I can still, vividly, remember the first time I made a gingerbread house. I can also, probably, still see that very same house- in all of its 26-year-old glory. I think my father shellacked it for posterity’s sake. Right now it’s sitting in his kitchen collecting dust, and God knows what else, but, by Jeeves, it’s there!
I was assigned “Gingerbread dough and assembly” in my vo-tech culinary arts class in high school. My teachers, Mrs. Martineau and Mr. Edwards, were on a mission (or so it seemed to us teens) to “gift” every teacher in our expansive high school with a gingerbread house made with the sweat and tears of their child laborers. We were “Santa’s Little Sweatshop” and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do or say about it because our grades were riding on it. So we baked, cut, assembled and decorated the hell outta some gingerbread houses. By the time Christmas break came, I was fed up with ginger, bread, royal icing and all things associated with them.
It wasn’t until I had graduated from culinary school nearly four years later, in fact, that I felt the desire to create them again- and that only because I had a client who wanted to purchase a few for some MLB players she knew…I was going to be famous and the gingerbread houses were my ticket! I constructed the masterpieces and awaited my summons to become a personal chef to a professional athlete…I’m still waiting, so if you have any idea where my invite is, gimme a holler. Alas, I’m still a relative nobody, but my fondness for creating gingerbread boys, girls, and villages has not waned.
Now that I’m a mom, though, I take more time out during the holidays to create lasting traditions and memories for my Twinks. One of them is baking and decorating gingerbread houses with my brood. The Soldier, although his main focus is on consuming the final product, joins in and makes sure our royal icing concertina wire is within regulation and is adequately securing the gingerbread TOC. He’s a bit intense like that.
Although we enjoy ourselves, I must be totally transparent, I always have a separate gingerbread house that I decorate by myself. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the time spent with the Twinks and my GI José, it’s just that the creative piece is my lane. It’s my jam. It’s my “thang”, if you will. We do our communal house together which, loosely translated, means the Twinks get to dump a handful of chocolate candies on an obscene amount of icing without us so much as cringing. Hector and I just nod and say, “Oh! That’s nice how you just did that! No, Mami and I took our insulin, we’re good!” and they’re as happy as larks. Once everyone has had their fill of icing and decorating (read: ten minutes in), I go off to myself and decorate my own. It’s a genius plan and allows me to enjoy my creative outlet.
This year was no exception. The Twinks are maturing in their old (eleven) ages. They’re focusing more on the planning and execution and less on the, “Let’s-douse-it-in-sugar-and-shovel-it-into-our-faces,” approach of years’ past. It’s a melancholy experience. I still watch their little hands and think they’re babies, but the voices and the work doesn’t match. The Soldier lightens the mood when he asks, “You wanna keep rubbing your hands together and dropping that dried icing on the floor? I don’t think there’s enough down there yet.” Ahhh, the joys of familial life. At any rate, our gingerbread houses for this year are complete and I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer you my amazing (read: forgiving) gingerbread recipe to try out this year for your holiday festivities. Just in time for Christmas or just because it’s Friday, or whatever you feel like celebrating.
First a little culinary knowledge behind the making of gingerbread.
Gingerbread, from what I remember, was brought to us by a monk- they always bring us the best foods, am I right? I suppose they get bored with illuminating and meditating, so they go and cook up some crazy-awesome foods. Anywho, gingerbread was European in nature and like good old subjects of the crown, our predecessors brought it to America and now we make it every holiday season. Gingerbread is typically a spiced dough that, based on the measurements of ingredients, can either be baked into a cake or into a crispy biscuit (what we in ‘Murica call a cookie). This recipe is the latter and is heavily spiced and comes with the bonus of an old-school, traditional ingredient: black pepper.
Yesssss! I said pepper.
No, you won’t die if you use it.
Yes, it will taste good.
Some need to know tips when making gingerbread cookies or houses:
- Give yourself time! Start a day or two before you actually want to decorate. There’s nothing worse than watching your little house crumble like so many cards because you tried to decorate it the same day you’ve made it. Especially in humid areas, the dough will need time to dry out and become durable. This doesn’t mean it goes bad or stale, this recipe is, again, very forgiving and will stay edible and fresh (even uncovered) for a week.
- Cutting out your templates for the houses are also a must-do-ahead (that ain’t even a word!) It will save you time in the long run and will also allow you to be prepared for the trimming that is a must right after baking (read below on trimming). Grab my plans for the house in the pics here: Ginger Bread House Plans (see how aptly we’ve named it?)
- My recipe calls for molasses as part of the sweetener (and it also gives it its rich color and depth of flavor- so, yeah, bonus!). Some don’t like the taste of unsulphured molasses, and I totally respect that. Feel free to substitute dark corn syrup if molasses isn’t your thing. For those who do enjoy the taste of a robust molasses, I suggest substituting unsulphured blackstrap molasses for a more pungent kick.
- Two days prior is also a great time to prepare your royal icing for decorating. Thinned royal icing has a tendency to develop air bubbles which will rise to the surface of your decorated cookie/house and pop, leaving you with an unsightly, gaping hole which will crush your soul. Make it in advance, is all I’m suggesting. Here’s my all-time favorite recipe for royal icing.
- When rolling out your gingerbread dough for cutting, be sure to keep your rolling surface moderately floured. You want enough flour to prevent sticking, but not too much to alter the texture and dry out the dough. This is a matter of climate, so I’m going to encourage you to use your best judgment. If you’re freaking out about not being able to judge, just roll out the dough between two large pieces of wax or parchment paper. It may take a bit more time and may leave creases, but you won’t stress out…which, y’all…it’s gingerbread, so you shouldn’t stress about that anyway.
- Cutting out and keeping the gingerbread shape is probably the most labor-intensive part of this recipe…well, that and figuring out how to decorate your fabulous dough…but one trick I like is to roll out the dough to a 1/4″ thick and transfer the sheet of dough to the sheet of parchment I’m going to bake it on. I put it onto the sheet pan and cut out the shapes (or cookies) and remove the excess dough- voila! Done and done.
- Chill out! Allow your dough to chill for a minimum of one hour prior to rolling out and again for a half hour after cutting (prior to baking). My recipe doesn’t use a chemical leavener for the sole reason that I don’t want any pan spread or distortion. The worst thing ever is having the sides of your gingerbread cottage go all wonky, so the added time of chilling the dough after rolling and cutting helps to drastically reduce this dreadful occurrence.
- After baking, while the dough is still hot, trim the edges of your gingerbread to ensure you have crisp, straight edges. This will, again, guarantee your house is still standing come nibbling time. This is also the time to jab a hole in the dough if you’re using them for ornaments!
- Re-roll the scraps of gingerbread only twice (max!). Anymore and you’ll have hockey pucks instead of cookies.
- Leave time for decorating at leisure. A guaranteed way to collapse your house is to try to assemble too quickly (without allowing the royal icing time to harden). Don’t ask me how I know this, just trust me. I’m a professional.
- Decorate with a variety of candies, dried fruits, royal icing and love. Go to your local grocery store and peruse all of the holiday candies available. Don’t limit your imagination. As you can see, our family has its own vibe from Nordic to…well, sugar.
And with that, here’s the recipe! But first! Drop a comment below letting me in on a family tradition you like to keep!