This holiday season looks different. We’re staying home to keep our communities safe, and while some have turned to projects aimed at maximizing their productivity, we’re focused on maximizing our festivity. We live with two other roommates, and while we’re all getting along rewatching Christmas movies and “Schitt’s Creek,” we decided to try a new activity that, in the Before Times, we would probably not have spent an entire weekend on: gingerbread house architecture. From flour to finish.

While gingerbread house kits are common, we went all out and made gingerbread and icing from scratch. We used two recipes from BuzzFeed’s Tasty: one for a strong (read: hard) gingerbread meant to keep a house standing, and one for a softer, tastier cookie that we hoped wouldn’t chip our teeth.

Night 1: Structural gingerbread

Steph: First we measured and sifted the dry ingredients. I had forgotten how messy sifting gets. But it is delightfully pretty to photograph. 

Sifting together the dry ingredients was one of the messier steps of this project. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)
Sifting together the dry ingredients was one of the messier steps of this project. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)

Anika: Then we added our wet ingredients to the Dutch oven on the stove. Tasty says the melting method (making the dough over heat) is perfect for gingerbread since the recipe calls for so much liquid. They suggested using nonstick spray to grease your Dutch oven and liquid measuring cup, which worked really well, since molasses is so sticky.

Steph: Once the mixture was dark, glossy and smooth, we started adding dry ingredients. After about half, the dough got very thick, requiring a strong spoon and some arm muscle. Our dough ended up much greasier than how it looked in the video. Like, really greasy. As in, greasier than Professor Snape’s hair. Unclear why. 

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Anika: Next, kneading the dough. We incorporated the rest of the flour mixture, and some additional flour, since our dough STILL looked super greasy. Whenever the dough hardened too much as it cooled, we microwaved it for 30 seconds. I was skeptical of this so-called hack since I thought the microwave might preemptively cook our dough. But it worked well to loosen it up, probably because all that greasy shortening was remelting.

While kneading the dough, we added flour to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin, as well as to try to bring down the excessive greasiness. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)
While kneading the dough, we added flour to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin, as well as to try to bring down the excessive greasiness. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)

Steph: We rolled out the dough, using MORE FLOUR to show that grease who’s boss!

Anika: This recipe came with templates … but our printer was out of ink. Solution? We turned the brightness on a laptop all the way up and traced the templates with a makeshift lightbox situation. We used these templates to cut out parts for the houses, but realized quickly how greasy the dough was leaving the paper. So we switched to cutting the templates out of parchment paper, and that worked much better. We cut the doors and windows out of the gingerbread, but didn’t remove them. Tasty was right: This helped ensure our doors and windows didn’t spread in the oven! 

Steph: Time to bake everything! After taking the gingerbread out, we removed the windows and doors. Heed our warning and do this quickly, because we waited too long, tried to cut out the windows and accidentally broke an entire wall. ARGH! Luckily, there were lots of scraps, so we had extra dough to make a new wall. 

Anika: Because the scraps had already been worked with, the “backup wall” was pretty bumpy. But we’ll just pretend we were going for the cobblestone look.

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Steph: We have no self control, so we HAD to taste the doors and windows to see if this “structural gingerbread” could also function as “eating gingerbread” Verdict: The flavor was nice, but these were like rocks. Separate “eating gingerbread” was indeed necessary.

Day 1 time check:  3.5 hours

Day 2: Making the ‘eating gingerbread,’ and assembling, decorating and snacking. 

Assembly and decoration

Steph: We used two royal icing recipes: one from Tasty’s gingerbread recipe and one from their sugar cookie recipe. The first was more like traditional frosting: thick and pipable. We kept all of the thick icing white and dyed the thinner version four different colors, keeping some of it white.

Anika: We dived into candy shopping without a plan. As we walked into the grocery store, we told ourselves: today, QFC stands for Quest For Candy. There in that sugary paradise of a candy aisle, the vibes were immaculate. We picked up one package of any candy that we could even faintly imagine using. 

A spread of all the gingerbread, candy and icing we used for construction and decoration. (Anika Varty / The Seattle Times)
A spread of all the gingerbread, candy and icing we used for construction and decoration. (Anika Varty / The Seattle Times)

Steph: Then it was time to build! Step 1: Turn on the Christmas music playlist you’ve had ready for the past 24 hours. Step 2: Make the base out of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil (thank you to our roommate for this brilliant idea). Step 3: Put up the four walls, piping huge globs of the thick icing onto all the edges before pressing the pieces together.

Anika:  This part was surprisingly hard! The icing is so thick it stuck to itself more than to the gingerbread. The Tasty video joked that you can “basically use it to tile your bathroom.” I chuckled at first. Now I believe it.

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Steph: You really do feel like a construction worker while adding and smoothing layers of icing. And I kid you not, the video recommends using a microplane to sand down the edges to be straighter, which we didn’t do. (If you haven’t guessed, precision and perfection were not our primary focus.) The walls fit together beautifully — those gaps were no match for our uber-thick icing. I could see gingerbread construction as a good side hustle.

We used our fingers to smooth out some globs of the thicker royal icing joining the roof with the walls of the gingerbread house. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)
We used our fingers to smooth out some globs of the thicker royal icing joining the roof with the walls of the gingerbread house. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)

Anika: As the cement, um, icing, hardened, we took a break to decorate cookies (more to come on those later). We then attached the roof with some more of that cement-icing.

Steph: Decorate away! This was the most fun and chaotic part of the evening. We had two houses for four people. Both duos coordinated on the roofs but each person decorated two sides. Some nice finishing touches included a little chimney with icing smoke and peppermints lining one of the rooftops.

Thick royal icing supports a line of peppermints atop one of the roofs. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)
Thick royal icing supports a line of peppermints atop one of the roofs. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)

Anika: Our different approaches to lawn decoration were pointedly representative of our personalities. Steph and I crushed a mix of hard candies and sprinkled those over a layer of icing, then topped that with peppermints and green sugar. Absolute anarchy. Our roommates lightly sifted a delicate layer of powdered sugar over their foil base, mimicking a fresh dusting of snow. Adorable.

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Steph: For extra wintry effect, we added icicles to the edges of the rooftops and windows. Pro tip: To prevent icicles from falling, pipe icing where you want them to go, let the icing dry, and then pipe the icicles. This way, they don’t fall from their own weight. 

To prevent icing icicles from falling: Pipe icing where you want icicles to go, let it dry, and then pipe the icicles. This way, they don’t fall from their own weight. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)
To prevent icing icicles from falling: Pipe icing where you want icicles to go, let it dry, and then pipe the icicles. This way, they don’t fall from their own weight. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)

Anika: We inhaled a ton of candy while decorating and were all on the verge of simultaneous sugar rushes, but we kept snacking because the candy was RIGHT THERE! A wildly predictable side effect: stomachaches for all, either by bedtime or by morning. But we have no regrets. Everything in moderation, even moderation.

Cookies!

Steph: The cookies are made similarly to the gingerbread house, except with tastier ingredients. There’s less flour, and they’re baked to be softer to prevent any tooth chipping. 

Anika: We started by measuring out dry ingredients and, um, someone added 12 times more nutmeg than the recipe called for. 

Steph: LOL that was my fault! The recipe called for 3 teaspoons of ginger, but I grabbed the nutmeg by mistake. When I realized the recipe called for ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg … YIKES. We considered trying to take some out, granule by granule, but figured that would be ridiculous — even for us. Our palates can handle a little extra spice.

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Anika: This recipe also uses the melting method, so we combined our wet ingredients in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Tasty says to turn off the heat before stirring in the egg. We did that. They also recommend beating your egg in a separate bowl before mixing it in quickly. We did that, too! 

Steph: But when we added the egg to the hot mixture, it promptly began to scramble, giving us ribbons of cooked egg throughout. Ewww. To triage, we ran the mixture through a sieve to remove the scrambled pieces. Next year, we’ll add a bit of flour to the hot mixture first to hopefully bring down the temperature enough to mix in the egg? Fingers crossed.

Anika: We’ve watched enough baking shows and thumbed through numerous cookbooks over the past few months, that we kinda knew this could happen. Before adding the egg, I definitely said, “I just don’t see how the egg won’t cook.” And then it happened. I have no idea how Tasty pulled that one off.

Steph: We chilled the dough for two hours and rolled it out. Before using your holiday cookie cutters, Tasty recommends dipping them in flour and shaking off the excess. This made for sharp, crisp edges! Upon baking and cooling, we used the thin icing to decorate our cookies.

Elaborately decorated gingerbread houses remained the stars of the show, but these softer, tastier gingerbread cookies were also fun to decorate. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)
Elaborately decorated gingerbread houses remained the stars of the show, but these softer, tastier gingerbread cookies were also fun to decorate. (Stephanie Hays / The Seattle Times)

Anika: They were great! They didn’t taste of scrambled eggs, thankfully! And even though it was a fluke, the spicy kick from all of the extra nutmeg kept them from being sickly-sweet once we added icing and candy. 

Day 2 time check: 9.5 hours (including the two-hour break we took while the dough was chilling)

Total time: 12.5 hours of weekend gingerbread making!

Final thoughts

Two gingerbread recipes and two icing recipes meant a long two days. We ended up coated in flour and powdered sugar, got in a few arm workouts stirring flour into molasses, and ate a ridiculous amount of candy and cookies. By the end, we were ready to sleep for a long, long time. But doing something the first time is always the hardest, and it’s nice to know that next year we’ll have many gingerbread-baking tricks under our belt. At the end of a difficult year that has kept everyone cooped up inside, this intense baking project left us feeling accomplished! And best of all, we got to spend some quality time with our roommates, laughing, chatting, and doing something a little different than watching TV. 

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Buzzfeed Tasty’s Gingerbread House recipe

Ingredients:

For the gingerbread house:

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • nonstick cooking spray, for greasing
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup molasses

For the royal icing (thick):

  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 6 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • water, as needed

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.
  3. Grease the bottom and sides of a heavy-bottomed pot (such as a Dutch oven) with nonstick spray. This will ensure the dough doesn’t stick to the pot as you turn it out.
  4. Melt the shortening in the greased pot over medium heat. Add the molasses and sugar, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat.
  5. Gradually stir in 4 cups (500 grams) of the flour mixture, 1 cup (125 grams) at a time, making sure to fully incorporate each addition before adding more. You’ll have some of the flour mixture left over.
  6. Dust a work surface with some of the remaining flour mixture. Carefully turn the dough out onto the floured surface and work in the flour mixture. (You don’t want the dough to be too crumbly. You may have some flour mixture left over, which can be used for rolling out the dough.)
  7. Once the flour is incorporated, shape the dough into a 12-inch (30.5 cm) log and cut into 3 portions, 1 piece slightly larger than the others for the roof.
  8. Set aside the smaller pieces of dough in the pot (it still should be warm, but not hot), cover with plastic wrap, and put the lid on. You’ll want to work with the dough while it’s warm as it tends to harden at room temperature. If it hardens, simply microwave for about 30 seconds.
  9. On the floured surface, roll out the larger piece of dough to a rectangle about ½-inch (1¼ cm) thick. Using a house template, cut the 2 pieces of the roof and set on a prepared baking sheet, spacing about 1 inch apart as the dough will expand while baking.
  10. Roll out the rest of the dough and cut out the front, back, and sides of the house using the templates. Place on a baking sheet.
  11. Wrap the leftover dough in plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 1 day. Microwave to soften and roll out to make decorations for the house or another gingerbread creation.
  12. Bake the gingerbread house pieces for 12-15 minutes, until they have hardened and baked through. Let cool completely.
  13. Make the royal icing: In a large bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with an electric hand mixer until frothy. Gradually add the powdered sugar, 1 cup (120 grams) at a time, until the icing is smooth and thick. NOTE: The icing is used for gluing the house together. It’s very thick. To use the icing for decorating, add about 1 teaspoon of water at a time to thin the icing to your desired consistency.
  14. Assemble the gingerbread house with the royal icing. TIP: Put the roof pieces side by side with the underside up (and the eventual exposed part of the roof down). “Glue” a cut piece of a paper shopping bag across these two pieces with royal icing. Place two small glass bowls on either side of this upside-down roof to prop the pieces up into a “V” shape. Let dry completely. When assembling, this will help ensure that your roof doesn’t slip down the sides of the house.
  15. Decorate the house with more royal icing and your desired decorations.
  16. Enjoy!

Gingerbread cookies (adapted from Buzzfeed Tasty’s instructional video)

Ingredients:

For the cookies:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 egg

For the royal icing (thin):

  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • gel food coloring, of your choice
  • water, as needed
  • ¼ cup pasteurized egg white

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.
  3. Grease the bottom and sides of a heavy-bottomed pot (such as a Dutch oven) with nonstick spray. This will ensure the dough doesn’t stick to the pot as you turn it out.
  4. Melt the butter in the greased pot over medium heat. Add the molasses and brown sugar, and once the brown sugar has completely melted, turn off the heat.
  5. Add lemon zest and one beaten egg.
  6. Gradually stir in the flour mixture, 1 cup (125 grams) at a time, making sure to fully incorporate each addition before adding more. You’ll have some of the flour mixture left over.
  7. Dust plastic wrap with flour. Carefully turn the dough out onto the floured surface, shape into a disk, wrap up the dough and chill for two hours or overnight.
  8. On a floured surface, roll out the chilled dough to 1/4 inch thickness.
  9. Make small pile of flour to the side of the dough. Take each cookie cutter and dip it into the flour before cutting into the dough so it doesn’t stick or remove any of the dough.
  10. Bake the cookies until just set.
  11. To make the royal icing, sift the powdered sugar into a large bowl and add the salt. On one side of the bowl, add the vanilla and egg whites.
  12. Where you added the liquids, begin whisking the powdered sugar into the liquids, gathering a bit more as you whisk to prevent lumps from forming, until all of the powdered sugar is incorporated. Add food coloring, if desired, and whisk to incorporate. You can divide the icing into smaller bowls to make more than one color. At this point, the icing should be a good consistency for piping borders. If you’d like the frosting to be looser to flood or dip your cookies, add a few tablespoons of water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it reaches your desired consistency.
  13. Decorate the cookies as desired.
  14. Enjoy!