Meadows of Dan, Virginia
A meditation in gingerbread
Gingerbread houses are a labor of love. I am a huge fan of baking, so when my friend, Beth, offered to teach me how to bake and build a gingerbread house, I was thrilled. I knew it would be a challenge, but I had no idea how much actually goes into building such a magical project. I learned a lot from my friend. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Keep Scale in mind. I opted to build what I thought would be a pretty simple pattern for a cute little treehouse. If you want to spend more time decorating than baking, keep it simple.
Have a plan. Ginger bread house patterns can be copied and cut out from templates in books. My friend uses one or two different templates and makes the same couple of houses every year but decorates them differently. I however was not thrilled with my choice of standard home (nothing normal for me!), so naturally I had to make my own template. This adds a considerable amount of time to the project, but hey, why not? When you invest this much time is baking and building, you better love what you are going to make. I actually drew my plan out a couple of times to get the proper scale I was looking for.
I wanted to create a natural-looking house that is a copy of an actual treehouse that I have stayed in many times. When picking a design, be sure to think out about how you want the gingerbread to look. Will this be a candy-crusted house with lots of frosting to simulate snow? Do you want something that looks like a fairy tale house? What color do you want the house? Will you actually be able to see the cookie part, or will it be coated with frosting or other decorations? I knew my house would be rustic and not covered in frosting. I actually made a second batch of dough as the first batch was too dark. I was making a treehouse, so dark brown did not cut it. Light and dark corn syrup can be mixed to get the right color. If going for a brick look, red food coloring could also be used.
Consider your base. Will you need to move this once it is built? I knew I was going to travel with mine in a car, so I chose a thick piece of wood. I inverted a foam cooler on top of the wood to simulate the edge of the mountain just like the real treehouse. Other options could be a cutting board, foam core, or even a table-top piece of glass. To make a gingerbread house really pop, the setting is almost as important as the house. Will you want a yard? Trees? Fences? All of these little touches can really make a house really special. These also take time so consider your available time when picking the scene.
Structural supports are important considerations. How heavy will the roof be if it is coated with frosting and candy? There are many cute ideas to cover a roof. Candies, cereal, frosting, cookies, and fondant are all great choices. If a slab of gingerbread will be coated with frosting and cookies or candies, the thickness of the slab needs to be considered not only to hold the sugary roofing material, but also the walls need to be able to support the weight. There are several tricks to hold together walls. I used royal icing and allowed the pieces to dry together over night before adding additional decorations, and in my case, that was frosting with Cinnamon Toast Crunch to simulate shake shingles.
Dry time is not exciting, but very important and should be considered in the overall project plan. Also, the actual cookie dough should be made ahead of the day of baking to allow it to cool in the refrigerator. It is important to work with cool dough when rolling out the dough and cutting the pattern. I used an additional day to let the cookie pattern pieces completely cool and dry out.
Did you say Dremel? I had no idea that you could cut cookies without them crumbling with a Dremel tool. This can be done only after a day or two of leaving the cookies to air out. This tool worked great to help make the roof and walls have the proper angles needed. Trimming warm cookies with a sharp knife, right out of the oven, is also a good options. Rounded cookies don’t stick together with frosting as well as straight edged cookies. Thankfully, Beth had the Dremel with a wheel blade, which was perfect for cutting the cookies.
I used a shoe box to hold the walls at angles, and set the roof overnight with royal icing. Once the frosting was hard the next day, I was able to put the house together. If you are planning to do a more advanced project with cutaways and a decorated interior, some of these walls may have decorations on them. I chose to have windows made of melted Life Savers, and I used the royal icing to glue those in before adding the roof. Attaching the house to the base with icing also helps keep the house from sliding if you will be transporting it, even if it is just to another room. Make considerations for lighting. Will you add a battery-operated tea candle like I did to have the house glow? Keep this in mind when cutting doors and windows.
Now, the most fun part. With a collection of candies I had purchased from both specialty candy stores and craft stores, I had what I needed on hand. I did the candy shopping the same day I drew out my blueprint and templates. Royal icing can be made thick and then thinned out with water for various applications. Thick frosting for the wall and roof joints, thin icing for decorating the yard. I had several batches of white icing, then thinned it out and added food coloring for different applications. I made grey icing with McCormick’s black food coloring to cover the entire cooler where I didn’t use other colors like green and brown. I did not want my joints to show with white as I knew the house would not be covered in candy, so I tinted the icing the same color as my gingerbread. It was easy to use this tinted spackle to even out walls or the base.
Since I was going for a natural-looking treehouse, I needed to have a tree or several trees and bushes around the house to create a natural setting. I thought I would use actual greens and some fake greens. Since this was a winter scene, I chose to use grape stems. I trimmed the stems in the shape of bushes, then dipped them in milk chocolate to simulate leafless bushes. For the tree, I used pipe cleaners and wrapped the tree with fondant. This was the hardest part of the project and it definitely could use a lot of improvement. It was my first time working with fondant (maybe my last, LOL). The deck and supports for the treehouse were made of pretzels.
The more details the better when it comes to gingerbread houses. The treehouse I made has a hiking trail in the woods just under it, so I used gold covered chocolate rocks to simulate the path. I also purchased little chocolate rocks and I made large boulders out of dates. The front side of the treehouse is facing the 4th green of the gorgeous Highland golf course. I took the liberty of removing one of the sand traps as I am a golfer and I hate that particular trap! For the putting surface of the green, I used green tinted icing, thinned out then sanded the green with tinted green sugar. I used coconut dyed green and chopped to simulate the second cut of the putting green. I toasted coconut to simulate the fescue that is light brown on the golf course this time of year.
Attention to the smallest details is what makes a gingerbread house magical. I loved the process of thinking through the project, spending time with my friend, and making my gingerbread home with with a loving intention. I knew I would be taking it to the actual resort for Christmas. I have spent many holidays at this resort, and the staff always spoils me rotten when I visit. I wanted to return some love during my Christmas stay. They are working hard though out holiday season, so I wanted to show them my appreciation!
I do not have any agreements with Primland. I am a regular guest and I consider this resort my second home. This is my life.