This holiday season looks different. We’re staying home to keep our communities safe, and while some have turned to projects aimed at maximizing their productivity, we’re focused on maximizing our festivity.
We live with two other roommates, and while we’re all getting along rewatching Christmas movies and “Schitt’s Creek,” we decided to try a new activity that, in the Before Times, we would probably not have spent an entire weekend on: gingerbread house architecture. From flour to finish.
While gingerbread house kits are common, we went all out and made gingerbread and icing from scratch. We used two recipes from BuzzFeed’s Tasty: one for a strong (read: hard) gingerbread meant to keep a house standing, and one for a softer, tastier cookie that we hoped wouldn’t chip our teeth.
Night 1: Structural gingerbread
Steph: First we measured and sifted the dry ingredients. I had forgotten how messy sifting gets. But it is delightfully pretty to photograph.
Anika: Then we added our wet ingredients to the Dutch oven on the stove. Tasty says the melting method (making the dough over heat) is perfect for gingerbread since the recipe calls for so much liquid. They suggested using nonstick spray to grease your Dutch oven and liquid measuring cup, which worked really well, since molasses is so sticky.
Steph: Once the mixture was dark, glossy and smooth, we started adding dry ingredients. After about half, the dough got very thick, requiring a strong spoon and some arm muscle. Our dough ended up much greasier than how it looked in the video. Like, really greasy. As in, greasier than Professor Snape’s hair. Unclear why.
Anika: Next, kneading the dough. We incorporated the rest of the flour mixture, and some additional flour, since our dough STILL looked super greasy. Whenever the dough hardened too much as it cooled, we microwaved it for 30 seconds. I was skeptical of this so-called hack since I thought the microwave might preemptively cook our dough. But it worked well to loosen it up, probably because all that greasy shortening was remelting.
Steph: We rolled out the dough, using MORE FLOUR to show that grease who’s boss!
Anika: This recipe came with templates ... but our printer was out of ink. Solution? We turned the brightness on a laptop all the way up and traced the templates with a makeshift lightbox situation. We used these templates to cut out parts for the houses, but realized quickly how greasy the dough was leaving the paper. So we switched to cutting the templates out of parchment paper, and that worked much better. We cut the doors and windows out of the gingerbread, but didn’t remove them. Tasty was right: This helped ensure our doors and windows didn’t spread in the oven!
Steph: Time to bake everything! After taking the gingerbread out, we removed the windows and doors. Heed our warning and do this quickly, because we waited too long, tried to cut out the windows and accidentally broke an entire wall. ARGH! Luckily, there were lots of scraps, so we had extra dough to make a new wall.
Anika: Because the scraps had already been worked with, the “backup wall” was pretty bumpy. But we’ll just pretend we were going for the cobblestone look.
Steph: We have no self control, so we HAD to taste the doors and windows to see if this “structural gingerbread” could also function as “eating gingerbread” Verdict: The flavor was nice, but these were like rocks. Separate “eating gingerbread” was indeed necessary.
Day 1 time check: 3.5 hours
Day 2: Making the ‘eating gingerbread,’ and Assembling, decorating and snacking
Steph: We used two royal icing recipes: one from Tasty’s gingerbread recipe and one from their sugar cookie recipe. The first was more like traditional frosting: thick and pipable. We kept all of the thick icing white and dyed the thinner version four different colors, keeping some of it white.
Anika: We dived into candy shopping without a plan. As we walked into the grocery store, we told ourselves: today, QFC stands for Quest For Candy. There in that sugary paradise of a candy aisle, the vibes were immaculate. We picked up one package of any candy that we could even faintly imagine using.
Steph: Then it was time to build! Step 1: Turn on the Christmas music playlist you’ve had ready for the past 24 hours. Step 2: Make the base out of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil (thank you to our roommate for this brilliant idea). Step 3: Put up the four walls, piping huge globs of the thick icing onto all the edges before pressing the pieces together.
Anika: This part was surprisingly hard! The icing is so thick it stuck to itself more than to the gingerbread. The Tasty video joked that you can “basically use it to tile your bathroom.” I chuckled at first. Now I believe it.
Steph: You really do feel like a construction worker while adding and smoothing layers of icing. And I kid you not, the video recommends using a microplane to sand down the edges to be straighter, which we didn’t do. (If you haven’t guessed, precision and perfection were not our primary focus.) The walls fit together beautifully — those gaps were no match for our uber-thick icing. I could see gingerbread construction as a good side hustle.
Anika: As the cement, um, icing, hardened, we took a break to decorate cookies (more to come on those later). We then attached the roof with some more of that cement-icing.
Steph: Decorate away! This was the most fun and chaotic part of the evening. We had two houses for four people. Both duos coordinated on the roofs but each person decorated two sides. Some nice finishing touches included a little chimney with icing smoke and peppermints lining one of the rooftops.
Anika: Our different approaches to lawn decoration were pointedly representative of our personalities. Steph and I crushed a mix of hard candies and sprinkled those over a layer of icing, then topped that with peppermints and green sugar. Absolute anarchy. Our roommates lightly sifted a delicate layer of powdered sugar over their foil base, mimicking a fresh dusting of snow. Adorable.
Steph: For extra wintry effect, we added icicles to the edges of the rooftops and windows. Pro tip: To prevent icicles from falling, pipe icing where you want them to go, let the icing dry, and then pipe the icicles. This way, they don’t fall from their own weight.
Anika: We inhaled a ton of candy while decorating and were all on the verge of simultaneous sugar rushes, but we kept snacking because the candy was RIGHT THERE! A wildly predictable side effect: stomachaches for all, either by bedtime or by morning. But we have no regrets. Everything in moderation, even moderation.
Steph: The cookies are made similarly to the gingerbread house, except with tastier ingredients. There’s less flour, and they’re baked to be softer to prevent any tooth chipping.
Anika: We started by measuring out dry ingredients and, um, someone added 12 times more nutmeg than the recipe called for.
Steph: LOL that was my fault! The recipe called for 3 teaspoons of ginger, but I grabbed the nutmeg by mistake. When I realized the recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg ... YIKES. We considered trying to take some out, granule by granule, but figured that would be ridiculous — even for us. Our palates can handle a little extra spice.
Anika: This recipe also uses the melting method, so we combined our wet ingredients in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Tasty says to turn off the heat before stirring in the egg. We did that. They also recommend beating your egg in a separate bowl before mixing it in quickly. We did that, too!
Steph: But when we added the egg to the hot mixture, it promptly began to scramble, giving us ribbons of cooked egg throughout. Ewww. To triage, we ran the mixture through a sieve to remove the scrambled pieces. Next year, we’ll add a bit of flour to the hot mixture first to hopefully bring down the temperature enough to mix in the egg? Fingers crossed.
Anika: We’ve watched enough baking shows and thumbed through numerous cookbooks over the past few months, that we kinda knew this could happen. Before adding the egg, I definitely said, “I just don’t see how the egg won’t cook.” And then it happened. I have no idea how Tasty pulled that one off.
Steph: We chilled the dough for two hours and rolled it out. Before using your holiday cookie cutters, Tasty recommends dipping them in flour and shaking off the excess. This made for sharp, crisp edges! Upon baking and cooling, we used the thin icing to decorate our cookies.
Anika: They were great! They didn’t taste of scrambled eggs, thankfully! And even though it was a fluke, the spicy kick from all of the extra nutmeg kept them from being sickly-sweet once we added icing and candy.
Day 2 time check: 9.5 hours (including the two-hour break we took while the dough was chilling)
Total time: 12.5 hours of weekend gingerbread making!
Two gingerbread recipes and two icing recipes meant a long two days. We ended up coated in flour and powdered sugar, got in a few arm workouts stirring flour into molasses, and ate a ridiculous amount of candy and cookies. By the end, we were ready to sleep for a long, long time. But doing something the first time is always the hardest, and it’s nice to know that next year we’ll have many gingerbread-baking tricks under our belt. At the end of a difficult year that has kept everyone cooped up inside, this intense baking project left us feeling accomplished! And best of all, we got to spend some quality time with our roommates, laughing, chatting, and doing something a little different than watching TV.