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How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

This is not my gingerbread house.
This is not my gingerbread house.

I love food, but there's a reason I'm a writer and not a chef. I cook a few things very well. I can follow a recipe. I have a good sense of how flavors should go together. I'm actually a wonderful baker.

But events like those that took place last week remind me that I do better work in the dining room than in the kitchen.

I had a vision in my head when I set out -- a vision born of late nights browsing Pinterest and admiring recipes in old-fashioned cookbooks and holiday cheer à la Martha Stewart. If Martha can be the perfect holiday guru, why can't I? Who needs mixes and kits? I'm crafty!

"I can do it!" I thought to myself. "I can make a gingerbread house from scratch! And it will be the most beautiful thing ever, and my friends will bow down to me, a domestic goddess, the creator of Christmas cheer."

Here's how it started...

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg

I found a recipe online for gingerbread houses, and it looked simple enough. I went to Central Market, bought all the ingredients I needed, and settled into my kitchen with a Christmas movie (Muppet Christmas Carol) and an image of the perfect finished product.

On the first evening, I made the dough, which the recipe then recommends you refrigerate overnight. Already, this was taking longer than I'd hoped.

The next evening, I rolled out the dough and cut it into shapes based on the template provided in the recipe. Here's what I discovered: It's really difficult to roll dough to 1/4-inch thickness, then peel it off of the pastry mat and ensure it maintains its shape. Perhaps my dough wasn't cold enough or my pastry mat wasn't coated with enough flour, but my cut-outs stuck to the mat and stretched when I tried to peel them off.

I set them down on the baking sheet, prodded them back into shape and hoped for the best.

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

While the walls and roof were baking, I made the royal icing, a white powered-sugar-and-egg icing that dries as hard as glue. All you need to do to make the icing is beat several egg whites with cream of tartar until they're fluffy, then slowly add powdered sugar. I did this and put it aside in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator to keep it from drying out while I waited overnight for my gingerbread to cool and harden.

 

On the third day of my gingerbread house experiment, I assembled my creation. Or, at least, that was the plan.

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

I started by squeezing gobs of royal icing onto a sheet of tin foil lining a baking pan, then I set two pieces of the wall perpendicular to one other to create a corner. As per the instructions I was following (yes, I was still heeding a recipe at this point), I propped up the walls with a box of tea bags. Rather than wait for those to set (I think the instructions did recommend that), I proceeded to erect the other two walls, joining all four pieces together with far too much icing, a few boxes of tea and a prayer. Much to my surprise and delight, they all remained standing once I finally let go.

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

While the walls were setting, I did some decorating of the house's exterior. I used chocolate rocks to make a gravel sidewalk, and chocolate nonpareils to make a walkway. For the record, Central Market doesn't carry traditional gingerbread house-type candy.

I decorated the door with red licorice, then stood back to survey my work. So far, not bad. Not Martha Stewart, but not bad. I wouldn't be winning any awards with this, but my mother would probably be impressed.

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

Because the icing holding the walls together was still not dry, I decided to decorate the roof and then assemble it. I purchased the stereotypical but not at all tasty Necco wafers (Central Market does carry those for some strange reason) and set about tiling each side of the roof with them.

 

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

It's here that I should make note of something, something that I believe is the primary reason there is no photo of the finished gingerbread house. When I was rolling out the dough, I neglected to roll it out long enough to create the pitched part of the roof, which should be attached to one wall. If you look at the diagram, you'll see that the end walls are rectangles with triangles on top. I thought, "What the hell!" and I made the triangle pieces separate from the walls, figuring I'd attach them with icing later, and it wouldn't make a difference.

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

It might not have made a difference had I let the icing dry all the way before I attempted to attach the roof. But patience, though it is a virtue, is not one of my strong suits.

I let the walls dry for about 20 minutes. I gave the triangles atop two of the walls another 10 minutes. I decorated the roof, now heavy with icing and Necco wafers, oozed icing onto the joints where I thought it would meet the walls, set it atop the brittle gingerbread and held it. For about 30 seconds. Then I got bored and let go.

Here's something I learned about royal icing: It takes more than 30 seconds to dry.

Here's something I learned about me: I'm not very patient.

Here's what happened next:

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

A better chef, architect or engineer than I might have taken this in stride. She might have set the roof aside, fixed the failing joints, allowed them to dry and tried again the next day. I, on the other hand, gave up and started eating.

Was it a gingerbread house in the end? No. No, not really.

Was it delicious? You bet your bottom dollar. And because it didn't sit around for days looking pretty and collecting dust, it wasn't stale either.

How to (Almost) Make a Gingerbread House from Scratch, or, My Epic Holiday Failure

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