Constructed entirely of cookies and icing, gingerbread houses are among the most magical of holiday treats. But for the home baker, embarking on such an intricate project can seem intimidating. Is it possible to build a beautiful biscuit structure from scratch and still have fun?
I spoke to Jon Lovitch, New York chef and creator of GingerBread Lane, a collection of over 1,200 edible houses currently on display at the New York Hall of Science. Lovitch, who hopes to win his fourth straight Guinness World Record for "largest gingerbread village," offered his best tips for gingerbread house construction.
1. Don't buy a kit.
"Gingerbread house kits are boring and generic," says Lovitch, who spends 11 months of the year creating GingerBread Lane. He suggests making your own dough, which allows you to personalize your architecture. "You can make it tall or short, wide or narrow, cut windows and doors," he says. Look for a dough recipe that is made with molasses and strengthened with extra flour; construction gingerbread is very forgiving and flexible.
Get the recipe: Gingerbread House on Food Network
2. Take your time.
To ensure the structural integrity of your house, the "icing needs to be completely dry and rock hard before you decorate," says Lovitch. He suggests building the house one weekend, and decorating it the next if possible. "Make it a two-weekend process."
Keep an eye, as well, on the weather. "The biggest threat to gingerbread is humidity," he says. Damp gingerbread walls can bend and cave, leading to collapse — a potential disaster that Lovitch prevents during the summer months with an around-the-clock dehumidifier.
3. Use a ridiculous amount of icing.
"Gingerbread is not what holds the house together — it's the icing," says Lovitch. His structures use eight times more royal icing than cookies. He makes this sticky mortar from powdered sugar, egg whites, ice water, and cream of tartar, beating the mixture until it's "super fluffy." If you're wondering if you have enough icing, you should probably make more.
Get the recipe: Royal Icing from Food Network
4. Choose candy by color and texture.
Bright colors like red, green, yellow, and blue make for eye-catching displays — and don't be afraid to pile on the bonbons for maximum effect. In Lovitch's sugary world, Big Red chewing gum becomes brick façade, and M&Ms double as roof tiles. "Make sure to use hard candies that won't melt," he says. "Nothing too soft and gummy."
Lovitch suggests Runts, Skittles, and M&Ms, although his favorite decorative sweet is reindeer corn: "It's like candy corn, but with red, white, and green stripes."
5. Build on top of failure.
What if your gingerbread house starts to collapse? "First, take it apart," says Lovitch. "See if you can stand the sides back up." If this isn't possible, bake replacement walls and add them to the existing structure. "Use the old house as a core," he says. "The heavier the center, the easier it is to make the building stand."
Above all, don't panic. "I've seen people cry, get sad, angry, frustrated," says Lovitch. "This is a project that builds teamwork and develops decorating skills. My number-one tip is to have fun!"