RECIPES: Christmastime construction — gingerbread houses to nibble as you build

This completed Gingerbread House is decorated with meltaway mints, gummy canides, peppermints, peppermint bark, sprinkles, sparkling sugar and nonpareils. Shredded coconut provides a bed of snow. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
This completed Gingerbread House is decorated with meltaway mints, gummy canides, peppermints, peppermint bark, sprinkles, sparkling sugar and nonpareils. Shredded coconut provides a bed of snow. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Gingerbread is nearly synonymous with Christmastime.

From simple cutout cookies to elaborate houses, it is a symbol of the season. But not all gingerbread is the same. Gingerbread typically falls into two camps: the kind you eat and the kind you build with.

The kind you eat ranges from soft and cake-like to crisp gingersnaps. Builder-grade tends to be pretty bland.

But we think if you're going to go to all the trouble of baking and building a gingerbread house, it needs to be edible because, let's face it, you know you're going to sneak a taste or two.

This recipe is sturdy and tasty — for crunchy, builder-grade gingerbread — so you can nibble as you build. It is quite crunchy, so we suggest treating it like biscotti and dipping it in a cup of coffee, tea or cocoa.

But don't worry, for straight up gingerbread eating, we have a recipe for that too.

Fun fact: In Germany, a gingerbread house is called a Hexenhaus or witch's house, as in the folktale "Hansel and Gretel."

 Gallery: Gingerbread Goodness

For our house, we opted for a simple cottage with short walls and a steep roof. Templates can be downloaded from the internet or you can make your own. We couldn't find a template for the style of house we wanted, so we made our own: Two (5 ½-by-2 ½-inch) walls; two (8 ½-by-7-inch) roof panels; and two (9-inch tall, 7-by-7-by-2 ½ inch) walls with gables.

The following recipe makes 3 half sheet pans, which was enough for our cottage plus some cutout decorations like stars, wreaths and Santa.

The glue (aka royal icing) is unflavored and quite stiff, making it ideal for construction. For cookies you plan to eat, use one of the Royal Icing recipes that follow.

We recommend spreading this project out over at least two days. The first day, make or print your template and bake the gingerbread. The second day assemble the house, and a couple of hours later or the next day, decorate. While quite sticky and relatively fast drying, the "glue" needs ample time to set before adding any decorations.

We used a variety of hard candies, chocolates, sprinkles and nonpareils for our decorations.

Construction Gingerbread and Glue

  • ¾ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 5 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Scant cup (17 tablespoons) light corn syrup
  • 9 tablespoons butter, very soft
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • For the icing glue:
  • 3 egg whites
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 4 cups confectioners' sugar
  • Cinnamon sticks, assorted candies, colored sprinkles and nonpareils as desired for decorating

In a large mixing bowl (I used a stand mixer) combine brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, corn syrup, butter, and vanilla. Mix on low until smooth, then sprinkle in flour and continue mixing to form a stiff dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Divide dough into three portions (about 14 ounces each).

Dough can be rolled and baked right away or wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature for up to 24 hours.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut three sheets of parchment paper to 12-by-17-inches.

Lay one sheet of parchment on work surface; set remaining sheets aside. Sprinkle prepared parchment with flour, place dough on top, and flatten into a rectangle. Sprinkle with more flour and roll to a rectangle about ¼-inch thick. Using a flat cookie sheet, pizza peel or both hands, carefully transfer parchment with dough to a half-sheet pan (13-by-18-inches) with 1 inch sides. Cut according to your gingerbread house template, using an X-Acto or paring knife. Leave a narrow border of dough around cutouts to minimize spreading, but trim away larger areas of excess dough to gather and re-roll. (You could bake all the dough at once, but we found it easier to trim after baking if we baked one at a time as the gingerbread, though soft when it first emerges from the oven, crisps quite quickly and if you have a lot of cuts to make, it may get too crisp before you finish.)

Bake gingerbread until dry to the touch and golden brown, about 25 minutes. Immediately trim pieces with a sharp knife or pizza wheel. Cool completely in pan, then transfer cutouts to a safe place.

Repeat with remaining dough and parchment.

Scraps can be nibbled, or ground in a food processor to use in recipes that call for cookie crumbs.

To make the icing:

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Gradually beat in the confectioners' sugar. Continue to beat on medium-high speed for 7 to 10 minutes, until very fluffy.

Immediately spoon into a piping bag and use. To keep unused icing from hardening, press a sheet of plastic wrap to the surface of the icing to keep it from drying out.

Assemble and decorate house using icing as glue.

Makes 1 house and enough icing for construction and decorating.

Gingerbread recipe adapted from Stella Parks via SeriousEats

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Chewy Gingerbread

  • 4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed for dusting
  • 1 cup light or dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon fine salt
  • ¾ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature, cut into 1 tablespoon portions
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • 1 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
  • Royal Icing (recipes follow), optional
  • Sprinkles and nonpareils, for decorating, optional

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, salt, allspice, cloves, pepper and nutmeg on low speed to combine.

Add the butter to the mixer and mix on medium speed until the mixture is uniformly combined and looks like the texture of cornmeal. Add the egg and molasses and mix on low speed until an even dough forms, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Form the dough into 2 even disks, about 1 inch thick. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 48 hours. Bring to room temperature for 10 minutes.

Line four baking sheets with parchment paper, and have a few extra sheets of parchment paper ready. Roll out the dough between two pieces of parchment paper to ¼ inch thick. Peel the parchment away occasionally while you work to make sure the dough isn't sticking. If needed, sprinkle dough very lightly with flour, but only if it's sticking. Cover rolled dough with parchment paper and chill dough for 15 to 30 minutes before cutting.

Using a flat cookie sheet, pizza peel or both hands, carefully transfer parchment with dough to a half-sheet pan (13-by-18-inches) with 1 inch sides.

Cut the chilled dough into desired shapes using cookie cutters dipped in flour or parchment templates and a paring knife. Gently remove the excess dough. (Press all the scrap dough into a 1 inch disk, and re-roll, chill and cut.) If you're using cookie cutters with a lot of detail, chill the dough again for about 15 minutes before baking.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees with the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

Bake the trays of cookies in batches. Bake until the cookies brown lightly around the edges and appear set, 8 to 10 minutes.

Cool cookies on the baking sheets for about 5 minutes and then use a spatula to remove them to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Frost and decorate if desired.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies depending on the size of your cutters.

Gingerbread recipe adapted from Erin Jeanne McDowell via Food52

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If you're concerned about consuming uncooked eggs, we recommend using pasteurized eggs. If you can't find pasteurized eggs, royal icing can also be made with meringue powder (recipe follows), however, we have not made it that way.

This icing is a bit thinner than the one used for construction; feel free to thin it further depending on how you want to use it. The thinner it is, the longer it will take to set.

Royal Icing

  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract OR ½ teaspoon lemon or orange extract OR ¼ teaspoon peppermint extract
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • 3 ¾ cups (1 pound) confectioners' sugar
  • Room temperature water, as needed
  • Gel food colors, optional

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine egg whites, vanilla, cream of tartar and salt; mix until frothy. Gradually add the confectioners' sugar and whisk until thick and glossy. Whisk in a little water to thin to desired consistency. To tint the icing, divide it into small bowls and stir in gel colors to desired hue. Transfer icing to piping bags or cover the icing with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly to the surface of the icing to prevent it from hardening.

Makes enough for 2 to 4 dozen cookies.

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This recipe has not been tested by the Democrat-Gazette, but comes from a trusted source.

Meringue Powder Royal Icing

  • 4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
  • 3 tablespoons meringue powder
  • 9 to 12 tablespoons room temperature water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract OR ½ teaspoon lemon or orange extract OR ¼ teaspoon peppermint extract, optional
  • Gel food colors, optional

In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, meringue powder, 9 tablespoons of the water and any flavoring. Mix with an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment on high speed for 1 ½ to 2 minutes or until smooth. The icing should drizzle off the whisk evenly. If it is too thick, thin with additional water. Tint as desired. If you get the icing too thin, thicken with more confectioners' sugar. To keep the icing from hardening, press a piece of plastic wrap directly to the surface.

Recipe adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction

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