This time of year, the gingerbread house is one craft almost everyone can get behind, as it offers opportunities for cookie-based architecture and gumdrop and candy-cane decoration. Most of us who have attempted these delicious structures, though, know that it is extremely difficult to have them stay standing, no matter what the pretty pictures tell you. Some fortify with milk cartons. A friend mentioned this year that the “royal icing” of egg white, lemon juice, and powdered sugar in the Trader Joe’s kit did a bangup job.
Confounded and confused as we always are in December, we decided to take it to the experts. Some professional pastry chefs, who must be extraordinarily busy this particular week, took time out of their schedules to offer advice to gingerbread lummoxes like ourselves, offering everything from gingerbread and royal icing recipes to alternative glues like caramel and melted gummy bears.
Have your own gingerbread structure secrets? Please leave them in the comments section below. Happy holidays everyone, and may all your gingerbread houses never fall down.
Jennifer Paul, Executive Pastry Chef, Canoe, Atlanta
The best way to keep your gingerbread house from falling down is using a lot of the royal icing. It is your glue that holds everything together, so don’t be stingy. It is also helpful to give the structure extra time to dry before adding decorations. If the structure is fully dry, it will support the weight of the candy/decorations a lot better. My royal icing recipe is 1 pound of powdered sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, and 2.5 ounces of egg whites. You just mix everything together using a whisk.
Gingerbread: 1 pound of softened butter, 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of brown sugar, 2 eggs, 2/3 cup of molasses, 4 cups of AP flour, 1 teaspoon allspice, 4 teaspoons of ginger, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 4 teaspoons of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cream butter and sugars together until smooth, add your eggs than molasses until smooth, and then all your dry ingredients together. Mix until the dough comes together. The dough needs to cool in the refrigerator for about an hour to two hours before rolling out and cutting out your shapes.
Claire Smyth, Executive Pastry Chef, Honey’s, Chicago
Sure, royal icing has worked for many over the years, but why settle for just that? I like to reinforce my gingerbread walls with melted gummy bears. Once melted, simply use a paint brush and cover the seams. I shoot for gummy candies that are white or clear, but you can always pick through and save the ones you can use for decorating (or in my case, eat them before the house is even built).
To melt, use a double boiler, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bowl so that that candies don’t burn. And remember, a gingerbread house begins with the gingerbread… icing and glue can’t save a crumbly cookie!
Mark Welker, Executive Pastry Chef, Eleven Madison Park/The NoMad, New York City
Growing up, my family would always build a gingerbread house together for Christmas. We would make everything from scratch and decorate it with a ton of candy. We would always glue the pieces together with royal icing—a mixture of confectionery sugar and egg whites. The icing would take a bit to dry, but when it did—it was always hard as a rock. The advantage to using royal icing is that the gingerbread house can stay together for much longer and be displayed. The downside is that by the time you want to eat it everything is stale and very hard.
What I like to do now is glue the pieces together with Swiss Meringue [whipped egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar]. The texture is like marshmallow fluff and you can torch the parts of the house! Using the Swiss Meringue also gives you more flexibility to create a winter wonderland. And yet, there is a downside: You will need to eat the house much sooner, because the meringue will start to weep the next day.
Camille Cogswell, Pastry Chef, Zahav, Philadelphia
When assembling a gingerbread house, it’s all about the hard caramel “glue”. To make the caramel, I add 2 cups of granulated sugar to a warm (not hot!) saucepan and add about half a cup of heavy cream or butter. Be sure the caramel stays loose while warm before it quickly hardens when it cools. Also be sure to lay out your gingerbread pieces so they’re ready to be dipped and assembled—this caramel will take shape very quickly!