It’s a Marshmallow World in the Winter, Part 2

Click here to see part one of our gingerbread house-making article.

Up to this point, all you’ve got is unassembled house pieces. Should you decide you don’t want to bother with baking the house pieces first, there are kits on the market that contain baked house pieces just waiting to be assembled. Wilton has a complete kit with house pieces, icing and a few different candy decorating elements. But that’s a bit misleading since the icing they provide in the kit is buttercream icing. Not only will this icing never dry, but the fats in the buttercream will soften any cookie it comes in contact with. The result: cookie catastrophe. The same goes for buying a tub of icing from the store. But if we can’t use regular icing to build and decorate with, what icing can we use?

We’ll be using royal icing which is simply powdered sugar, meringue powder and water, beat to a light, white consistency and which dries to a rock-hard finish. Unless the icing is piped in thin lines, once dry, it’s more likely to chip your tooth than break itself. For holding a house together and keeping all the decoration on, it’s perfect. For eating, not so much. Like everything else, it has it’s own set of problems. It doesn’t keep which is why Wilton doesn’t provide it in the house decorating kits, and it starts to dry immediately. We recommend using disposable piping bags here without tips. Once you make the icing, fill as many bags as you have icing for and close the piping bags with rubberbands or piping bag bands. Wait to cut the tip off the bag until you are ready to use the icing in it. Reusable piping bags, unless they are band new, have residual fats in them. And fats equal gingerbread tragedy. Cutting just the tip off the bag to create a small piping hole works best. You can always enlarge the hole, but it’s pretty near impossible to make it smaller.

Each house will need its own board. Two 10×14-inch cake boards, stacked on top of each other and taped together should provide a sturdy enough base. These boards also need to be covered with aluminum foil. Be sure the foil is smooth on top and taped to the bottom of the board.

If you’ve stuck around this long, it’s high time we assemble the houses. After you attach the side walls to the peaked end walls, give that structure a few minutes to set before attaching the roof pieces. Then it’s back to waiting again, several hours, or better yet, overnight. The houses will be solidly together without the possibility of bending out of shape when decorations are applied to them. After the houses have completely set and the icing has hardened, run a bead of icing along the bottom of the houses to stick the house to its board. If you’re having a decorating party, allow each guest to determine the position of the house on the board.

Construction, part 2 can now begin. Decorating. Strictly speaking, gingerbread houses should be constructed using only edible pieces. But this rule really only applies if you are entering yours into a contest. Even if you are, edible just means edible. But you don’t really have to eat it. Coffee grounds are perfect for simulating dirt, but who would actually eat them. Likewise, dry pasta can be used for support pieces even though no one eats dry pasta. Herbs are actual leaves, but their aroma can cause a bit of cookie confusion. Herbal tea leaves can be used the same way, and generally have less of an olfactory impact on a “candy” house. For the truly dedicated decorator, gold shimmer dust, available next to the icing coloring paste, can be applied to any candy element acting as a stone or rock. The dust simulates quartz flakes and gives the candy or nut a more realistic look.

Sticks of gum are perfect for roof shingles or siding shakes. And cinnamon gum has the added benefit of acting as an air freshener. Licorice ropes can be used as, well, ropes. And nuts of every shape and size resemble rocks or stones, which can be used as part of an external chimney element. Tinted royal icing can be piped into any shape for use as shingles, stones, cement pavers, gables, tree boughs, doors, sleds… well, you get the picture. Large shredded wheat bales reproduce a thatched roof remarkably well. Fondant icing can be rolled thin and draped over a roof to simulate a layer of melted snow. After everything is just the way you like it, don’t forget a shake or two of powdered sugar to dust the entire scene in a few flakes of new fallen show.

As for the houses themselves? The sky’s the limit. From beautiful chalets to humble cottages, busy multi-structure city streets to wooded country cabins, whatever you can imagine, you can build and decorate. The only question that remains is to eat, or not to eat?

Royal Icing

  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • 6 tablespoon meringue powder
  • 5-6 ounces warm water 

Mix the sugar, meringue powder and 5 ounces water in the large mixing bowl of a heavy duty mixer. Mix on low to combine and then on medium until the icing is bright white and slightly shiny. If the icing feels too stiff to use easily, add the remaining ounce of water and beat until smooth. Use immediately.