My aunt and I started making a gingerbread house together over 10 years ago, and it is now a yearly tradition – one of the highlights of my holiday season." I was honored to be able to write about this special ritual, featured in Storied Dishes: What Our Family Recipes Tell Us About Who We Are and Where We've Been, a collection of "50 short essays and recipes by women from multicultural backgrounds and dissimilar walks of life." As I mention in my essay, entitled "Gingerbread Memories," spending this time with my aunt has been a wonderful learning experience. Much of what is involved in the gingerbread house process was new to me. I had baked gingerbread before, but never built a house out of it! The decorating part is fun, and now I have my daughter to help with this step - she is very artistic and does a fabulous job using the pastry bag.
This year she also helped me with the actual construction which is not easy. We worked together to spread the frosting mortar along the edges and corners of the side and front pieces and hold it in place while it dries. Once these four pieces are together, she helped me place the roof on top. If the roof pieces are too heavy, they will slide right off – a fact I have learned from experience - but this year was probably the smoothest ever. So it has now become a three-generation activity!
One thing I had always particularly liked about this house is its modest design – the recipe is Swedish (from a friend of my aunt’s) - the Swedish name is PEPPARKAKSHUS. Some simple hearts, curlicues and flowers drawn with white icing are finished with a dusting of powdered sugar to simulate a light layer of snow. It looks just like a darling winter cottage in the country.
I have included the recipe and directions below.
(Adapted from "Gingerbread Memories" essay in Storied Dishes: What Our Family Recipes Tell Us About Who We Are and Where We've Been, edited by Linda Murray Berzok).
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup molasses
1 cup butter
5 cups sifted flour
1 Tbsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. ginger
1. Place brown sugar, molasses and butter in a large saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until well blended.
2. Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and ginger. Stir into warm molasses mixture until well blended.
3. While dough is still warm, remove about one quarter of the dough; knead by hand to shape into a fine grained ball.
4. Roll out on lightly floured surface to a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick and large enough to cut out pieces needed.
5. Repeat with remaining dough until all pieces of the house are cut out.
6. Place carefully on greased or parchment paper lined baking sheets.
7. Bake at 375 until edges barely begin to brown and surface is no longer puffy. This takes about 5-8 minutes. A tip: Remove at 6 minutes and trim the pieces that have expanded in baking, using your patterns as a guide. Use a sharp paring knife as your trimming tool.
8. Remove carefully to racks. Cool.
1 egg white
2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 Tsp. lemon juice
Beat ingredients at high speed until firm. It should be of a soft enough consistency to flow through a fine pastry tube in order to make the decorations but stiff enough to hold its shape. While mixing add a few more drops of lemon juice or a tablespoon water to obtain this consistency.
To make gingerbread house:
Cut out the following pieces and bake:
• 2 pieces (3” x 7”) for side walls. Cut out windows as indicated in drawing
• 2 pieces (4” x 8”) for roof
• 2 pieces (4” x 5”) for front and back. Cut out door and window as shown in drawing
• 4 pieces (1” x 3”, 1” x 2” and 2 pieces 1” x 3”) for chimney
1. Cover a rectangular piece of cardboard with aluminum foil (the size of a shirt box works fine) – this will be the base for the house to sit on.
2. Decorate sides and roof pieces with frosting to outline windows, doors, roof tiles, window boxes, etc. Let dry.
3. Spread frosting on ends of sides and on roof pieces where they meet; assemble chimney.
4. Put house together; place chimney on top. Let stand firm.
The recipe makes plenty of dough to make cookies with the rest. Gingerbread people, snowmen and Christmas trees make nice additions to place around the outside of the house, and a reindeer can be “glued” on the roof with frosting. A simple rectangle can become a sign outside – just draw on your name with the pastry bag. Also, cotton batting as snow around the house adds an authentic touch.