Build a New Holiday Tradition and Discover How to Make a Gingerbread House
Adorning the tree, stringing up lights, decking the halls—all these Christmas traditions are packed with family fun, but none is as delicious as a gingerbread house. These beautifully constructed confections, loaded with candies and sweet treats, have delighted families for generations. From simple builds to architectural marvels, gingerbread houses bring the family together in the holiday spirit.
Gingerbread House Origins and Traditions
Long before there were gingerbread houses, there was gingerbread. The first cooks to incorporate ginger into sweet loaves of bread were Greek—their written recipe for gingerbread dates back to around 2400 BCE.
Several millennia later, an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis taught French bakers to mass-produce the spiced treat in 992 CE. Commercial gingerbread making was so common by the fifteenth century that guilds sprang up throughout what is now modern-day Germany to protect the rights of bakers, who by then had begun making cookies inspired by the original Greek recipe. As popular as they were, it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that bakers began to produce gingerbread cookie houses. The publication of the popular Hansel and Gretel story in 1812 paved the way for gingerbread houses to enter the mainstream, eventually joining evergreen trees, wreaths, and lights as a holiday season staple.
How to Make a Gingerbread House
Every Christmas, grocery stores roll out gingerbread house kits, complete with cookies, icing, and candies. These make great holiday activities for kids, but if you can make the time, nothing beats constructing your own gingerbread house from scratch.
Before you start, understand that a homemade gingerbread house is a project that requires a lot of preparation. Don’t try to accomplish everything in a single evening—plan to have multiple sessions over two or three weeknights or the weekend.
This gingerbread house recipe is kid-friendly, and much of the work can be done by little hands—especially when it comes time to have fun decorating!
- Hand mixer or stand mixer
- Rolling pin
- Pastry bags or freezer bags
- Piping tips
Making the Dough
- 6 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out the dough
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 4 teaspoons ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup butter, softened
- 1 ½ cups golden brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup dark molasses
- 1 tablespoon water
- (Kids can help.) Whisk together the flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
- (Adult help may be required.) In another bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar together with a hand mixer or stand mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the molasses and water. Mix until well combined.
- (Adult help may be required.) Reduce the mixer to a low speed and add half the dry ingredients. Blend thoroughly before adding the rest. Mix until the dough clumps together. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead on a floured surface. Add a little more flour if the dough is sticky or too soft to hold its shape.
- (Kids can help.) Divide the dough into two even balls and flatten them into disks. Wrap the disks in plastic wrap, then place them in the refrigerator to chill for at least two hours.
Creating the Templates
While the dough is chilling, it’s time to make the template you’ll use to cut out the gingerbread cookies. You can find printable templates online, but if you’d prefer to make your own, here’s how (these steps are for adults):
- Cardstock or cardboard
- Precision cutting knife or scissors
(Adults only.) On a piece of cardstock or thin cardboard, draw:
- Roof: A 6-by-4-inch (15-by-10-cm) rectangle
- Side walls: A 6-by-3-inch (15-by-7-cm) rectangle
- Back and front walls: Begin by drawing a 4-inch horizontal line and marking the center point at two inches. Draw a vertical, perpendicular line upward from the center point. From the left edge of the baseline, use your ruler to draw a 3 ½-inch line to meet the vertical line. Repeat from the right edge. Both lines should meet in the middle to form a triangle. Next, draw a 3-inch line straight down from both bottom corners of the triangle. Draw a horizontal connecting line between these two 3-inch lines measuring four inches.
(Adults only.) Once you’ve drawn these figures, cut them out using scissors or a precision cutting knife.
Baking the Cookies
(Adults only.) Preheat the oven to 350°F (175ºC) and move the rack to the center. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
(Adult help may be required.) While the oven warms, sprinkle your work surface with flour and remove the disks of dough from the fridge. Unwrap them and roll the dough to an even ¼-inch thickness.
(Adults only.) Place your templates on the dough and, using a sharp knife, cut two of each shape, (the roof, side walls, and back and front walls). Place the six pieces of dough onto the baking sheets.
For some extra fun, you and your kids can use cookie cutters and the remaining dough to create gingerbread Christmas trees, snowmen, or animals to add to the landscaping of your house.
Chill your dough for at least 10 minutes in the refrigerator before baking to prevent shrinkage.
(Adults only.) Place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the edges of the dough begin to darken, 11–15 minutes for the largest pieces and 6–8 minutes for the smaller ones. Remove the cookies from the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool for about 15 minutes. Once the cookies are cool enough to handle but still warm, measure them against their templates and have an adult trim any parts that have spread beyond the pattern shape using a knife.
Making the Icing
Now that the walls and roof pieces are cooling, it’s time to mix royal icing to act as the mortar holding the house together.
- 2 large egg whites
- 2 ⅔ cups confectioners’ sugar
- (Adult help may be required.) Whip the egg whites and 1 ⅓ cup of confectioners’ sugar until smooth using a hand mixer or stand mixer equipped with the whisk attachment.
- (Adult help may be required.) Increase the speed of your mixer and slowly add the remaining sugar, beating until stiff peaks form.
- Place a clean, damp cloth over the top of the bowl to prevent the icing from drying out.
Let’s Build: Assembling the Gingerbread House
Now that all the pieces are ready, it’s time to put them together. While this is a gingerbread house for kids, the assembly can be a tricky process, so it’s best completed by kids and adults together.
- Choose something solid to form the base for your gingerbread house. A cookie tray or cutting board is ideal, but you could also use a piece of heavy cardboard. Whatever you choose, line it with wax paper or aluminum foil.
- Place a piping tip in a piping or freezer bag and have an adult cut off the corner of the bag so the end of the piping tip pokes through. Fill the bag with royal icing. Repeat until you have a bag for everyone.
- Use the royal icing to adhere the gingerbread walls and roof together at the seams and secure the bottoms of the walls to your base. This step requires patience and it may take a lot of icing for the pieces to stick. Work piece by piece and hold the cookies together until the icing has a chance to firm.
Once complete, let the house stand for at least an hour before decorating. Put the remaining royal icing in the fridge to use to attach the decorations later.
Decorating Your Gingerbread House
When it comes to gingerbread house decorations, just about any tasty treat can create a stunning facade. Take your young bakers to the local candy or bulk food store to help pick out sweets to add fun details to their gingerbread house.
Not sure what to buy? Here are a few suggestions:
- Peppermint hard candies
- Mini candy canes
- Mini marshmallows
- Fruit jelly slices
- Multicolored sprinkles
- White chocolate-covered pretzels
However you decide to decorate—elaborate, whimsical, or just plain silly—you and your family will have built a delicious holiday tradition that everyone can take part in and enjoy.
Are your children keen to explore more holiday traditions? Our World Edition subscription box, filled with stories, hands-on activities, and games from all across the globe, will be right up their alley. Or they can discover how Christmas is celebrated in India or what happens when summer holidays meet Christmas in the Land Down Under. Keep the discoveries coming!