The tradition I would like to share with you today is one that comes from my own family. Holidays, whether it is religious or not, is an opportunity to carry on, or create, traditions that make great memories of childhood. Growing up, my family didn’t have many traditions, but we had a few I cherish around Christmas.
Some of my fondest memories surrounding Christmas are my dad’s annual walk up our long driveway. During this walk, my dad would video record himself telling about our year. As he would approach the house you could hear all the kids inside excitedly shouting, “Dad’s almost here!” My dad would then knock and my mom would open the door. As the door opened, my dad would record his four kids bouncing up and down with excitement. He would then ask us questions and document our crazy antics. After this concluded, we would gather around the Christmas tree to unwrap presents.
Another tradition my family had was making Christmas cookies and candies with my mom. We would make spritz cookies, peanut brittle, Mint Ritz cookies (a recipe I will share another time), peanut clusters, sugar cookies and cream cookies. I love holiday baking.
After getting married, my husband and I were excited to start a tradition that would not be from either of our families but would be just our own. While living in Oregon, I learned about a tradition one family we went to church with had. Every Christmas this family would make gingerbread houses from scratch, decorate them and then deliver them to families in that area. I knew our search was over! I was so excited about their tradition! This sweet family was even willing to share their recipe with me.
Even though my husband and I have been married almost 11 years, we did not start this tradition in our family until about 5 years ago, when our kids were old enough to participate. Everything Christmas related is more fun with kids.
When we started this tradition, we decided that we would make a night of it and invite friends to join our family for this sugary construction night. So every year we have a few our closest friends over in addition to one or two new families we meet. We like to do this as a way to share our tradition with others, just as it was shared with us.
Each year, I make about 4-5 real gingerbread houses and then about 10-15 graham cracker houses for the kids. When we started, our oldest child was 3. Even though making real gingerbread is pretty simple, it cut out quite of bit of time by just using graham crackers. I am not sure how much longer my kids will be satisfied with this knock-off, as they have started asking how old they have to be before they can have a real one to decorate. Gratefully, I am still a couple years away from this.
So whether you decide to make these gingerbread houses just for you and your family or whether you would like to host a gingerbread house party, I have a few tips for you that are sure to make it successful and fun for you.
Tip #1: This is the most important! Use the “burnt sugar” method when constructing your houses. It so simple and so effective! You will never have a house fall apart with this method. All you do is literally just melt sugar down in a shallow, non-stick pan. You add the sugar to the pan over medium-low heat and then don’t touch it. It takes about 15 minutes or so for the sugar to start to melt. Once the sugar has started to melt, I usually stir it once or twice and then watch it carefully. I don’t really like the sugar to be “burnt” rather a beautiful golden brown color. Once all the sugar has melted, turn the heat down (about a 2-3 on my stove) and begin to dip. BE CAREFUL!! It is extremely hot! This method does cool quickly, so you will have to work quickly. Make sure all our pieces are ready to go prior to making your sugar. If your sugar seems to be getting too cool, just increase the heat a bit and stir if needed. I typically melt about 1-1/2 to 2 cups of sugar and it makes enough to construct 5 gingerbread houses and 10-15 graham cracker ones.
Now they are ready to decorate!
Tip #2 I cut out my gingerbread prior to baking then after baking I trim up the pieces if needed. During this process, I try to match up the pieces that are approximately the same size. It makes it easier to piece the houses together if all the angles are exactly the same. This recipe for gingerbread is great because it doesn’t spread or puff up very much, however, I have found some pieces need it to ensure the construction goes well.
Tip #3 When we do our party, we provide the gingerbread houses, the royal icing, and some candies. We just ask families to bring candies as well. We have all the kids decorate their houses first and then the adults. To avoid the kids using all the candies, we set out muffin tins or small bowls of the candies and reserve at least half for the adults turn. After the children finish, we do a quick clean up and restock of candies. The kids get to watch a Christmas movie and the adults get to have some fun. It is a great activity for couples to work together to design and construct their houses.
Tip #4 You don’t have to have any fancy tips or bags for decorating. We have used storage bags as well as piping bags. However, I do recommend filling the bags in a cup. You do this by opening the bag inside a cup with the top of the bag opened and wrapped down around the top of the cup. It creates a stable way to keep the bag open and have both hands free to fill the bag. After it is filled just snip a small piece off the corner of the bag or off the tip of the piping bag. Be sure to only take a small piece off to start with; you can always make it bigger if needed, but you can’t make it smaller. I usually fill a small bag for each child and one larger bag for each couple. I buy a container of meringue powder and follow the instructions on the back and make an equivalent to 4 batches. You could do this all at once, and then bag and seal everything. You would just have to be quick because air causes the icing to harden quickly. I have found I like to make a double batch of the kids, all bagged and sealed. Then when the kids are almost done, I make a double batch for the adults and we also use whatever the kids had left.
Tip# 5 Have a variety of candies and other items available. There are so many wonderful colors and textures that add so much to the house. Here are some of our favorites:
Candies: Airhead Xtreme Sour Candy Belts, Pull and Peel Twizzler, Red licorice, Peppermint candies, gumdrops or Dots, Red Hots, mini M&Ms, candy canes (regular sized & mini), gummy bears, Spree, Sweet tarts mini chewy candies, Andes Mints
Other Ideas: Frosted mini wheats, coconut, pretzel sticks, mini vanilla wafers, and fruit loops.
Here are just a few ideas from our gingerbread house party this year:
Tip #6 Don’t bother sweeping or mopping before doing this activity, especially with children. You will have dried icing or candies end up on the floor so just save it for afterward. Just have fun!
Tip #7 The recipe for gingerbread houses is enough to make 6, but I really like to have Christmas trees, snowmen, or gingerbread men for everyone to have to either decorate to go with their house or just to eat. So I usually make 5 and then the remainder of the dough goes towards the additional cutouts.
Tip #8 If you are doing a party, make sure to label a plate for each child prior to getting started. It saves the chaos of trying to find each child’s plate when most look very similar, especially for really young kids.
I hope you find these tips helpful and that you give homemade gingerbread a try. Not only will make your house smell wonderful, this easy recipe will create a fun activity to enjoy with family and friends.
Here are just a few more ideas from over the years:
- 1/3 cup shortening
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1-1/2 cups molasses
- 2/3 cup cold water
- 7-1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp allspice
- 1 tsp ginger
- 1 tsp cloves
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1. In a large mixing bowl or mixer, combine shortening, brown sugar, and molasses. Mix well.
- 2. Add 2/3 cup cold water.
- 3. Sift together: flour, baking soda and spices. Then slowly add to the mixture while the mixer is stirring on low. Once all the flour is combined. Turn out onto a well floured surface and knead until it comes together
- 4. Divide into 6 balls, slightly flatten and then wrap each ball individually with suran wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
- 5. When you are ready to bake, Preheat your oven to 350F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and turn onto one ball at a time onto a floured surface. Flour both sides of the dough and your rolling pin. Roll to about 1/8" thick.
- 6. Place your templates on the dough and cut out the pieces of the houses (You will need 2 roof pieces, 2 front/back, and 2 sides) and place on a greased cookie sheet.
- 7. Bake for 8-10 minutes.
- 8. Allow to cool. Trim pieces as needed. Assemble houses using the burnt sugar method. For a great tutorial, see the notes below.
- 9. Decorate using royal icing and desired candies
- The burnt sugar method is detailed in this post under tip #1; however, Mels Kitchen Cafe has an excellent tutorial on how to do this at https://www.melskitchencafe.com/gingerbread-houses/
- This method is also great to use with graham cracker houses as well.
- I use meringue powder to make the royal icing and follow the directions on the container.