A Gingerbread House Built of Whimsy and Love

Completed Gingerbread House i i

Instead of giving up when she made gingerbread men that nearly broke her teeth, Beth Donovan found another, better use for the dough: building a gingerbread house. It's been a tradition in her family ever since. Scroll down for recipes. Beth Donovan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Beth Donovan, NPR
Completed Gingerbread House

Instead of giving up when she made gingerbread men that nearly broke her teeth, Beth Donovan found another, better use for the dough: building a gingerbread house. It's been a tradition in her family ever since. Scroll down for recipes.

Beth Donovan, NPR

About the Author

Beth Donovan is a part-time Washington editor for NPR News.

May, 10, uses a hair-dryer to help transform frosting into concrete i i

Forget the hot-glue gun: May, 10, uses a hair-dryer to help transform frosting into concrete. Beth Donovan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Beth Donovan, NPR
May, 10, uses a hair-dryer to help transform frosting into concrete

Forget the hot-glue gun: May, 10, uses a hair-dryer to help transform frosting into concrete.

Beth Donovan, NPR
Isabel, 11, prefers perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy. i i

Donovan's children have different decorating styles. Isabel, 11, prefers perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy. Beth Donovan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Beth Donovan, NPR
Isabel, 11, prefers perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy.

Donovan's children have different decorating styles. Isabel, 11, prefers perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy.

Beth Donovan, NPR

Every self-respecting mom bakes with her children at this time of year. It's in the handbook. You really have no choice. Slice-and-bake cookies featuring unnaturally green trees will do, but let's face it, something involving a rolling pin and a cookie cutter is preferred.

When my first-born was 2 and visions of perfection still danced in my head, I decided that we'd bake gingerbread men together. We would fill the house with their lovely holiday scent, and with any luck, I'd move straight on to the bonus round in the mommy book and "create a tradition."

My Joy of Cooking made it look so easy, and things started OK. The recipe was uncomplicated, and the dough was soft enough for a toddler to roll and cut. My son's gingerbread people, with their frosting faces and red-hot cinnamon buttons, were the stuff of a Martha Stewart photo spread.

Then we tried to bite into the cookies. They were horrible, and so hard that our teeth nearly broke. They were bad men, men of granite not gingerbread.

But I am not a woman without hope.

Rather than abandon my first annual tradition on a technicality, we turned the not-cookies into ornaments. By the following Christmas, I had figured out a use for the rock-hard slabs of gingerbread: We'd build a house with them.

And not just any house. We had dreams. Like any self-respecting 3-year-old, my son wanted a big house, something suitable for Santa or maybe a professional athlete. We made the templates with legal-size scratch paper and proudly rolled and cut the dough.

As I moved the dough from the cutting board to cookie trays, a tiny doubt wandered near my high spirits. The walls were huge, and no two were of the same thickness or size. There wasn't a right angle to be found.

Let's just say the house was not plumb. It listed, twisted and collapsed. If two walls stood for a moment, they crashed with the placement of the third. Just when its four walls looked solid, the whole thing buckled when the roof was set.

I blamed the frosting. The simple confectioners'-sugar-and-water frosting Joy recommended was simply not up to the job. Few frosting recipes tout their cement-like properties, but we were on a mission and pushed ahead.

A lesser woman would have broken out the hot-glue gun. Not me. Instead, I got out the blow dryer. While the toddler was napping, I tackled the roofing. A meringue with a pound of confectioners' sugar may not be tasty, but it's stiff, it's food and it blow-dries into concrete.

When my baby woke up, the gingerbread house was standing. He covered every inch with candy, and a tradition was born after all.

Over the years, other home-building practices have become traditional. When the graham-cracker-on-milk-carton houses came home from school, they were added to the property. The yard must have a tin foil pond and an ice-cream-cone forest.

And since having heaps and gobs of candy of all colors makes for the best house, I persuaded the kids to set aside every birthday party goody bag and much of the Easter and Halloween candy for the winter project. The planning became year-round fun, and jack-o-lanterns and bunnies typically adorn the walk. This year, the kids added a chocolate eyeball from Halloween for a security camera.

Their design techniques vary widely. Chance is a friend to my whimsical younger daughter. She paints her side with frosting and randomly places the smallest and loveliest candies.

Her big sister is just the opposite, preferring perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy, as in a traditional gingerbread house. Naturally, her job became to decorate the roof that faced our front door — to best show off the one conventional element of our gingerbread house.

After some years, her twin brother asked, "How come I always have to decorate the back of the house?" Why? Because he wanted to add an outhouse, trash heap and log pile to the grounds, and everyone knows they go in the backyard.

The construction process remains ugly. The roof nearly always slides off at least once, and a full implosion is not uncommon. This year, we managed to make the house stand on the first try, but there was a 2-inch gap along the top of the roof.

It wouldn't be our house without such problems. We filled the hole with a row of marshmallows crowned with mints and tiled with candy corn. It's gorgeous.

The kids are well on to my save-the-candy gambit, and it's been a few years since I could persuade our now 16-year-old eldest to decorate a side.

I get teary thinking there may be a holiday without a candy house, but then, I think about the years we set it outside for the birds around Valentine's Day or sometimes Easter. Not even a spring rain can melt this rock-hard house.

Some traditions are meant to stand.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Gingerbread Wall Dough

Donovan's family usually takes at least three days to construct their gingerbread house.

Donovan's family usually takes at least three days to construct their gingerbread house. Click on gallery above to see steps, get tips. Beth Donovan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Beth Donovan, NPR

For us, building the house is at least a three-day job. Day one is for drawing the templates, and making and baking the dough. Day two is for construction. Day three is for decorating. When the kids were young, though, we often spread the joy over a week or more.

The following recipe for dough comes from the 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking. The thing to remember about the dough is that you are not going to eat it. OK, maybe a few bites out of the bowl, but that's it. Precision in measurement is not critical; having every ingredient is not really that important either. The only two things that matter are to use butter — shortening stays soft longer — and don't overdo the water. If you do and it sticks as you try to roll it out, another fistful of flour will fix it.

This recipe makes enough for a good-size house and a few good men to stand guard. You can halve it, double it or do what you need to make it work.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together:

1/2 cup butter (room temperature)

1/2 cup white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

Beat in:

1 cup dark molasses

Sift together:

7 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon cinnamon

4 teaspoons ginger

1 teaspoon salt

Add the dry ingredients to the wet in three parts, alternating with up to 1/2 cup water. I use a standing mixer with a dough hook at the end. If you don't have one, turn off the hand mixer and use a spoon before your motor burns out. The dough is firm.

At this point, you can rest the dough in the fridge for a day or two. Just wrap it well and bring it to room temperature before you try to roll it out.

Flour the board, your hands and the rolling pin generously as you work the dough. If it sticks, mash it up, add some flour, and try again. There's really no such thing as too much flour, and if there is, a drop of water will make it right again.

Do your best to make the walls the same thickness. When I remember, it helps to do the final roll right on parchment or waxed paper for easy transfer to the cookie sheet. And if they bake up looking really wacky, re-cut the hot dough right out of the oven.

Bake on waxed paper or parchment for 10 to 30 minutes. It really doesn't matter. Don't let them burn but leave them until they're no longer tasty looking. Remove from oven and peel the paper off while the walls are still warm.

Cool for several hours. Re-bake if for some reason the dough is short of rock-hard.

Edible Concrete Frosting

You will need to make two, maybe three batches. The recipe can double, but it can also harden up before you're done. The egg whites will whip in a sugary bowl, so no need to wash between batches.

2 egg whites

3 cups confectioners' sugar

Beat the egg whites until they are stiff and shiny. Add the sugar and mix well.

I use a pastry bag to line the seams of the house with frosting. A plastic bag with a corner cut off works, and so does a spoon. Apply frosting generously.

Once the four walls are standing, blow dry until hard. Even then, it's a good idea to let the walls set for a while before trying to put the roof on. If the pitch of the roof is steep, it will slide off a few times. Be patient, be creative and keep the blow-dryer handy.

Decorating Frosting

2 or more store-bought, fluffy white frostings in a plastic jar

That's right. It's embarrassing. But it works.

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