If you've never made a gingerbread house before, there's no time quite like Halloween. Not only is October a less chaotic time than the weeks before Christmas, a haunted house is the most forgiving sort. Is the roof slightly askew? Are the windows uneven? Did it crumble a bit around the edges? Blame it on the ghosts! Defects only add to its ramshackle charm.
Any gingerbread house can be haunted if you're in the right frame of mind, but no pattern is more spook-tastic than the Official Serious Eats Gingerbread House, designed by Ray Keim of Haunted Dimensions. The beauty of this Victorian manor is that the template itself isn't haunted—the devil's in the details. (Well, maybe it's a little haunted.)
With gumdrops and powdered-sugar snowdrifts, it'd be a charming Christmas tableau, but it's downright creepy with boarded-up windows, a broken-down fence, and a cemetery filled with my coworkers lost souls.
The house itself is rather straightforward to assemble, and directions are included in our PDF of the template. For a more dramatic effect, I printed the template at 125% of its original size, but don't feel compelled to bite off more than you can chew. As is, the template builds quite a stately house. If you've ever put together something from Ikea, then trust me when I say that this gingerbread house is a piece of cake.
How it's decorated is more a matter of patience than of skill, and there's nothing wrong with simply bedazzling it with your favorite Halloween candies. But you don't need my help for a project like that, so here are my best tips and tricks for making a gingerbread house all the more spook-tacular.
Tip #1: Stamp the Dough
Of course, the gingerbread can just be baked, plain and simple, but if you're up to the challenge, you can become a full-fledged gingerbread mason by making the house walls look like they're made of bricks—the technique isn't difficult at all. Start by wrapping a bench scraper in plastic to dull its edge, then lightly stamp horizontal stripes into the dough and mark each brick end with the blunt handle of a dinner spoon. Just don't forget to stagger the bricks from one row to the next, just like on a real brick wall, or you'll wind up with a grid.
If your rows are crooked or your brickwork gets a little sloppy toward the end, it'll only reinforce the notion that your house was built in The Upside Down. Remember: When it comes to a haunted gingerbread house, there are no mistakes, just unsettling design choices.
Tip #2: Age the Gingerbread
Once the pieces have been baked, trimmed, and cooled, the next step is to add the funk of 40,000 years. Okay, it's just luster dust, a type of pearlescent food coloring, but the overall effect is perfectly dismal when you choose a palette of greens and grays.
My collection at home already includes Olive Green, Super Pearl, Coin Silver, Spanish Moss, Roman Silver, and Antique Green, but if I were starting from scratch, I'd just buy Spanish Moss and Roman Silver, the most versatile of the bunch.
There's no real rhyme or reason to my technique; I just brush the gingerbread with a bit of this and that until it looks sufficiently spooky and old. For "mortar," I roughly pipe light-gray royal icing between the bricks, then cover the gingerbread piece with plastic so I can smush it down into the cracks.
I bunch up the plastic wrap with my fingertips to scrape away the excess icing, then buff off the rest with a paper towel, which gives the bricks a glazed sort of finish. If the mortar looks too bright, brush on a touch more luster dust to dull it down. (With a palette of reds and golds, this same technique can be used to give the gingerbread a cozy warmth for a Christmas-themed house.)
Tip #3: Dress Up the Windows
To give the windows a glassy sheen, you can make (or melt) hard candy for the windowpanes, but a faster, simpler method is to attach sheet gelatin with royal icing.
Flip it over to dry, so the weight of the gingerbread can hold the gelatin in place; when left on top, the sheet gelatin has a tendency to curl.
Another trick is to thin leftover dough into a gingerbread paste (full directions here) to pipe "planks" with a basketweave tip. After they're baked to a deep, dark brown, they can be secured over the windows with dabs of royal icing, plus a few black dots (made from black-tinted royal icing) on the surface for "nails."
Tip #4: Paint the Roof
The archetypal haunted house has a roof that's black as sin, but candy shingles tend to look less creepy than cute. As far as I'm concerned, a pitch-black coating of Royal Icing is the way to go. You could use chocolate instead, but I'm loath to waste anything so ta$ty on a project meant for display.
Just be sure to frost the rooftop before assembling the house, or else the force of spreading it around may collapse the structure.
Once all the pieces have been decorated and allowed to dry completely, double-check the template to make sure nothing has been forgotten. When you're sure everything is in order, it's time to assemble the house!
Tip #5: Lay the Right Foundation
Gingerbread houses are often constructed on sheets of sturdy plywood, but you can avoid a trip to the hardware store by picking up a piece of foamcore in the arts and crafts aisle of a well-stocked supermarket or office supply store. It's inexpensive, lightweight, and ready to use without any sort of prep. Plus, it's all the more bleak if you can find some in goth-friendly black.
To assemble the house, pipe a thick line of royal icing along the bottom edge of the back wall, pressing to firmly anchor it onto the foamcore. Prop it up with a heavy box or can from the pantry, then pipe another line of royal icing along the outer edge to hold the next piece secure.
The outer left wall is added in much the same way, with icing piped along the bottom edge and one side pressed into the soft icing of the back wall. Construction gingerbread is so light and thin, and royal icing so thick and firm, that the assembly is self-sustaining after that. In other words, the pieces will hold each other upright, so you won't need to support the house with more boxes and cans unless they bring you peace of mind.
Tip #6: Have Fun!
Once the house is assembled, let it dry overnight before attaching the roof or proceeding with any other sort of decoration. Not only will that give the house time to fully dry, but breaking the process into two distinct stages gives you a chance to recharge between the grunt work of building the house and the purely creative aspect of decoration.
After that, the remaining details are more about imagination than skill. For example, Pirouette cookies look like wooden pillars, and Kit Kats, trimmed of their chocolate, make ultra-dilapidated stairs.
To landscape the lawn, I used a mix of tan royal icing, light brown sugar, and coconut tossed with green and brown gel paste until I achieved just the right shade of despair. Plain M&M's can serve as cobblestones, and expired herbs, like oregano and thyme, look just like withered-up shrubs and trees.
Whether you follow my lead or execute some spooky ideas of your own, remember that making a gingerbread house is all about you. If the idea of bricking the dough wears you out, decorate it with frosting and candy instead! If you'd rather shingle the roof with chocolate Necco Wafers or Shredded Wheat thatch, have at it! The point is to exercise your creativity while playing with your food, and maybe have an excuse to put "Monster Mash" on loop all afternoon.