I will eat the roof, and Gretel, you can eat the window

It is a tradition in my home to make gingerbread houses every year. The kids help with the making of the gingerbread, then we have a decorating party! We even make haunted gingerbread houses at Halloween. I love how my house smells when I bake gingerbread. The aroma or ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves fills every corner of your home. It is the essence of Christmas time, good will toward men and perpetual joy. But why are these little houses so popular and where did they originate? I am fascinated with the origins of traditions we celebrate. So I began to investigate….

History
In my research I found that the gingerbread recipes we use in the United States today are of a German variety. Gingerbread, has been made in many different forms, has been enjoyed as far back as 992 AD! It has of course changed over time as it has been passed through the generations and into other countries and traditions. The gingerbread house didn’t become a popular item until after The Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel as they are similar to the witches house. Gingerbread was also well known in England as a fair food. Certain shapes were even associated with different seasons. One popular village tradition required young single maidens to eat gingerbread shaped husbands at the fair to increase their luck in finding a real husband.

Baking
So after my brief walk through Christmas past, I got all of the stuff ready to make our families gingerbread houses. Now, people often wonder how to cut the patterns and designs of the house. Here, you have a couple of options. The most simple option is to buy a gingerbread cookie cutter set like the one pictured below (this is made by Wilton and can be found at many craft stores or ordered from http://www.wilton.com/). You simply roll out the gingerbread, cut out your shapes with the cutter, bake and voila! OR you can make your own template, cut it out of paper or cardboard, roll out dough, cut around template, bake and voila! The choice is yours. The gingerbread house pictured above in the top left corner was cut from a template, the other house was made with the cookie cutter set. Either method works fine, It just depends on what you are wanting to accomplish. You can even find patterns out there for elaborate houses, lighthouses, churches and trains!

Below is the gingerbread recipe that I use. It is from a Betty Crocker book from 1963 and it is my favorite recipe for gingerbread I have ever tried. I hope you and your family enjoy it as much as my family does.

Gingerbread Cookies

  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups dark molasses (use a good quality molasses, I have noticed a difference when I use a off brand)
  • 2/3 cup cold water
  • 7 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  1. First mix the shortening, sugar and molasses thoroughly. Next stir in the water. Then blend all dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Then slowly add to the shortening mix and mix thoroughly. Then cover with a cloth and chill in the refrigerator for about an hour or two.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Once your dough has chilled, lightly flour a cutting board and roll dough until it is about 1/4″ thick. You will need to break the dough into sections to roll it out. Also, the dough may seem a bit dry. I find this happens when I have used a cheaper off brand molasses. If it seems dry then break off a chunk you want to work with, get your hands wet with water and begin kneading the dough slowly working the water from your hands into the dough. Or you can add a tsp at a time to the bowl of dough and mix it up. Either way start slow and with small amounts to soften it  a bit.  You will know if it’s too dry if it remains clumpy and does not roll easily. 
  3. Once it’s rolled out, cut the dough with your cutters. Place on a baking sheet slightly, spread out about an inch and a half apart. They will fluff up when they bake. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Let them cool for about 10 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack. 
The Fun Part!

Now comes the fun part, decorating! I set up individual workstations for us, if I didn’t there would be a holy war on my hands over all of the decorations. So to save my sanity, each kid got their own supply of decorations. For the candy pieces I use most of what is left over from Halloween and trick or treat. This way I can use up that old candy, we don’t eat it, and I don’t have to buy any candy for the house decorations, except seasonal things like candy canes. I put a handful of candy in cupcake liners for each child. Cupcake liners work great as you can just toss them out when you are done! Everyone also gets their own piping bag filled with royal icing that is to be used to put the house and decorations together. If you don’t plan on actually eating your houses, I would recommend hot gluing the pieces to the board and to each other. It will hold a lot better than just the royal icing, especially if you have kids pushing and shoving on it. 
First you will want to attach your house to a piece of cardboard. I would suggest a cake board that you can get at a cake supply store or a craft store, or find a box and cut a square big enough to hold your cake and give your house a little bit of a yard. 
Next add your candy pieces, roof, yard etc. Go crazy and have fun! There are so many things you can do. I covered the roof of one house in Frosted Mini Wheats. It gives the effect of shingles and a snow covered roof. I covered another roof with Smarties candy. It gave the house a very cute Hansel and Gretel feel. I hope enjoy making these gingerbread houses much as we do.
Sources
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