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November 26, 2013

Pressing issues: My first gingerbread house

Gingerbread, and gingerbread houses, date back at least to the 16th century. Taking inspiration from European folk tales, the biscuit cottage has long been a favorite of courtiers and grade schoolers alike. They’re quite fun to make, and if you need to get any holiday cheer out of your system before January, I would recommend gingerbread house construction as a worthy outlet. Like any good construction project, the key is to start with good dough. As per its Grimm roots, the taste of true gingerbread should recall the bittersweet, macabre quality of an Olde English Christmas. Be sure to add plenty of dark molasses and fresh ginger, whichever recipe you decide on.

Store your gingerbread dough in the fridge until you’re ready to build your stately ginger-mansion. In the interim, run to the store and pick up some cake frosting, or prepare your own with sugar and egg whites. Make sure it’s thick and sticky; many a gingerbread house has met its tasty end through poor mortar application.

(Did you know that the largest gingerbread man ever constructed weighed over 1,000 pounds and stood 20 feet tall? It was created in 2006 by the people of Smithville, Texas, who later put Nicolas Cage inside the ginger-colossus and set it aflame, as is customary.)

Using a rolling pin and a bit of flour, place your now-chilled dough on a cutting board and flatten it evenly to a depth of no less than five millimeters. You don’t want your delicious building materials to crumble during construction. Now take a sharp knife and cut out the shapes you’ll be using for your edible home. Paper stencils can be helpful for this part, particularly if your gingerbread dream home involves a complex floor plan. I just aim for vaguely square sheets when I’m cutting, so my houses tend to look more Neolithic. Add sugar mammoth bones and moss (green frosting) for detail.

Transfer your gingerbread pieces to a pan and bake until crisp. Allow them to cool sufficiently before placing on your base. I built my house in a pie pan, but any clean, suitably flat surface will do, preferably one in a nice neighborhood. If you’re planning to have a gingerbread family live in your home, consider scoping out local gingerbread schools before settling on a location.

Trace the foundations of your house on the base with lines of frosting. Press your walls onto the foundations firmly, using support (e.g. a jam jar, or whatever you have handy) if necessary. Place each wall one at a time, adding icing cement to the sides as you do so. Your gingerbread house should be structurally stable and free of any gingerbread-building code violations. Once all your walls are in place, go sledding for a few hours while the frosting hardens. When you get back, mix up a pot of hot cocoa, and repeat the frosting-and-placing operation with the roof. Your construction project is almost done—now it’s time to decorate.

You can’t go wrong with the classic look of gumdrops and white icing, but don’t limit yourself to current gingerbread fashions. Use almond slivers for roof shingles or candy canes as functional support beams. If you’re building a gingerbread house in the neo-Gothic style, consider using rock candy for stained glass windows. The only limit is your imagination, and possibly your finger dexterity.

Whatever you decide on, be sure that your final product is sufficiently homey, whatever that means to you. The gingerbread house, and the holiday season it belongs to, are ultimately a celebration of home and all its pleasures. When we build our little cookie cottage, we remember that there is no greater blessing in life than to be surrounded by strong walls, a sturdy roof, a thick door or two, and the people that you love, safe and warm inside. It’s hard to imagine anything sweeter.

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