Building the House
Royal icing is the standard icing used to glue a gingerbread house together. The icing contains egg whites that cause it to harden enough to hold the pieces together. I use a meringue powder to make my royal icing. No messing with separating raw eggs or worrying about food poisoning. The basic recipe is:
- 1 pound (4 cups) sifted powdered sugar
- 3 Tablespoons meringue powder
- 6 Tablespoons warm water
- Starting with the mixer on low, mix the ingredients together until all the sugar is moistened. Increase the speed to high and beat the icing until it is stiff and glossy. This will take about 5 to 7 minutes with a Kitchenaid mixer, about 7 to 10 minutes using a smaller mixer, or might take longer than 10 minutes using a handheld mixer. Store the icing in a glass bowl with an airtight lid or press plastic wrap onto the surface of the icing. The icing dries out quickly, so keep it covered when not in use.
For an egg-free icing recipe, I use this recipe. It is nowhere near as strong as royal icing, but I have yet to find an egg-free frosting recipe that works better. I have tried using a recipe that uses glycerin instead of egg whites. That was a miserable fail.
Preparing the Foundation
You will need a surface on which to build your house. You can use just about anything that is sturdy. After the house is decorated, it will be heavy. I like to use cardboard cake bases. I use 13 by 19 inch pieces of cake board cut in half to make 9 1/2 by 13 inch pieces. My “large” gingerbread house fits nicely on this size with space around the house to decorate a yard. You can also use a platter or a sturdy cutting board. If you are using something like a piece of plywood or cardboard that is not food-safe, cover it with tin foil or decorative foil used in cake decorating to cover cake bases. You will need to “glue” the foil to the board with a thin layer of icing so that the house doesn’t rip the foil and fall off the board.
Squaring the Sides
Look at your gingerbread cookie pieces and make sure the edges are straight. If you need to, you can use a knife, a microplane grater or a grater with small holes to scrape the edge until it is flat. Be very gentle with this procedure. It’s better to have a little bit of unevenness than to break your pieces. If you squared off your pieces when they came out of the oven, you might not even have to do any straightening at this point.
You can hold the edges of the cookies against the tabletop to see which side is the straightest. The straightest edge of the side is the edge that goes toward the bottom. You want the side edges to be relatively straight as well since they will be connecting to the front and the back of the house. It doesn’t matter if the top edge of the sides are a little uneven. For the peaked front and back pieces, I like to check the bottom and the angled edges to make sure they are relatively straight. The straightest edge of the roof needs to go toward the peak of the roof. It doesn’t matter if any of the other edges of the roof pieces are not flat.
“Gluing” the House Together
Put your icing in a pastry bag fitted with a large tip. I like to use a round #12 or a star #18 or #21. I lay my pieces out on the cardboard to set every thing up to get ready to start assembling the house. This is how I like to assemble my houses. I’m sure there are other ways to do it. You can follow my lead or find what works best for you.
I like to place a line of icing on the cardboard base to set the cookie pieces in so they won’t slide off the cardboard. You can also run a line of icing along the bottom edge of the pieces before you glue them together. This step is optional. Since the people decorating my houses will be transporting them, it makes the houses more likely to survive the drive home so I do it this way.
I draw a line of icing along the inside edges of the front of the house. I stand up the front piece, then gently push one of the sides into the line of icing. Those two pieces will usually stand on their own long enough for me to take the other side and affix that to the line of icing on the other edge of the front piece.
This is what it should look like so far. You can use canned veggies, fruit or soup to prop up your sides if they don’t want to stand on their own yet.
I put the icing on the back side just like for the front. When I have assembled all four sides, I gently squeeze the house together so that all sides are making good contact with the icing. I look at the house from the top to make sure that the house is straight. I like to wait about 15 minutes for the icing on this part of the house to firm up a bit before adding the roof.
To attach the roof, I run a line of icing along the angled sides of the front and back pieces. I put one of the roof pieces on the house, and run a bead of icing along the top edge of the roof that will make the peak. Then I add the other roof piece on the house. I gently press both sides of the roof in an upward motion so that it fits tightly at the peak.
The house is now complete. I recommend letting the icing dry overnight before you start decorating. Again, the thing to remember is to be gentle with your house. It is still just cookies and icing. Keep the icing you made to assemble your house covered in the refrigerator until the next day. You can use it decorate your house.
Repairing a Broken Piece
If, heaven forbid, you break a piece and don’t have another to replace it, here’s what you do. Get a graham cracker. Place the broken gingerbread cookie face down on the table. Spread some of your royal icing all over the graham cracker and “glue” it over the crack. Let it dry for a while until the icing is stable. Use the piece just like you would if it hadn’t been broken. When you decorate your house, you will most likely be covering up the crack anyways, so no worries.
For the gingerbread recipe and how to cut out the shapes for the house, go to Part 1.
Part 3 will share my ideas for decorating your house. I like to stick with edible things to decorate my house. Pretty much anything goes. Start looking at food and candy in a new way. Would that make a nice window? Would this make a good roofing material? Doesn’t this look like snow?