Gingerbread cookie season is upon us and if you're feeling even slightly adventurous, it may be time to move past plain old gingerbread men and women and dabble in making your very own gingerbread houses. Intimidated? Don't be! It's fun! You can start small. And by small we mean very small. Mini. As in mini gingerbread houses.
There are plenty of reasons why small is better. Think of mini gingerbread houses as slightly advanced three-dimensional cookies. You use a cookie cutter and you can easily cut out enough with one batch of dough for a group of kids (or adults) to get in on the fun. Create a little gingerbread village or decorate and give them away as gifts for the holidays. Some cookie cutters even come with a little "door" carved out so you can hang your house on the lip of a mug filled with hot cocoa for the kids (or Red-Wine Hot Chocolate for the grown-ups!). You can eat them right away, or you can hold onto them, stand back and admire the cuteness. Follow the steps below and you'll be well on your way to mastering the mini gingerbread houses of your dreams.
• Mini gingerbread house cookie cutter (we like the Petite Gingerbread House Hugger Cutter from The Gingerbread Cutter Co., $8)
• Wax or parchment paper
• Rolling pin
• Sharp knife
• Piping bag with a small tip (or plastic quart bag with a small part of the corner snipped off)
So you have your (cold) dough and you're ready to roll! Literally. Rolling your dough between two pieces of wax or parchment paper prevents the dough from sticking to the rolling pin or work surface. Try and roll your dough out to an even 1/8-inch. Any thinner and you risk the pieces breaking. Thicker, and they may not fit together properly. And remember, if the dough gets warm, sticky or looks glossy, it's time to roll the scraps back into a disk and return them to the freezer to chill out.
Depending on the cookie cutter you use, it's really no different than making regular cookie cut-outs except that you'll want to make sure you are cutting enough pieces to make a house in its entirety. The cookie cutter we used makes one roof piece, one side and one front piece, so you'll need to make two impressions into the dough to make one house. If the dough starts to stick to the cookie cutter, it may be getting too warm. But before you toss it back in the freezer you can try coating the cookie cutter in flour or even cooking spray to help the dough release.
Baking your gingerbread cookies is no different than any other cookie, but keep in mind that when you're making houses, you want your cookies to be crisp. Softer cookies crumble more easily or bend making it harder to work with. Your cookies should be beginning to color on the bottom when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool just a little bit and give them a once over. If you notice any jagged edges or pieces that look a little rounded, trim them with a sharp knife while the dough is still warm to prevent breaking. Straighter edges will fit together better when it's time to assemble. When all of your pieces look neat and tidy, you can move them to a wire rack to cool completely before you assemble.
Now here's the fun part! Putting them all together. Before you start, you'll need to make the "glue." We use royal icing, a whipped-up mixture of powdered sugar and egg white, to keep it all together. Royal icing is easy to work with and it dries hard for a nice sturdy house. Although you won't need too much for assembly, it's good to make more icing than you think you'll need so you'll have plenty left over for decorating. Be sure to store any unused portion covered tightly in the fridge as it starts to harden fast. You'll be piping your icing onto the cookies, so using a piping bag with a small tip or just a plastic quart bag with a small part of the corner snipped off is all you'll need.
Organize your pieces into groups. One group = one house. Start by piping royal icing down one piece of house or cookie in any place it is going to make contact with another cookie. Gently attach the other sides and roof to the house, applying more icing where the cookies connect. Move your house to a flat surface to dry (it takes about 4 hours) before you decorate, and repeat!
Pictured: Perch these cuties on a mug of Red-Wine Hot Chocolate for the grown-ups
Once the mini gingerbread house structures are dry, you can decorate them. Because they're so small, keep it simple. Use icing or melted chocolate to pipe on snow and house details, like the roof, windows and doors. Try sprinkling on some decorating sugar or natural colored sprinkles for a little extra flair. Then let dry.
Even professionals run into problems now and again, but where there is a problem, there is usually a solution.
Most problems can be solved just by having a few extra pieces of gingerbread on hand just in case something breaks or (accidentally) get eaten.
If you're having trouble keeping your houses together, then you may need to tinker with your icing. The icing should be thick and hold its shape when piped. If it's loose, try adding more powdered sugar to firm it up. If your pieces still don't stay together try applying more icing and make sure the edges of your cookies are straight. If they're not, give them another trim.
There are plenty of ways to involve the kids in the gingerbread house making fun. The most fun of course is the decorating, but the assembly can be great for them too. Small hands are great at maneuvering cookie cutters, and older children can help pipe the icing and hold the pieces in place. Making mini gingerbread houses is great for parties too as you can get a dozen houses (or more!) from just one batch so each kid can make his own unique creation.