When I was growing up, my mom would make my brother and I (each!) our own gingerbread houses to decorate around the holidays. For a few years. she even built more than two—allowing us to invite a few friends over to decorate their own, which they got to take home. This is a true story. My mother was Superwoman, straight out of the pages of Martha Stewart (she would deny this, but, seriously, anyone who makes more than two gingerbread houses in a day gets Superwoman status, right?).
Decorating said gingerbread houses is one of my favorite holiday memories. Now, I help my nieces and nephews build theirs, though they regularly prefer I not help. Last year, when my four-year-old niece Lucy said “No thanks, Aunt Erin” about 25 times while I tried to help her with her house, I decided I clearly wanted to build my own. So, this year, that’s just what I did (with some help, of course).
I wanted to make a New York City/Food52-inspired gingerbread house, but wasn’t sure what exactly that would mean. Our offices are lovely, but I wasn’t sure how to tackle the subtle décor with gingerbread. I finally settled on making a gingerbread brownstone, and thought I might be able to model it after one of our founder’s homes. A nudge from Kristen Miglore gave me the right direction. She suggested I make Amanda’s house, since it was in her kitchen when Food52 first began.
The thing about brownstones is they are structurally just big rectangles. Where a normal gingerbread house may have walls of different sizes and a sloped roof, the Food52 gingerbread house was built from four pieces of gingerbread that were the exact same height and width, plus a flat roof. The pieces were easy enough to roll out, bake, and handle—but this structure was actually a bit harder to pull off than I anticipated. It was larger and didn’t have as much support as the traditional gingerbread house shape. Plus, it needed details to really make the house stand out. While you may not decide to make a gingerbread brownstone this holiday season (though as usual, I say: GO FOR IT!), here are some tips I used to make and decorate the brownstone (watch the video above to see exactly how I did it) that can be applied to any house you build. Well, that is, any cookie house.
This is what you need to know:
- Make templates.
- Handle the gingerbread right.
- Decorate before you bake.
- Make plenty of royal icing.
- Don't be scared.
- You'll want a set of spare hands.
- Impressive, low-effort windows.
- Add details on the inside.
- Have fun with icing!
Like any big baking project, I firmly believe a solid plan is a huge key to success. It helps you see the scope of the whole thing, and it’s a lot easier to fix your measurement errors on a piece of paper than it is on gingerbread dough. If, like me, you are terrible with measurements and logistics of this sort, I also strongly encourage enlisting the help of someone who is aces at it. For me, that was my boyfriend (and former Food52 test kitchen manager) Derek, who made blueprints for the walls, ceiling, doors, stoop stairs, and even tiny details like awnings over the windows and doors in no time.
Gingerbread is a pretty sturdy dough, especially if you use a recipe meant specifically for building houses. While you may be of a mind to eat your gingerbread house, I usually use it for display only, and make cookies for eating. For that reason, I take a few liberties with my gingerbread house dough to make it even easier to work with.
First, I use shortening in the dough instead of butter. I’m, for the most part, not a fan of shortening because I just love butter so much, but the higher melting point makes it much easier to handle when rolling out and cutting the dough. And since I’m not eating the gingerbread, that’s too big of a “pro” to discount.
Second, I roll out the dough thicker than I would usually roll cookies or pastry–anywhere between 1/3 inch to 1/2 inch thick. The thicker the dough, the sturdier it is. Too thin pieces of gingerbread (especially with cutouts or when shaped oddly) are much more likely to break. I also roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper. I know lots of folks do this for all kinds of doughs, however I usually prefer to roll right on a lightly floured surface. But when it comes to gingerbread, rolling the dough on parchment has an added benefit: Once the dough is the proper thickness, you can slide the whole thing—parchment and all—onto a baking sheet easily, without risking tearing or messing up the dough. This is especially important when you’re working with large pieces that can be more difficult to handle.
Finally, it’s super important you bake the gingerbread properly. Underbaked gingerbread will have unwanted moisture, which can lead to flimsy walls that won’t stand up and/or cave in with time. It’s best to err on the side of overbaking your gingerbread—look for noticeably brown edges and for the surface of the dough to look and feel dry, even inside the oven!
I wanted to give the brownstone some special details to help bring it to life, so I ordered a stamp that had a brick pattern, gently pressing it into the un-baked dough. I wasn’t sure how well it would work, but it was one of the best-looking parts of the whole house. The stamp I ordered also came with a wood-grain stamp, which I used just for fun to add detail to the door and the stairs.
One of my biggest baking pet peeves is when I’m decorating something (cookies, cakes, or a massive gingerbread house) and run out of icing. Do yourself a favor and make plenty (I made 3 batches of my favorite royal icing and wasn’t sorry!). This is also a good time to use meringue powder-based recipes, which will make the whole process easier and quicker (no need to use egg whites, so no egg separating, etc.). You can order meringue powder online or buy it in the cake decorating section of craft stores. Keep your royal icing covered with plastic wrap when you’re not using it—it’s basically sugary concrete and it will harden up in a second if it’s exposed to air.
We’re making a house out of cookies, here, people. It’s supposed to be FUN! But no one is immune to the occasional cookie disaster. En route to the build table, one of my pieces of gingerbread broke a bit. Worst of all, it was the front of the house! If you look at our time-lapse video, you can see a crack on the top right of the house throughout the early stages of building and decorating. If pieces of your house break—don’t be scared! That’s what royal icing is for. Use it to patch the crack (inside and out for maximum stability) and hold it tightly together while it sets. Once the piece has set, go ahead and build it. Don’t worry about the visible mistake—just cover it with decorations and no one will know. If your piece cracks in multiple places, this technique can still work, but the more cracks there are, the more likely the structural integrity may eventually be compromised. I also advise making extra of any small pieces, as they are more likely to break.
This isn’t entirely necessary, but it’s helpful—especially if you’re tackling an ambitious shape (our house was so tall!) or if you’re a first time gingerbread house-er. I put the first two walls together and was pretty satisfied with myself when I realized I’d run out of hands. My trusty baking assistant, Katie, came to the rescue. She had the hands I needed to help build the house, and we took shifts holding the walls while the icing set. Best of all, once the house was built, we turned on the Christmas carols and decorated together. (Bonus: It was much, much more fun this way, too.)
In pastry school, one of my instructors used sheet gelatin as windows in a gingerbread house, and I was so amazed! The gelatin is thin, so it’s very easy to see through it (a bonus if you decide to decorate the inside of your house, too—see below). Most sheet gelatin also has a sort of cross-hatch pattern on it, and that texture makes it look so much like a window with details. Best of all, it’s easy. Just apply to the inside of the window with royal icing. Bim, bam, boom.
Now that you’ve made such beautiful windows that you can see through (and that took almost no time at all), why not dress up the inside of your house? The back wall of my gingerbread brownstone had no windows, so I cut some paper and applied it to the inside, like wallpaper. I just kept it neutral, using brown craft paper, but you could use decorative patterned paper, too! Just remember the gingerbread does contain fat and can leave grease stains on the paper, so it’s best to attach a layer of parchment paper first, which will absorb any unwanted stains before your final paper addition. I added ours once the house was built (before attaching the roof), but it would be easy to do before it was built instead. I also made a tiny gingerbread Christmas tree using scraps of dough from the main structure. I cut out five different sizes of stars and stacked them, offset slightly, to make a tree shape. We put this just inside one of the front windows. Finally, I added a few strands of battery operated twinkly lights. I left the switches hanging off the back of the house, so I could turn it on and off easily. The light adds such an amazing glow to the whole thing!
Candy décor on a gingerbread house is classic, and we used lots of white candies, sparkly sprinkles, and edible glitter as we decorated our gingerbread brownstone. But icing decorations can add a lot of detail, too. I fitted two pastry bags with small circle tips, and we used those to pipe snow on the ledges of the windows and stairs and icicles that dangled off in some places. I used an offset spatula to apply swirly icing “snow” all around the base of the house, then topped with plenty of sprinkles to make it sparkle. As with any kind of decorating, the sky is really the limit. I suggest buying a bunch of stuff and going crazy.
- 1 1/2 cups shortening (can sub half or all with butter, if desired)
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 2/3 cup molasses
- 3 large eggs
- 7 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
Have you made a gingerbread house before? If so, what's your favorite thing to decorate it with? Let us know in the comments!