MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
(Soundbite of song "Marshmallow World")
It's a marshmallow world in the winter, when the snow comes to cover the ground It's a time to play, it's a whip cream day. I wait for it wall year round.
NORRIS: Ah, the sounds of the season and the sweet, sweet tastes of the season, not just marshmallows, but gum drops, candy canes, and licorice. Even better, all this combined in that fanciful holiday construction the gingerbread house.
Ms. DORIE GREENSPAN (Cookbook Author, "Baking: From My Home to Yours"): I've seen gingerbread houses that have been extraordinary - whole castles done in gingerbread, brownstone houses, exact replicas of the owner's house.
NORRIS: A gingerbread split-level, a gingerbread bungalow, a gingerbread McMansion? Yes. With just a few tools and some careful measuring, you, too, can create your own gingerbread home. And that's exactly what I set out to do a few weeks ago with my partner in baking, Dorie Greenspan.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Making a gingerbread home is a long process, best to stretch it out over a few days. So, make the dough one day, let it chill, cut out the pieces…
(Soundbite of electric mixer)
Ms. GREENSPAN: …letting them dry, constructing the house and then the fun of decorating.
NORRIS: But you see, Dorie is an expert. She's written several cookbooks and so, we're going to try this confectionery construction project in just one day. First, make the dough, and you need lots of it, so consider making it in two batches. We beat one and a half cups of shortening until light and fluffy, add one cup of brown sugar and mix. Next, two eggs, one at a time, beating after each. And then, a cup and a half of molasses.
(Soundbite of electric mixer)
Ms. GREENSPAN: I love the way it works into the batter, so the batter looks like caramel now.
NORRIS: In a big bowl, we've whisked together seven cups of flour, one and a half teaspoons salt, one teaspoon baking soda, a half teaspoon baking powder, and we add those to the dough. And then the spices - four teaspoons ginger, four teaspoons cinnamon, one teaspoon allspice and a half teaspoon of black pepper. Black pepper, hmm.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Black pepper. I think it should have a little bite. You know, you could put some dried mustard in it also. That's nice with gingerbread.
NORRIS: Once mixed, we divide our spicy dough into thirds, pat into soft bricks, wrap with plastic and chill. And while the dough is in the fridge, we chill too. Three hours - enough time for a good film or a couple rounds of scrabble. We preheat the oven to 350 and begin step two. We roll out the dough between two sheets of wax paper that are lightly dusted with flour.
(Soudbite of dough being rolled out)
Ms. GREENSPAN: You don't want it to be too thin, so about a scant quarter of an inch.
NORRIS: And we grab a pizza cutter and some templates to cut out the panels for our house. No bay windows, no porticos, no detached mother-in-law suites for us. Ours will be a humble gingerbread cottage. After sliding a baking sheet under the wax paper with the rolled dough, Dorie carefully makes her marks. She's like a seamstress with a dress pattern, but making sure to leave space between her pieces so the dough can expand while baking. Dorie trims away the excess and into the oven goes our pre-fab gingerbread walls, roof and chimney.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Here we go.
NORRIS: Good, middle rack.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Middle rack.
NORRIS: OK. We've filled three baking sheets, so this part will take a while - 25 minutes in the oven per sheet. So, while we wait, a little gingerbread house history.
(Soundbite of music)
NORRIS: You can blame Germany, the brothers Grimm and musical theater. Remember the witch's house from "Hansel and Gretel"? It was made of bread, cake and candy. Well, in 1893 Englebert Humperdink - Humperdink the composer not Humperdink the pop singer - set the fairy tale to music. "Hansel and Gretel" opened two days before Christmas, the Hexenhaus, the witch's house, was a big hit. Germans wanted their own Hexenhaus for the holidays and thus the tradition of the gingerbread house was born. Amazing the things you learn while you're waiting for stuff to come out of the oven.
(Soundbite of oven timer going off)
NORRIS: It's ready.
Ms. GREENSPAN: My favorite sound. OK, pull it out.
NORRIS: You're touching the center, what are you hoping to feel?
Ms. GREENSPAN: I'm touching - I want it to be firm. It has a little give, that's fine. When it cools, it'll be solid. And it certainly smells done.
NORRIS: Oh, it's beginning to smell a lot like - dare I say it?
(Soundbite of song "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas")
…like Christmas everywhere you go.
NORRIS: As our pieces cool, we mix up the royal icing, a thick mortar-like frosting that serves as glue. All it takes are four large egg whites and seven and a half cups of powdered sugar. Step four - constructing our gingerbread cottage.
Ms. GREENSPAN: We don't have to be incredibly neat because you're going to be decorating the surfaces.
NORRIS: Dorie uses a large piece of hard foam for the base, and we situate our gingerbread cottage so it has a nice front yard. Using a small spatula, she applies the royal icing like spackle and joins the two corners together before reinforcing from the outside. We assemble the rest of the house, then let it dry. Now, ideally that would be overnight, but this is a rush job because my kids will soon be home from school. And as we move to step five, decorating, here they are.
(Soundbite of song "The Dance of the Sugar Plu Fairies")
AJA JOHNSON (Age nine): Maybe red and green.
NORRIS: We spread out an obscene amount of candy - Skittles, Dots, marshmallows, sprinkles, candy canes, and day-glow Twizzlers. Who knew there was such a thing as lime green licorice? We divide the royal icing glue into two bowls, one for my nine-year-old daughter, Aja, and the other for my eight-year-old son, Norris. They're ready to work and to snack. Excuse me, are you eating the construction materials?
NORRIS JOHNSON (Age 8): I'm sorry, but jellybeans taste so good.
NORRIS: After about 90 minutes, our humble cottage becomes, well, fabulous. Across a thatched roof made of shredded wheat, Aja arranges a series of brightly colored gum drops.
AJA JOHNSON: I'm doing a thing that's on the roof, like if you're decorating your house for Christmas.
NORRIS: Oh, Christmas lights. And what are you using there to do that?
AJA JOHNSON: I'm using Dots candy.
NORRIS: Twizzlers become electrical lines. There's a door framed by a pair of candy canes. Heart-shaped cookies become windows. There's even a garage door on the side of the house and a marshmallow security light hanging from our gingerbread roof.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Love the house. I could move in.
NORRIS: Well, you know, the only thing that I think this house might be missing and it doesn't really - it's not really missing, but it just seems that if good things are happening inside this house and people are sitting around by a fire and telling stories, that there might be one last thing that you see coming out of this house.
NORRIS JOHNSON: Oh, smoke.
NORRIS: Yes. And I think we have rock candy stick that we can probably use.
NORRIS JOHNSON: No, we can't do smoke.
NORRIS JOHNSON: Santa's in there.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Oh.
NORRIS JOHNSON: You'd burn him.
NORRIS: I guess that's what you call an occupational hazard.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: All right.
NORRIS JOHNSON: And Santa…
NORRIS: Ixnay on the smoke. Before we say goodbye to Dorie Greenspan, what's the last thing we should say to her?
NORRIS JOHNSON: Thank you.
AJA JOHNSON: Thank you.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Thank you and merry Christmas.
NORRIS: Happy holidays.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GREENSPAN: Happy holidays.
NORRIS: A picture of our gingerbread home and Dorie Greenspan's recipe and tips for making your own gingerbread home are at our Web site, npr.org.