Part 1: Baking the Pieces
One of the things I look forward to the most at Christmastime is my annual gingerbread house decorating party. Kids of all ages can get involved in the decorating. Making the houses is not as hard as it looks. I’ll give you some tips that will make the process easy. Even a beginner can make a simple house. The decorations can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose.
Sara Jean’s Gingerbread House Recipe This is my tried-and-true recipe. I have two versions–a regular one and one that is egg-free. The modifications for the egg-free recipe are at the bottom of the page. I’ll add an egg-free icing recipe in Part 2.
It’s best if you bake the cookie pieces ahead of time so they have time to dry out a little. Keep the pieces in an airtight zip-top bag or an airtight container. You don’t want air and moisture getting to your pieces and making them soft. You can bake your cookie pieces ahead of time with no problem. Gingerbread cookies seem to last for a long time. I have made my pieces anywhere from one week to two months ahead of time.
In the recipe instructions, you will find several good tips. The first is to refrigerate your dough. The eggless dough needs to be refrigerated longer than the recipe with egg in it. Allowing the dough to rest and cool makes it so much easier to handle for rolling out and cutting.
The second tip is to roll out your dough directly onto parchment paper or a silicone mat like a Silpat. That way, you can move your pieces directly onto the baking sheet without distorting the pieces when moving them. Carefully grab the edges of the mat or paper and slide it onto the baking sheet. You can use tinfoil if you don’t have a silicone mat or parchment paper, but I find that the dough doesn’t roll out as well on tin foil. Tin foil also doesn’t seem to release the cooked pieces as well as a silicone mat or parchment paper. (Parchment paper can be found in the grocery store in the aisle with tinfoil and plastic wrap or at any store that sells cake decorating supplies.)
The third tip is to adjust the thickness of the dough and the baking time according to how large the pieces are. A small piece (about 3 to 5″) can be rolled thinner than a larger piece and still not break. The smaller and thinner pieces also bake faster. Gingerbread is hard to tell when it is done because it is brown to begin with. The pieces should be firm on the edges but will still be a little soft. The pieces will harden as they cool. Carefully take your finger and nudge the edge of one of the pieces. If it feels dry and slightly firm, it should be done. The pieces should look dry over the whole top side of the piece.
The fourth tip (which I don’t think I mentioned in the recipe) is to gently shape your pieces when they come out of the oven. They will still be soft at this stage. You can take the flat edge of a spatula and straighten up the edges of the cookies by gently pushing the spatula against the edge of the cookie. You can also easily cut the cookie pieces when they are still warm from the oven. Cut with a gentle up-and-down motion. To get a completely flat cookie, make sure your cooling rack is flat. If it is bowed, your pieces will be curved and might not fit together correctly when you are assembling your house.
The last tip is to treat your gingerbread pieces gently. Let them cool for about 5 to 10 minutes on the baking sheet before you try to move them. Use a spatula to remove your pieces from the baking sheet to the cooling rack. For larger pieces, use two spatulas or a cake lifter or a bench scraper to move the pieces so that the whole piece is supported. You can also use the silicone mat or parchment paper to move the pieces to your cooling rack if your cooling rack is large enough to keep all the pieces level. Gently take the edges and slide the mat/paper onto the cooling rack just like you slid it onto the baking sheet before you baked the pieces. You might want a helper to do this step. Four hands are better than two. In Part 2, I will tell you what to do if a piece breaks and you don’t have an extra piece.
I like to make my own templates. You can make any size or shape you wish. Just remember that steep angles are hard to attach your pieces to. You can find a variety of designs online or in books about gingerbread house decorating.
You can use several types of materials to make your templates. You can use cardboard. If you do use cardboard, I would recommend using a cardboard cake board since they are food-safe. I wouldn’t want to use a dirty old cardboard box that had been used for shipping–unless you are definitely not going to eat the gingerbread. Cardboard will get dirty as you use it so it is not good a good choice if you want to reuse it later.
I like to use plastic for my templates because I can wash and reuse them. I am still using my original templates I made 12 or 13 years ago. I like to use plastic sheets like this used for making quilt block templates. You can usually find these plastic sheets in any store that sells fabric. You can also use stencil plastic, but I find that plastic to be thin and flimsy. Since it’s not as sturdy as the quilting template plastic, it’s harder to get an accurate shape cut out of the dough. You could also use something like the lid of a whipped topping container. That plastic is sturdy and flat enough, but you are limited by the size of the lid.
I draw my shapes on graph paper so that I know the lines are straight. I cut the shapes out of cardboard first to make sure the shapes fit together correctly. That way I can go back and make any adjustments before I cut into the template plastic. Once the design is finalized, you can trace the shapes onto the template plastic and cut them out with scissors or a craft knife and ruler. Here are printable drawings of my Gingerbread House Templates for you to use. Do not use “Fit to Page” when printing the drawings. Do a test fit with cardboard first to make sure the sizes are right.
When you are designing your house, just remember that you need two rectangles for the roof, two rectangles for the sides and two sides with a peak for the front and back of the house. So, let your imagination go wild. You can make the pieces as big or as small as you want. You are only limited in size by how big your baking pans and your oven are.