Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Designing Your Own Gingerbread House

Our Treehouse
One favorite classic holiday activity many people enjoy is making gingerbread houses for the holiday.  Of course corporations have taken full advantage and you can now go buy baking molds, specialized cookie cutters and even pre-made, pre-baked kits that make it easy to slap a house together.  However, it is less expensive, requires more planning and creativity of your kids, and offers up measurement and other math skills practice opportunities when you plan and make your own.  Besides, designing your own can be really fun AND results in a unique house each year.  

We went with the Log Cabin style when Alice was three (shown below).  The advantage of using the log cabin style is that the sides of the house are stacked and built up a bit like Lincoln logs which makes things a lot easier for little hands.

When you make your own, you can create a log cabin, a western desert style house, something inspired by a favorite story, a famous landmark, or you can keep it traditional and go with either a Victorian or fairytale style house.

Here is how to make the "log cabin" style house: 

You'll want a large-ish square or rectangle for the roof.  Ours was about 5 x 7 inches or so.  Two right triangles of matching dimensions whose hypotenuse matches the "end" dimensions of your roof.     You'll also need to make the "logs."  Really these are just rectangles of gingerbread of different, but related sizes, and a  quantity of small squares.  

For the logs I recommend some of the logs match the dimensions of your roof in length.  If your roof is a rectangle, this will mean making logs to match BOTH the length and width of your roof.  You will also want logs that are about half the length of the longest logs, and logs about two thirds the length of the longest logs to allow for the creation of openings for windows and a doorway.   

You can plan it all out so you know how many of each you will need, but if you are doing this activity with your kids, some of them will break, some will get eaten and inevitably you will find you didn't have the right number anyway.  I suggest you just make lots of each size and let your kids "play" with the cookie sticks as though they are Lincoln Logs.  They'll enjoy eating the extras and the whole adventure will be a lot more fun for everybody.  

If you add one more piece that can act as the doorway by resting against the house where the "door" is, you can have a closed door as well, though this is certainly not necessary.  Decorate as you wish.  (This year, I'm hoping to incorporate left-over Halloween Candy that is still sitting around).

Gingerbread and Frosting Recipe and instructions

To Design almost any other Style of House:

This is by far the hardest way to make your house.  I highly recommend that you START SIMPLE!!!  You will need to sketch out how your house will look from all sides.  By doing this first, you can have a visual of the shapes that make up your house.  How many triangles will you need and what are their relative sizes?  

Then you'll need to test your design using cardboard.  In this way you can shave down edges, make appropriate measurements, make sure everything fits AND test out the general physics of your design.  This is the engineering stage.  Plan some time for it.  Construct your house so it can be deconstructed because you'll need the cardboard as patterns for sizing our your cookie pieces.  Later, you can reconstruct the cardboard house and "Cheat" by having the cardboard inside to help the structure hold strong as well - but don't tell any one I suggested that!
At left, you can see our very first ever, self designed GB house.  As you can see it is made up of VERY SIMPLE shapes.  Because we were entering it in a contest, we couldn't use the cardboard underneath so you can see right inside as well.   Pueblo style houses, four sided "box houses" like often come in basic kits, and simple A frames are all great "starter houses."

Once you have the cardboard version of your house constructed, mark the pieces to remind you which piece will be adjacent to which other pieces.  For example mark an A on the left side of the front wall and a B on the right.  On the adjoining wall, mark a B next to the B on the front piece and a C on the side opposite the B.  Continue in this way until all your pieces are marked.  You'll want to deconstruct your cardboard house so you can use the pieces as a patterns for your dough.  You'll also want to keep track of the dough pieces by placing foil markers under them with the same writing.  "Front," "Roof," etc. seem like they would be sufficient, but even a square won't always work when turned a different direction later unless you are incredibly precise while resizing the cookies immediately after taking them out of the oven.  You'll need to place the cardboard on the dough and trace around the edges of it cutting with a knife.  Sometimes the dough reshapes a little when you lift it onto the cookie sheet.  So I recommend a GIGANTIC spatula if you can find one for this purpose. 

Make Cardboard Forms First
Bake the dough at 350 degrees F for about 8-10 minutes.  When the dough comes out of the oven, you'll need to re-cut it using the cardboard pieces again before it cools enough to become hard.  However, if you move the dough too soon, it can also crack.  Wait about 2-3 minutes before moving the dough to the counter and resizing the dough.  That gigantic spatula will come in handy again here.  resizing and cutting the dough is a delicate procedure and requires caution. 

To resize your cookies, simply place your cardboard pieces on their matching cookies.  For any spots where the cookie has swollen, make appropriate adjustments with your knife.   You do have some time before the dough hardens to the point where this is likely to cause cracking, but not a LOT of time, so work efficiently.   If the dough does harden, you can score it on both sides where cuts are needed first.  Score many times and then treat it as though it is tile, but this increases the likelihood you will be re-baking your walls.

After allowing the cookies time to cool and harden you can use the recipe given on my other article about Gingerbread houses to glue the whole thing together.  As mentioned before, I suggest using your cardboard "test structure" under your cookie structure to help hold everything together unless you will be entering a contest with some rule against such a choice. 

Finish by decorating as desired!

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