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Maybe it's the natural progression of my childhood affinity for Legos and Lincoln Logs, but I've been obsessed with gingerbread houses for as long as I can remember. From the simple milk-carton-and-graham-cracker constructions we built in kindergarten to the cottage my brother and I thatched with Shredded Wheat, I can't imagine the holidays without a gingerbread house.
Whether you join me in making a haunted house for Halloween this year, or tackle a more traditional home for Christmas, you can't make a gingerbread house with any old dough. No, what you need is something very specific: structural gingerbread. Also known as construction gingerbread, this type of dough doesn't include leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder, so it bakes up unusually dense, without the fragile pockets of air that lighten most cookies.
Construction-grade gingerbread also has a uniquely low water content to limit the formation of steam, which means no milk or eggs. Instead, the dough is moistened with corn syrup so it bakes up nice and flat, with little to none of the puffing that steam would create. Corn syrup also keeps freshly baked gingerbread pliable and soft, allowing the warm pieces to be cut without shattering. The final distinguishing feature of a construction-grade dough is a roughly 1:4 ratio of fat to flour by weight, making the dough as lean and tough as Luke Cage (i.e., unbreakable).
Such considerations mean that most types of construction gingerbread taste like Sheetrock. Sure, gingerbread houses are more about arts and crafts than cuisine, but it's only human nature to snack on cookie scraps, so they might as well taste good!
Made with butter, vanilla, and plenty of spices, construction gingerbread can be both tasty and strong—think of it as a very flat sort of gingerbread biscotti. Plus, with the scent of cinnamon and sugar wafting from the oven, your time spent assembling a gingerbread house will be made extra enjoyable. All the more so if you keep these simple tips in mind.
Rule of Construction #1: Make Only What You Need
Most recipes for construction-grade gingerbread don't include a yield, instead providing enough dough for one specific project. That makes it hard to determine whether or not a given recipe will suit a different design, be it a template photocopied from a cookbook or one you've downloaded from the internet.
Since there's nothing worse than running out of gingerbread halfway through a project (except, perhaps, throwing away pounds of unwanted dough), I've tailored my recipe to make exactly one half sheet pan's worth—a roughly 15- by 11-inch rectangle—so it can be multiplied according to your needs.
Sit down with your gingerbread template and cut out the pieces. These will be the "cookie cutters" for your house, but for now, they're a great way to visually assess how many trays of dough you'll need. Start by arranging the paper cutouts over the baking sheet, fitting them together like Tetris pieces to see how many can go on one tray.
When it's all filled up, keep those paper cutouts grouped together, but set them aside. Repeat with the remaining cutouts, grouping each set together when you're done. There may be occasions when only one or two oddly shaped pieces will fit on the baking sheet, but you'll still count it as a full tray.
When you're done, multiply my recipe by however many imaginary baking sheets your template requires. Boom! That's how much dough you'll need to complete your project. And if you happen to have a little extra, check out rule 3.
Rule of Construction #2: Make It Easy on Yourself
Unlike more traditional cutout cookies, construction gingerbread is cut twice: first with paper templates while the dough is raw, then again freehand after it's baked. So make things easy on yourself by arranging the pieces edge to edge wherever possible, or simply along the same plane, maximizing your space on the tray and minimizing the overall number of cuts.
First, roll the dough directly on a sheet of parchment until it's about 15 by 11 inches, then transfer to a half sheet pan, uncut. Next, arrange the paper templates on top, fitting them as closely together as you can. With a sharp paring knife, carefully cut along the paper template, pressing all the way through the dough. Don't use a sawing motion, as this will only push and pull the dough, bending it out of shape.
Rule of Construction #3: Make the Most of Your Dough
While it's important to leave a border of dough around the cutouts to keep them from spreading, it's A-OK to trim away larger areas of excess dough.
If you save these scraps in a zip-top bag, you'll have an emergency supply of gingerbread should any of your cutouts happen to break. If it turns out you don't need the extra dough, you can thin it down with a bit of water to create a pipeable gingerbread paste that can be used in a couple of ways.
For example, it can be piped over raw dough with a small basketweave tip to make siding on a house or the floorboards of a porch.
It can also be piped into freeform shapes, like the "wooden" railing of a porch. If you make a mistake or don't like your design, just scrape up the paste and try again.
Because construction gingerbread doesn't puff in the oven, the paste maintains its shape, baking into pieces that are lightweight but surprisingly strong.
You can even dye the gingerbread paste if you want to pipe out an old-timey wrought iron fence. Again, no real template is required; just channel your inner Edward Gorey and have fun baking off your designs.
Rule of Construction #4: Make It in Advance
Whatever you do, don't try to bake and assemble a gingerbread house on the same day. It requires a fair amount of time and effort to roll, cut, bake, trim, and cool the dough. If you don't take the time to clean up your kitchen and relax afterward, chances are you'll be in a terrible headspace for assembly.
Building a gingerbread house is no fun when the kitchen's a wreck and you're feeling frazzled, so don't rush into the construction until you're ready. By breaking the project into distinct phases of baking and assembly, you'll be sure to enjoy yourself every step of the way.
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