RECIPE: The decision to make a gingerbread house is not to be taken lightly – it’s a big commitment. I had to provide a baked item for our work Christmas Bake-Off and having never made a gingerbread house before I decided this would be the year I tried it. Very exciting. There are so many recipes to choose from and at first look they are very similar, but on closer inspection they get very different results. The ingredients might differ slightly, or the technique – take care when choosing. I first created a batch of gingerbread based on Mary Berry’s recipe. As always I’ll add a disclaimer here that it may have just been the way I prepared it, but for me it didn’t turn out well (despite someone claiming it was the best recipe they’d ever used). Maybe I didn’t mix it enough. I prepared, cut out and baked that recipe, then decided that the end result was too hard – it was like gingernut biscuits that you really have to snap with your teeth. Not what I was looking for. The recipe had you melt the wet ingredients together then pour them into the dry ingredients and combine. I had trouble with butter leaking out of the mix all over the bench, it didn’t bind well while rolling (but was fine baked), and as I’ve said it was very hard. Mary cooked the gingerbread at 200 degrees Celsius compared to 170 degrees for Bourke Street. I threw the lot in the bin and started again with Bourke Street Bakery’s recipe that I had used before for gingerbread men. This one has similar proportions, although slightly more sugar, and noteably adds eggs and uses a mixer to cream the butter, sugar, golden syrup and eggs before adding the dry ingredients. No melting. The result is a softer and finer dough that still sets hard enough for construction. The recipe calls for one egg and four egg yolks – I used two whole eggs and it was fine. I used Mary Berry’s royal icing recipe without any alterations and had way more than I needed: I could have covered the entire house with snow! My templates were based on Mary Berry’s and I used store bought confectionery and a gingerbread man cookie cutter.
COMPONENTS: I did two things the day before I baked. I started by cutting out my house templates, which were based on Mary Berry’s templates provided on the recipe link. Don’t panic if they’re not exactly square, as it’s very unlikely that your baked pieces will retain the shape you cut due to the dough shifting and rising. It’s fixable after baking. Cut the roof piece long enough to match the side walls, plus the width of the end pieces, plus the thickness of icing. You may also wish to add overhang. Of course, all shortfalls in length can be filled with icing! I also cut a square that I used to create two boxes to fill with treats.
Secondly I made the royal icing. I had egg whites to use, so weighed out 110g (on average egg whites in a large egg are about 35g each). I know the recipe says to use a hand-mixer but I used a stand mixer on a slow speed and had a good result. I stored the icing in the fridge overnight with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the icing and a plate in my mixing bowl to block the air.
The second day I made gingerbread. After making one batch and baking it, I threw out the entire lot and started again after taking a breather (see above). As for the royal icing, I used a stand mixer on a low speed to combine the wet ingredients, then spooned in the dry ingredients gradually, mixing until combined. I refrigerated my discs of dough, removing one at a time to roll out and cut. I rolled out my dough on parchment that I then transferred straight on to my baking sheet so I didn’t have to try and move the shapes and possibly distort them. The baking sheet was placed in the fridge for 15 minutes or more to set the dough before baking. I turned the sheets in the oven as necessary and generally cooled the shapes on the tray until I could transfer them to a cooling rack without damaging them.
I baked a large gingerbread slab the size of one of my serving boards that I could set the house on.
ASSEMBLY: The first job was trimming all my pieces so the sides were square. They had all expanded somewhat during baking and the sides of all my pieces were rounded. I used a sharp knife and carefully scraped down the sides, being careful not to let the knife catch and snap the gingerbread. Starting with my slab on my board, I piped the icing on the joining side then held it against my end wall to attach. I only had to hold it for a couple of seconds before it was stable enough to stand along. I needed no props. I think this depends on having a royal icing that is thick and pasty, warm enough to pipe, but still cool enough that it holds its shape. I found once it warmed up a bit the pieces slid a bit more. Once the walls were set up and drying, I moved to the roof panels and put a bit of icing on the back of each freckle before attaching them to the roof. I put on one roof panel and used a glass jar (anything the right height will do) under the bottom edge to hold it for a bit. I didn’t want to use toothpicks in case they broke the gingerbread, and I didn’t know how I would get them out before serving the house to people. Once that roof panel had set on, I did the same for the other roof panel. I put extra icing around all my edges, including around the bottom edge of the house to hold it in place on the slab. I attached the chimney and made the boxes for the front yard. I then started piling on the icing to fill all gaps and for extra hold, and create the look of snow. I left the candy canes in their plastic wrap so they didn’t get sticky, and this was the only part that had a failure. One of the candy canes slipped off the house overnight, but was easily replaced and propped up until it dried. Finally, before serving I stuffed marshmallows in the chimney to look like smoke/snow, filled the boxes with lollies, set a few gingerbread men around the place and threw a few extra lollies inside the house. The icing sugar on the marshmallows were handy to rub over the gingerbread for the appearance of snow (a last minute addition – better to dust icing sugar over it).
IMPRESSION: I was so happy with the result: I liked the look of it, I’m glad I chose colour coordinated lollies and trims and the gingerbread tasted amazing. It was the perfect softness, making it easy to break pieces off. I immediately wanted to make another one. Note: my leftover gingerbread men were stored in a container and were slightly crunchy but good crunchy, not break your teeth crunchy!
Recipe for gingerbread from Bourke Street Bakery by Paul Allam and David McGuinness Recipe for royal icing with advice on house construction taken from Mary Berry’s recipe for the Great British Bake Off (please see comment above on recipe)
Gingerbread (Bourke Street Bakery)
1.125 kg plain flour
5g bicarbonate of soda
15g ground ginger
400g unsalted butter
400g soft brown sugar
320g golden syrup
4 egg yolks
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. To make the biscuits, sift the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda and spices together into a large bowl.
Put the butter, sugar and golden syrup in a large bowl and mix with hand-held electric beaters on medium speed until pale and creamy. Add the egg and egg yolks in a slow stream and mix until combined. Add the dry ingredients, in three batches, until thoroughly mixed through. Divide the dough into four even-sized portions and flatten each portion into a disc. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes, or for up to three days.
Remove from the refrigerator and allow the dough to soften slightly. Roll out each disc between two sheets of baking paper until about 5mm thick. Cut into the desired shapes using your templates and re-roll to make use of all the dough. There should be enough leftover dough to cut a good number of gingerbread men with a cookie cutter. There may be just enough for two houses.
Place the gingerbread on baking trays lined with baking paper and bake, in batches, for 15-20 minutes, or until slightly puffed and golden. Allow to cool on the trays.
Royal Icing (Mary Berry)
3 large egg whites
675g confectioner’s sugar, sifted
3 tsp lemon juice
Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until frothy. Using a wooden spoon or a hand-held electric mixer on slow speed, add the icing sugar a tablespoonful at a time. Stir in the lemon juice and beat the icing until it is very stiff and white and stands up in peaks. Cover the surface with a damp cloth if not using immediately. Royal icing can be stored in the refrigerator for some time: place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the icing and seal the container.
Constructing the house (Mary Berry’s instructions)
Spoon a little of the icing into a piping bag fitted with a medium plain nozzle. Pipe blobs of icing on the back of each chocolate button and stick, overlapping onto the two roof sections, to create a tile effect. Transfer some icing to another piping bag fitted with a small plain nozzle and pipe frames around the windows, doors and stars to decorate.
Pipe some icing along the wall edges and join the house together on the iced cake board. Leave the icing to dry and harden for a minimum of four hours, but preferably overnight (I found I only needed half an hour before I could continue working).
Cut the pointed ends of six cocktail sticks into 1cm pieces (you should have 12 small pointed pieces). Push the blunt end of the cocktail stick pieces into the sloping edges of the front and back of the house, leaving the pointed ends sticking out to act as peg supports to attach the roof. (Remember to remove the sharp cocktail sticks from your gingerbread house before eating it, to avoid a choking hazard.) Pipe icing between the cocktail sticks and fix the two roof panels onto the house. Pipe icing around the base and edges of the chimney and attach to the roof. (I managed to attach the roof by using a prop rather than the cocktail sticks).
To decorate, pipe icing along the apex and edges of the roof to look like snow and icicles. Stick the front door in place with icing (I left my door open). Dust the roof with icing sugar. Use royal icing to attach any other decorations. Set it for at least a couple of hours before serving. Avoid humid environments as the icing may slide or the gingerbread panels may soften and collapse.