Friday, December 6, 2013

Putting together the gingerbread house party

Last year I wrote this up as I was prepping and then never posted it because the party wore me right out. This year might be the first time in nearly three decades that we aren't able to have the party and that makes me sad, even though I realize that adding a big party on top of our move and some ongoing house renovations at my parents' place probably would be hard for everyone involved. Maybe we'll manage to pull it together but in the meantime, I'll try to be a gingerbread house enabler.

cookie cutters
{cookie cutters}

The beginning of December is generally very busy for me at work but luckily the baking can be broken up into parts that I can handle in the evenings after a full day. Here's how it went down last year.

gingerbread spices
{gingerbread spices}

We needed 12 houses so I planned on making 15. I always have a little wiggle room in the numbers. That way if you break a piece or have a house that comes together wonky you don't need to stress. If they all turn out perfectly, well, a decorated house can be a sweet surprise for a coworker, neighbor, etc.

Tuesday morning I measured four sets of the spice mixture, the baking soda + baking powder and the brown sugar. I set out the butter and the eggs. Three batches of dough will make the 15 houses I planned for and the extra one is for cookies, of course. Here is the dough recipe I use, which I love. The only issue with it is that the scraps of raw dough are so good that Dustin and I basically live on them all week and feel mildly disgusted with ourselves.

Tuesday evening when I got home from work I made all four batches of dough assembly line style so I didn't have to clean out the mixing bowl between. The recipe lists the flour in cups so for the first batch I weighed the flour I measured out (1 lb 13.5 oz) and then for the remaining batches I didn't have to bother with the measuring. Much faster. Each batch gets bundled in plastic wrap and refrigerated.

Wednesday - Friday I baked in the evenings. I always make a list and keep a tally so I know how many of each piece I have (for 15 houses it is: 30 roofs, 30 walls, 15 fronts, 15 backs, 15 doors). Once the pieces have cooled completely I put them in large ziploc bags. If you aren't putting the houses together very soon, you should do this. The gingerbread will pick up moisture from the air quickly and you end up with soft pieces that, while perfect for eating, are structurally unsound. This is also why you can't put the houses together too far ahead. Even a couple days of damp weather and everything falls apart. Once you get enough royal frosting on, the houses will usually hold up really well. We've had a few years where it was so damp that the roofs slid off, but that's rare.

You also want to prepare the cardboard bases for the houses ahead of time. The house footprint is fairly small but I aim for nothing smaller than 9x12", to give people some yard space to play with. Wrap each piece of cardboard in aluminum foil, secured on the bottom with packing tape.

The day of the party we cover the old table with aluminum foil and then lay all the pieces with windows out. Do this on a surface you aren't worried about. I've never noticed that it damages the finish of the table, but we use our giant holiday table that's already scarred.

I make the sugar syrup as described here and pour all the windows (note - on top of everything else last year my thermometer was reading too hot and as a result, my windows never set up. Sadness. I've edited that post to remind myself not to blindly trust the thermometer in the future - it takes less than 5 minutes to double check that the syrup is hot enough). Having two people pouring can be useful here, but it isn't necessary. You just want to do it quickly, to minimize the number of times you have to reheat the sugar.

The windows (should) set up quickly and in the meantime I get the kitchen ready for the gingerbread house assembly, as described here. Having a small island or table next to the stove makes this much easier. Pick one you aren't worried about or cover it well. Have your aluminum covered cardboard pieces handy.

gb 2010 blank house
{gb 2010 blank house}

Once the houses are ready we set them all out on the long table. If you have guests who take the house selection seriously, it helps to put out name tags so that people can claim their houses on a first come first serve basis and then your guests don't feel like they have to hover next to their chosen house the whole time.

I make a giant vat of royal frosting, mixing several batches and then combining them. I don't have a recipe on hand so I always end up doing a quick internet search when it comes time to make the frosting (should change that!). I use meringue powder + powdered sugar + warm water in whatever proportion you are supposed to use. I fill several pastry bags (aim for one per person, use couplers and put out extra tips so people can change it up easily) and set them in tall glasses with a bit of damp paper towel at the bottom. This keeps the frosting in the tip from drying out and clogging. When filling pastry bags, only fill 1/2 - 3/4. Keep it closer to 1/2 if you have small kids because it's hard for inexperienced people or tiny hands to handle overly full bags. It's also good to have a medium size bowl full on the table with a spatula.

We ask our guests to bring some candy with them and so we put out a bunch of empty bowls on the table. It's much neater than having bags of candy everywhere and it lets people see what's available. Some years there is a moderate level of candy hoarding going on, but now that we're adults we'll usually share if you ask nicely (actually, kids are way more willing to share because they don't understand how important it is that their houses look neat and symmetrical so they will just slap random candy everywhere if necessary. Amateurs).

Popular decorations:
Spice drops
Dots - my personal fave because I also love eating them
Holiday M&Ms
Peppermint candy in all forms - red and white themes are usually a hit, so having plenty of candy in that color range helps
Chiclets - surprise contender from a couple years ago, makes nice tiles
Shredded coconut is good for snow

I make cookies as well and usually set aside a batch to bake right before guests arrive, so that the house is completely filled with the smell of gingerbread. Having some little bags ready so that guests can take a small pile of cookies home is a nice touch and will sometimes prevent people from eating their gingerbread houses immediately. Technically, you are supposed to wait until Christmas Day to eat your house. I can't guarantee that all our guests obey.

You want food to balance all that sugar, so we have everyone bring an appetizer and set everything out on a table in the living room. We use the crock pot to make mulled cider. Spiking is optional, but highly encouraged now that almost all of our guests are way above the age at which you would expect gingerbread house decorating to be popular.

Please note - playing John Denver and The Muppets at least once is MANDATORY. Saying you are "sick of the album" or "don't like Miss Piggy's voice" is not an excuse and I'm not buying it.


  1. John Denver and The Muppets was one of my favorite records (oh gawd, I'm old) when I was a kid ... and now I'm listening to the album on Spotify -- thanks! :)

  2. this may sound like a weird question, but I've noticed you have a very distinctive photography style and it's that everything looks tiny and doll-like. how on earth do you achieve this?? is it a low focal length?

    1. Ha! That's funny to hear! I think it's more an aesthetic than any particular technique (I have basically zero camera training other than a semester in college that explored the philosophy of photographs and included a little bit of hands on experience).

      I do generally use my 35 mm fixed lens, which I adore, and I tend to shoot in the lower apertures, so the low focal length is probably a big part of it. But I "zoom with my feet" so I spend some time adjusting myself so the angle is exactly how I want it before I take the picture. I like to not feel *too* close to my subjects, even when I'm very close, if that makes sense? So that might be the tiny and doll-like aspect of it.

  3. I am very jealous of your ambitiousness! Just reading it stressed me out. I could never be that organized. With that said, I really want to have a gingerbread house decorating party now.

  4. You and I are the same person, as far as Christmas music goes. :)

    And you've seen The Muppets Family Christmas, right? With the Fraggles and the Sesame Street gang? The Swedish Chef tries to cook Big Bird, it's precious!

  5. It is October 18 and I have already pulled up your earmarked page so I can start to get in the Gingerbread House mind set. I love this tradition! We had to scale back last year because I had a baby but we are back at it this year. Thank you for having such a thoughtful outline and recipes. We can't wait to see how competitive the family gets as the years go on. Do you have a formal judging aspect with winners? Just curious :)


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