Gingerbread house construction requires nerves of steel, but is terrifically rewarding if you persevere. Here are my top tips for minimizing the drama and avoiding pitfalls.
First, consider making just a façade of the house. I really do like to make gingerbread houses, but we don’t have enough table-top space at the inn to display a three-dimensional house, let alone all six of the Vaucluse guest houses! It was really a DUH!! moment when I realized we could replicate the facades of the houses and fit them all on one mantle top. Second tip, when making a template for your dream house, make the window openings larger than what you want the finished windows to be. Realize also that the thicker you leave the rolled out dough, the more it will puff when baked and the tinier your windows will be. Windows, like eyes, are most appealing when wide open. Third, roll out the dough onto a piece of parchment paper placed on a large cutting board. Before cutting, pull the paper (with the dough on top of it) onto the back of a baking sheet. Trust me, you do not want to crack your house trying to fish it out of the inside of a baking sheet with four spatulas and only two hands. The year of the earthquake I used the excuse that the Manor House was cracked to make it look like the earthquake did it. Fourth, if you choose to make caramelized sugar windows, get organized and be prepared to act fast. I make templates for the window sizes and draw them out on plain aluminum foil, not oiled, not “release” foil (I’ve made both of those mistakes too). Mix two scoops of white granulated sugar with a little cream of tartar and just enough water to wet the sugar in a stainless steel sauce pan. Put on over medium low heat and stir until sugar is dissolved and starting to melt. Do not stir after this point, but you can swirl the pan. When the sugar starts to turn gold, quickly but carefully pour it onto the foil into the window shapes. The sugar will continue to darken in the pan so the last windows will be noticeably darker than the first windows poured. Which is kind of cool, actually. If your windows look more like amoebas than rectangles, you can score them with a knife as they start to cool and then snap off the “amoeba arms” after the sugar hardens. And eat them of course!
A fifth and final tip is for the decorative icing. Royal icing is a mixture of egg whites and powdered sugar. Just make sure it is wet enough to flow easily because if it’s too dry it will end up popping off when it dries. A bonus tip: a #4 piping tip seems to be the happy medium for drawing lines. So, go crazy this year and make a village!