Home, sweet home

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Unless you have a culinary degree, an incredibly steady hand and a few months to spare, you probably won't be able to recreate those breathtaking gingerbread houses that dazzle from bakeshop windows.

The sooner you accept that, the sooner you will be on you way to a merrier Christmas.

That doesn't mean you should give up on your gingerbread dreams. The trick is that instead of trying to create an architectural wonder, focus on creating lasting memories. In other words, just have fun.

"It's one of those Hallmark moments, almost corny at times. This is what childhood is supposed to be about," said Marc Haymon, a baking instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

So here's some tips on making a memorable gingerbread house.

TEMPLATES

Plan, measure and create templates first. Cut the templates out of cardboard, then check that they fit together. When your dough is rolled, you will use these templates and a sharp knife to cut the sections of your house.

If the cookies spread during cooking, the templates also can be used to trim them as soon as they come out of the oven.

This also is the time to design windows, doors or other features, which must be cut out of the dough before it is baked. Beginners really should stick with a simple, four-wall, one-door, two-or-three-window design.

If you're stumped for design ideas, check out How to Build a Gingerbread House, by Christina Banner, or The Gingerbread Architect, by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman.

FOUNDATION

Build on a solid, moveable surface, such as a large flat platter, a slab of wood covered in foil or a plastic cutting board. Baking and craft supply stores also sell inexpensive cake mounts, which are heavy-duty cardboard wrapped in foil.

ASSEMBLING

Soup cans and mugs are excellent helpers; use them to hold walls in place while you ice (cement) them together. To do this, place a mug or can on either side of the wall, holding it upright in place.

After the walls are assembled, wait at least an hour before adding the roof. If young children are involved, consider building the house without them the night before, then let them do the decorating after everything is solid.

PIPING

Piping (squirting icing from a conical bag) is a handy skill for these projects. This is how you add decorative icing touches. It's also how you cement together the walls and roof.

You can buy special bags and metal tips, but it isn't necessary. Zip-close plastic bags work fine. Spoon the icing into the bag, seal it, snip off one corner (large or small depending on the flow of icing desired), then gently squeeze.

DECORATING

This is where your imagination gets to really kick in. And the possibilities positively boggle. This is just a start:

- Pretzel rods (columns)

- Apricot fruit tape (window panes)

- Sticks of gum (cut them into roof tiles, stepping stones, window boxes, steps, shutters)

- Jelly beans (walkways and foundations)

- Frosted wheat square cereal (thatched roof)

- Wafer cookies (stones, steps and window panes)

- Rock candy (trees)

- Licorice string (accents and other trim)

For the best selection, head to a bulk candy store. This also is a good chance for the little ones to help pick their favorite decorations (and snacks).

Royal icing will be your glue. Feel free to add food coloring and use it to decorate, too.

"There is nothing that's not going to look good on a gingerbread house," Ms. Banner said.

But avoid chocolate, the fat of which can seep into the gingerbread and weaken it.

GINGERBREAD DOUGH

This recipe should be enough for a standard house. It's stronger than cookie dough, so your house will hold together better. It's also less likely to change shape and size while baking. Best yet, it's entirely edible (assuming you only decorate with candy and use frosting as the glue).

The dough can be refrigerated for a week or frozen for a month. If possible, bake the gingerbread a day before you intend to build your house to give it time to cool and harden.

Start to finish: 2 hours

Makes enough for 1 house

61/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

11/4 cups vegetable shortening

11/4 cups powdered sugar

11/4 cups packed dark brown sugar

11/4 cups molasses

1/2 cup plus 1 to 4 tablespoons water

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer on low to beat together the shortening, powdered sugar, dark brown sugar and molasses until just smooth.

Add the flour mixture all at once. Mix on low to medium-low speed. When the dough looks crumbly, add 1/2 cup water. If the dough feels dry, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time. The dough should be firm, but evenly moist.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and shape into a solid ball. Place the dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper and use a rolling pin to roll out to about 1/4 inch thick.

Place the rolled-out dough, still between the sheets of parchment, on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 1 hour, or until firm. Meanwhile, set the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, remove the top sheet of parchment paper and cut the dough as desired. Remove the excess dough scraps, then bake until golden brown (times will vary according to size of the pieces). Plan for about 7 to 10 minutes for small pieces, and 10 to 15 minutes for large ones.

ROYAL ICING

Royal icing is the glue that will hold your house together. This recipe uses safe-to-eat dried egg whites, which are sold in the baking aisle as meringue powder. The icing will keep for three to four days, at room temperature, covered tightly.

If the icing has been stored overnight or looks as though it has softened, beat it again for the full time (7 to 10 minutes) before using. As you work with royal icing, keep the bowl covered with plastic or damp paper towels.

Start to finish: 15 minutes

Makes enough for 1 house

2 pounds (8 cups) powdered sugar

4 tablespoons dried white eggs or meringue powder

3/4 cup water, room temperature

In a large mixing bowl, combine the powdered sugar and dried egg whites. Use an electric mixer to beat on low while slowly pouring in the water. Mix until combined.

Increase mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the icing forms stiff peaks, about 7 to 10 minutes. If the peaks are not stiff enough, curve or sag heavily, add more powdered sugar and continue to beat until stiff.

Recipes adapted from Christina Banner's How to Build a Gingerbread House, Penny Publishing, 2008


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