I can do a lot of things. I’m certified in CPR, and can do chest compressions and give rescue breaths to someone who has just died. I pay my mortgage on time most months. I can wakeboard if I need to.
I can do a lot of things, but I can’t stop my daughter Zea from growing up. Next year she’ll be a junior in high school. We’ll look for colleges together, we’ll fight about curfews, and she’ll probably get caught sneaking out the window after she’s supposed to be in bed.
I can’t stop her from growing up, and the process feels like leaving her at school on the first day of kindergarten, only forever. We’re not quite there yet, but I can see a time when I’ll be more of a story she tells strangers than the guy who taught her how to drive a go-cart.
So last Thanksgiving, perhaps in an effort to forestall her all-too-rapid growing up, we made a gingerbread house. We were obsessed with it. Or maybe I’m the only one who was obsessed; maybe she’d grown up enough to just humor me.
I had never made a gingerbread house before, and neither had she. Zea would have failed home ec, and I am not good at following directions — and it turns out that almost all baking involves following directions. We made a lot of mistakes, and two weeks into our project, my wife took pity on us and pointed to a book in the kitchen titled How to Cook Everything.
Making a gingerbread house
To make a gingerbread house with your 15-year-old daughter who breaks your heart a little more every second she gets closer to leaving, do the following:
1. Buy some ginger cookie mix at the grocery store (or make your favorite recipe from scratch) and follow the directions on the side of the box for gingerbread up to the point of baking it. These directions result in a dough that you should wrap in waxed paper and put in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
2. Find a lot of cardboard, a ruler and a pencil. Zea understood right away that we’d have to make four sides and two slabs for the roof. She also figured out we should maximize our surface area so we’d have more room for decorations.
3. Draw the four walls and two roof pieces on the cardboard, then cut them out using an X-Acto knife.
4. Roll out the dough to about one-quarter inch thick, and use a lot of flour to keep the dough from sticking. If you spring for one-quarter-inch dowels to place around the dough, those will stop you from rolling it too thin, and they’ll give you something to square the edges of the dough against. If you don’t have enough dough to cut out all of the pieces, make some more.
5. To cut the pieces, lay your cardboard pieces on the dough, cut carefully around them with a sharp knife, and place them (carefully, again) on a greased baking sheet.
6. Bake according to the recipe, and let the pieces cool for a long time after you take them out of the oven. The kid and I rushed the cooling-off period at least three times. These were long nights. We ate a lot of sugar together, and we threw out a lot of floppy gingerbread piles. You want your gingerbread pieces to be solid.
7. The icing you buy at Safeway isn’t sticky enough to hold the pieces together; you’ll have to make Royal Icing (see link below for recipe). Royal Icing is gingerbread house Gorilla Glue, so treat it with the respect it deserves. It’s made out of egg whites and powdered sugar, and once it dries, it will hold your gingerbread house together like magic.
8. Paint the edges of the walls with Royal Icing, then stick two of them together. While Zea held the first two pieces in place, I wedged in the other two. They wouldn’t have passed code, but our walls held together in a sort-of rectangle after the icing dried.
9. The roof stuck to the tops of the walls pretty well, but it didn’t come together in the middle. Royal Icing also makes a good spackle.
10. In my family, we treat gingerbread like pancakes; they’re both vehicles for moving sugar from our plates to our mouths. Cover every square inch of your gingerbread house with frosting, and make patterns or just draw pictures. Stick candies into the frosting as decoration: gumdrops, candy canes, licorice bits, Necco wafers for shingles.
You will need to enjoy your gingerbread house right away. There’s no room in your refrigerator for it. You’ll have to leave it out on the counter overnight and eventually, you’re going to throw the thing away.
Eat as much as you can. It isn’t going to last forever.
Douglas Grey is a part-time writer and a full-time dad. This article was originally written in November of 2011 and updated in November, 2012.
Resources for building gingerbread houses
Gluten- and peanut-free families can order an allergen-friendly gingerbread house kit for $30 from A & J Bakery.
Get step-by-step instructions to make a gingerbread house (includes templates and gingerbread and Royal Icing recipes) at pickyourownchristmastree.org
See local gingerbread houses
Get inspiration for your creation
The Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel features large, fanciful gingerbread houses designed and built by local architectural firms. This year’s theme is “Holiday Express.” Admission is free, and donations benefit the Northwest Chapter of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Where to build gingerbread houses in the Seattle area:
Don’t feel like getting frosting all over your kitchen? Make a gingerbread house at a local workshop instead! Sign up ASAP for these popular programs — many of them sell out early.
1. The Children’s Museum of Tacoma hosts its annual Gingerbread Jamboree at Hotel Murano, Nov. 24–25. $40 for a family of four.
2. Kaspar’s gingerbread-house class in Seattle includes one house, light beverages and holiday snacks. $50, each additional person $5. It’s held on Dec. 2 and sells out, so register early. 206-298-0123.
4. The gingerbread-house workshop at the Nordic Heritage Museum is packed with families in Nordic sweaters. It also sells out early. Don’t wait to register! 206-789-5707.
—Kris Collingridge (updated November 2012)