If you’ve ever built a gingerbread house, you know that walls crack, icing flakes, and roofs sag — if they don’t collapse altogether. And once you’ve got your gingerbread house up, you’ve got to maintain and protect it against sticky humidity and sticky fingers.
In the spirit of the holidays, we recently talked with a handful of chefs who spend at least a couple of months each year constructing gingerbread houses — even cities — for private and corporate clients.
Here are their tips on how to improve and maintain the value of your gingerbread home.
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Chef Dana Herbert, winner of TLC’s “Next Great Baker” show, owner of Desserts by Dana in New Castle, Del.
Chef Herbert, who has created gingerbread homes 6 feet tall, reveals the secrets of producing sturdy and straight gingerbread walls that can hold up to candy and pounds of icing.
- Bake gingerbread until it is dark brown and cracker-like – 35 to 40 minutes.
- Air-dry it for two days before assembly in a low-moisture room. If you live in a humid climate, run a dehumidifier while drying.
- If you’re not planning on eating the house, first make a foam board model and attach the gingerbread walls to that.
- To achieve straight walls that make assembly easier, cut gingerbread with a pizza wheel.
- To preserve the house for three years, coat the finished product with shellac and store in a plastic box with a tight seal.
Chef John Hart, executive chef at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel
With the help of architectural firms around Seattle, Chef John Hart creates structurally sound gingerbread houses that have weighed up to 500 pounds. Mostly, Chef Hart uses gingerbread as siding on his wood or foam board houses. Here are some of his gingerbread house tips.
- Margarine makes gingerbread batter stronger than butter.
- For smaller houses, assemble your house model from foam board, then take it apart and use pieces as templates for baked gingerbread squares. Cut the squares to fit with a utility knife.
- Bake extra gingerbread squares, and cut them into long triangles to make angled supports you can glue to the inside of your house.
- To hide wall cracks, mix a little royal icing with brown food coloring, and then rub into cracks. Smooth with a fine grain sandpaper.
- Flat roofs need center supports because they eventually bow.
- Allow several days for assembly. Bake and let dry for two days. Attach walls with royal icing and let dry overnight, then attach the roof.
Janet D’Orsi, owner of the Gingerbread Construction Company in Wakefield, Mass.
Janet D’Orsi’s Gingerbread Construction Company ships more than 10,000 gingerbread houses around the country each year. The trick to building a sturdy house? “Let it dry completely between stages.”
Here are more tricks of the gingerbread trade.
- Attach roof peaks with a toothpick when drying.
- Overlapping Necco wafers resemble a tile roof: Shredded wheat makes a good thatched roof.
- Roll gingerbread dough to 1/16-inch thick, which will bake hard but not brittle.
- Melted Lifesavers candy simulates stained glass windows.
Chef David Diffendorfer, instructor at the The Art Institute of Portland, Ore.
Chef Diffendorfer has constructed medieval gingerbread cities consisting of a castle and 16 buildings. The gingerbread acts as framing, which he covers with marzipan.
Diffendorfer offers other gingerbread construction tips.
- Gelatin sheets, sold at baking supply stores, make colorful windows that look like antique leaded glass.
- To strengthen walls, paint gingerbread with molten white chocolate, which bonds with the bread to create a solid mass. Also, pipe chocolate onto the display board to create a strong and quick-drying foundation.
- Fill cracks with royal icing, but attach chipped pieces with white chocolate.
- To make sure gingerbread joints fit tightly, miter edges.
My own gingerbread house creations feature molten sugar windows that save imaginary energy, gingerbread spruces for curb appeal, and even Twizzler rain gutters to handle runoff.
Do you have a picture of a gingerbread house you baked? We’d love to see it.