaze the gingerbread on the visible side after it comes out of the oven. This keeps the gingerbread preserved and prevents it from drying out. Note that this is only used if you want the gingerbread to show on the outside as we did with the cathedral. If you coat the entire piece in the soft frosting then you won't need this.
It's a good idea to plan out a design for any house - and a gingerbread house is no different. A gingerbread cathedral requires even more planning. I used cardboard cutouts of each part to get a good idea of what parts would be needed and what kind of shapes would be necessary in order to make everything fit together. Keep the following two points in mind when you're cutting out your cardboard patterns:
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- It will have to fit in your oven
- It will have to fit onto a cookie sheet in your oven.
That means you'll be constrained by the size of your oven, but you'll also have to get a good sized cookie sheet to make full use of the oven size. You can use anything you want for a cookie sheet but I found it easiest to use the ones without any ridges on the sides like the one I have shown here - that way you can easily slide fresh-baked gingerbread pieces onto wireracks for cooling so you can recycle the cookiesheet for the next batch of gingerbread.
The other step in the design preparations is to consider what you'll want for the outside of the gingerbread house cathedral. Decorating the outside is, in my opinion, the peak enjoyment in the process of creating a gingerbread house. It's when the whole project starts coming together into its final form. And it's where you can be the most creative and give it a look that's completely unique.
Take a look at some of the photos of my own gingerbread house cathedral and feel free to use whatever designs I have come up with. However, you will want to take a trip to the candy store to see what pops out at you. Everyone has different taste when it comes to design so you may find that you want to do something completely different in the design from what I've come up with...in fact I would encourage it! It will make it much more rewarding in the end if you have put your own design ideas into it. There's so many different types of candy out there that the possiblities are limitless.
Here's a list of what we used in our gingerbread house cathedral design:
- lifesavers (about 100 pieces for the stained glass windows)
- Hershey's chocolate bars (2 for the front doors)
- gummi spearmint leaves (for bushes)
- sugar cones (2 sizes for the trees)
- cinnamon red-hots (for the trees)
- whoppers (on the tops of the trees)
- Sixlets (ornaments on the trees)
- candy rocks (foundation of the cathedral)
- Bit-O-Honey (stone patterns along the front corners)
- Necco wafers (for the roof tiles)
- Gummi bears (for gargoyles)
- Marshmallos (snowmen)
- Candy watermellons (fence along the path leading to the front door)
- Sugar wafers (steps under the front door)
- Candy Canes (of course! - used these on the sides of the doors)
- sweet tarts (used for the stone path leading to the front door)
NOTE: I don't believe you have to use only sweet and unhealthy ingredients in a gingerbread house. Just make sure to keep everything edible for tradition's sake. You can use things like saltine crackers, ramen noodles, peanuts...etc. Use a carrot for all that it really matters! - but keep in mind that things like carrots will start wilting and drying up immediately. Candy is probably the best thing to use just because it keeps it's consistency for a really long time when left in the open air. Just keep an open mind about the ingredients and remember that you aren't restricted to any particular food item.
You will want to plan your base in advance because it will be holding all the weight of the gingerbread house. We used a piece of 1/4 inch plywood and in my opinion it was too thin. If you plan on moving the gingerbread house to an alternate location you will want a very solid base so it doesn't bough out as you pick it up - that would be disasterous for your final result. If I do this again I would just put a couple 2 by 4 pieces underneath it for stability. You can always creatively hide an ugly base after you're all done.
There's one other non-edible piece in the gingerbread house cathedral that we made - and that's the light bulb! If you make stained glass windows like we did you'll want to accentuate them by lighting the inside so you can see all the colorful details of the windows. The heat from the bulb has the added benefit of continuously drying out the insides of the gingerbread house. This will give added strength to the walls. It will also prevent mold in the case that your gingerbread is still moist after cooking, but I've never heard of this problem - probably because you usually make gingerbread houses in the winter when the air is dry.
Making the walls is a pretty long and tiring process if you ask me. It takes a lot of patience and effort to mix/roll/cook/cool every single piece of gingerbread in the design. Of course some people might find this the most enjoyable part of things! ("Graciously" allow them to take on this task) It helped us to have some music or TV shows on in the background while we were working.
Mix the gingerbread dough according to the instructions on the recipe section. After you have enough dough to make up the desired section of the wall in mind you can take the dough out of the bowl and start kneading it and forming a ball in your hands. Kneading it will help mix up all the ingredients thoroughly. Lay down a dusting of flour on your work space and plop down the ball of gingerbread dough. Squish it with your fist so it becomes a flattened ball then start rollling with a rolling pin so it becomes a flat surface. If you have a cold baking sheet you can use this as your work space so you don't have to transfer the dough onto the baking sheet later. Just make sure it's not warm from the oven or your dough will start losing its form.
Make sure your rolling pin is coated with a little flour before rolling out the dough since the dough will stick to the surface of the rolling pin. This will result in the dough getting caught and ripped as you're rolling it out. Ripped dough can be mended by moistening the edges of the tear before sticking them back together and continuing the roll process. If the tear is really bad you may have to just knead it back into a ball form and start the rolling process over.
The resulting thickness after rolling it out should be about 1/4 inch thick for strength and stability. This can be left up for experimentation, though. If you have more weight on one section it might be good to make it thicker. If the piece will not be visible in the final product you can cook it longer, but this will result in darker gingerbread.
If your dough is not yet on a baking sheet you should move it onto one now. After you have the gingerbread rolled out to the dimensions desired for your wall you can trim off the excess dough with a knife - although a butter knife would work here it's better to use a butcher knife which has a sharp edge since this will prevent you from tearing the dough in its currently fragile state.
After you have your wall section made you can put a pattern into it by scoring it with a knife. Scoring it will indent a shallow groove into the dough that will be more pronounced after cooking. This method is very useful for giving a brick effect to the outside of your walls. I'm sort of a perfectionist, so I used a ruler to make sure my edges were straight.
Now is also the time that you would want to cut out sections for windows. you can use whatever size/shape window you want, but keep in mind that the larger the window, the less stability the wall will have. Leaving only 10% of the wall for stability will probably result in the wall falling apart as you're moving the pieces around.
After scoring a pattern into the dough, place the baking sheet with your pattern on it into the oven and let it cook for the time specified in the recipe section. When it comes out of the oven you should test for firmness: press lightly on the middle of the dough. If it bounces back up an doesn't leave a big imprint then your dough is done cooking. If the imprint stays there you should probably keep cooking it for a few more minutes.
Stained Glass Windows
At this point you will add the stained glass windows if necessary. Place a sheet of tin foil on a baking sheet (it's ok if the sheet is warm). Put the gingerbread back onto the baking sheet on top of tin foil. Make sure there is tin foil behind all parts of the windows.
Crush up some multi-colored lifesavers with a hammer. I found it to be less of a mess if you place them in a baggy first. That keeps the pieces from flying in all directions when you break them. Don't turn it into a powder - just coarse chunks. Once the pieces are broken up transfer the shards into a cup so you can mix them up. Place your hands over the cup and shake it around so you get evenly distributed colors.
Keep a close eye on the lifesavers as you cook them because it won't take long at all for them to melt. As soon as the pieces melt you need to make sure to take it out of the oven or you'll start caramelizing the sugar that makes up the lifesavers. This will result in a darker window that's not as transluscent as it could be.
After you take the baking sheet out of the oven, the window will harden very quickly. After letting it cool for a minute to allow the windows to harden, transfer the newly windowed wall to a wire mesh again to allow it to further cool. Just leave the tin foil attached for now while the window completely hardens.
Other variations of this can include placing your colors in specific areas so as to make a pattern in your stained glass. Also you may want to use only clear lifesavers if you want to just have standard clear windows. Of course you won't get clear windows, but they won't have color if that's what you want. If you think of a way to make perfectly clear windows let me know!
After the piece is cooled, flip it upside down very carefully. If your wall has stained glass in it, you should peel off the tinfoil at this time.
Coat the back side with the soft frosting making sure you don't get any on the windows. This soft frosting will harden as it dries which will give the wall added strength. You can see the white soft frosting on the back of the pieces in the photo to the right. Keeping the frosting white will help reflect light through the stained glass windows as well. If you have a wall section with very thin (fragile) pieces as a result of putting big windows in I would recommend letting it dry completely over a few hours after taking it out of the oven and glazing it. After that you can put a layer of frosting on the back to help with stability. You may even want to add an additional frosting layer after the first one dries and hardens.
Once some of the wall pieces are done cooking you can move on to a more enjoyable part of the process - construction! You will want some one to help you out so one or two people can hold a piece of gingerbread while you apply the chocolate frosting. This chocolate frosting is a lot like fudge, but it should be more moist than fudge. If it gets too dry it won't be able to conect properly with the gingerbread, but if it's too moist you'll have to hold it forever while it dries, so find a happy medium. If it's too dry you can add a little bit more milk to the batch to soften it up. It should be formable in your hands, but it WILL be messy and it'll stick to everything so just be prepared for that.
Find something that you can prop up against the gingerbread so you don't have to hold it so long. Wooden dowels work pretty well for this task. Apply a generous bead of chocolate frosting to where you plan on placing the wall. Gently push the wall down into this bead of frosting. While one person is holding up the gingerbread you can press your fingers into the the corner where the wall meets the frosting. Run your finger along the entire length of the base of the wall so you a good footing made for the wall. After you spread this initial frosting along the base you should add some additional frosting to this edge in order to add stability. Once you're done applying all the frosting let it sit for about half an hour while it dries up and hardens. You can work on something else like the other walls and windows while you wait for it to dry.
Once that joint is dried up you can put in another wall. Continue adding walls until everything on the base floor is put together. Once the base is put together you can put the light in and see what it looks like. For my design I just fed in an extension cord through a hold in the back of the cathedral. On the end of the extension cord I put a plug-in light bulb socket. I used a regular old incandescent light, but for energy efficiency you might want to use a CFL bulb. Or if you're really tech-savy you can rig up something with LEDs, but only if it's easy - this project takes enough time as it is.
Back to the project...Apply the buttresses in the same manner as you applied the walls. Just goop on some chocolate frosting where you want something to stick and then hold it there for a little bit while it dries. Do this until all the buttresses are in place. Since these are there for added support you might want to take a little break here
while the chocolate dries so that as you start putting on the additional parts of the cathedral you can be assured that you'll have plenty of support where necessary.
Now it's time to start putting the towers together. Making them is pretty self explanatory since it's just four sides that all look the same. You can see them laid out on the baking sheets in a couple of the pictures included in step 2.
One thing I will say about the towers though - LET THEM DRY. After you glue them together with the chocolate frosting you need to give them ample time to dry and harden or they'll fall apart in your hands as you're glueing them onto the top of the cathedral. That can be very frustrating. Put up the Towers one at a time and apply the triangluar roof supports on the ends. You may have to cut up the gingerbread to shape it properly into the desired areas. I had to do this for the front roof support.
If you have to do a lot of cutting of the gingerbread just remember to hide your edges so it looks fairly clean. This is easy to do by applying some chocolate frosting since it's pretty much the same color as the gingerbread.
The roof is a little tricky to put in place. Apply a generous amount of frosting to the the entire line where the roof rests. My design doesn't have any real support to hold the roof up while it dries so I had to keep it propped up with wooden dowels while it dried. Don't worry though - as long as you apply a hefty amount of frosting to any joints it will hold up to just about anything. The pieces of gingerbread litterally fuse together once the frosting bonds and hardens.
Another issue that I saw was that the roof was boughing inward since I didn't wait long enough for it to dry fully. I fixed this by propping up the roof with some wooden dowels on the inside too. These can later be taken out once the roof frosting is dried.
This is, of course, the best part of the process of creating the gingerbread house cathedral. At this point you have a full structure that holds its own weight and commands the respect of all the townspeople. Although this is the most enjoyable part of the process for me - you may find other parts more enjoyable. I never ate my cathedral, but I suppose that would have been a pretty fun part too. And some of the more engineer-minded people out there will enjoy the construction process better than anything else.
In either case you get to make your structure look more colorful and festive at this point and that will finish it off and make it ready for a public appearance when the family comes over. This part is also where you get to be the most creative. Yours may turn out completely different looking from mine, but feel free to use my own techniques.
After the roof is done you can put on the steeple. This doesn't have to wait for roof frosting to dry either since there's almost no added weight. The steeple is made of sugar cones stacked on top of eachother to obtain the desired height. Apply the steeple to the back end of the roof with a bunch of chocolate frosting.
At this point we are completely finished with the chocolate frosting! You can apply the remaining chocolate frosting to the joints for added support, or you can eat it by the spoonful until you're sick. I have tried both and I don't advise the latter. On the other hand, the chocolate frosting could still be handy for something so you could just keep it around until you're done with the rest of the decorations.
I applied Necco wafers to the roof and steeple. There's a lot of other things that would have worked just as well for roof tiles, but this is a good idea since they're colorful and flat. To apply the roof tiles you will use the same frosting that you used to coat the back sides of the gingerbread. This is perfect since it's white and looks like snow. In fact you'll want to apply some of this white frosting to all the surfaces that would theoretically be covered with snow.
Foundation and Stones
The edges of the building on the front have a brick pattern going up the entire length to the top of the towers. These bricks are made from "Bit-O-Honey" pieces. You can get these as single pieces or as a whole candy bar size pack of single pieces. It's best to buy the whole bars of this candy since it's a little cheaper and the single pieces are never the same size and shape. The candy bar is uniform shape and size which makes it look good on the building.
If you've never seen them, candy stores often sell candy rocks, or candy stones. These are pretty cool because they're speckled to look just like a boulder or a little chunk of stone. It gives the look of fieldstones that made up a lot of building foundations back in the gothic era. I don't know if they ever used them to create cathedral foundations, but it gives a good appearance. Just plaster these in with the white frosting and it will look great!
You can also see the doors in this picture which were made of hershey bars. I shaped them with a hot butter knife. That made it easy to slice of the corners without shattering the whole bar. On each door is a green lifesaver for a wreathe and flanking the doors are candy canes.
Many cathedrals had gargoyles, or more commonly, they had grotesques. Gargoyles were the ones that spouted water. Grotesques are the ones that just sat there on the ledge doing nothing. In either case, you get the idea. For gargoyles I used cinnamon red gummi bears. You might be able to think of something better for that. Put them wherever you want! Also remember to put some "snow" frosting on them. If you look closely at the picture to the right you can actually see 4 gargoyles. Hint: one is not facing you.
Make a LOT of the white frosting to cover the surface of the grounds outside the cathedral. This is pretty easy to do with a rubber-scraper. Just smooth it over around the ground, but you'll only get one or two passes before it starts hardening on the surface so don't try to mess with it too much once you lay it down.
In this picture you can also see the sidewalk and steps leading up to the front door. The steps are made from sugar wafer cookies. The sidewalk is an arrangement of sweet-tarts. The fencing is some sort of watermelon candy I got at a candy store.
The trees can be made by covering sugar cones with frosting. The frosting is just the same stuff that you used for the white frosting only now it has a green color from the food coloring. Careful adding food coloring since only a few drops will dramatically change the color of what you're using it on. For the ornaments on the trees you can use lots of different things. We used cinnamon red-hots candies and sixlets. Sixlets are nice because they come in all the different colors, but the red-hots are easier to fix onto the tree without much effort. We didn't have anything resembling a star for the top of any of our trees so we used a whopper malted-milk ball. Whatever works!
You can easily apply the frosting to the trees by holding your fingers inside the sugar cone. Spread the frosting on with a butter knife and try to smooth it on fairly uniformly. You can also use the up-ended glass technique where you fit a sugar cone onto an upside-down glass to make it easier to apply the frosting. This method is great because it doesn't trap your fingers and it gives you more freedom of movement so you can more easily work on your tree.
The other part of the grounds is the shrubs and snowmen. Shrubs are easy with spearmint leaves. If you can't find gummi spearmint leaves, you should be able to find some sort of gummi snacks that are green. Anything like that will work.
We only had two snowmen but I think we could have put some more in there. We used cloves for the eyes, nose, and buttons. As a top-hat we used a licorish gummi snack. You can form it in your hand to give it the appearance of a hat with a brim.
So that's what was involved to make the gingerbread house cathedral. I had no idea how much work it would be until I did it but the results were very rewarding. We donated it to the nursing home where my Grandpa was staying at the time - they loved it! They actually kept it up for a couple of months sitting in the display case. So apparently it stood the test of time.
It was an interesting experience - not one that I would want to do every year, mind you - but it is definitely something I would like to do again some day!
Here are some more useful links regarding material from this project:
Other Gingerbread Cathedrals: