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Tutorial a sweet start to gingerbread baking

Covering Medford’s annual GingerBread Jubilee for 15 years, most recently serving as a judge, I have the utmost respect for this particular form of baking.

Winners typically spend a month or more on their entries, and there’s no end to stories of catastrophic collapses and other mishaps that cause some contestants to simply start over. When the gingerbread and royal icing aligns just right, however, the results are impressive to say the least.

The Jubilee’s entirely edible works of art are born of plenty of patience and skill. Yet first-time participants say the contest is within reach of just about anyone. Solid recipes and tutorials are fairly widespread online and from other sources.

For my family’s first gingerbread foray, I could have consulted this guide that ran a few years back in the Los Angeles Times. But to keep my sons, ages 4 and 6, engaged and to shorten the start-to-finish time on our cookie cottage, I resorted to a kit with prebaked components and already mixed icing available at Medford’s Food 4 Less. We added plenty of flourishes with candies scooped from the store’s bulk bins. And our structure held fast.

Now that we’ve gotten a taste for this holiday tradition, we may try our hands next year at designing and baking our own gingerbread pieces. If your family also is so inclined, the LA Times’ recipes and instructions are a good starting point.

Jubilee rules prohibit any components that are not edible. But there’s no shame in building your own house around a structural support. You could use a repurposed tissue box or cereal box when building a basic house. Or consider using craft foam sheets, available at arts and crafts supply stores, for more elaborate creations. The internal framing will help carry the weight of lots of candy flourishes.

Built right, a gingerbread house can last for years, so long as kids can resist the urge to nibble their creation. If that’s the case, a toy dinosaur added to the scene can make the bites relevant. I know my house has plenty of those.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just fun. So don’t rush it and give yourself an activity area that accommodates several days of construction and weeks to marvel at your culinary creativity.

Industrial-Strength Gingerbread Dough

1/2 cup shortening

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 cup molasses

5 cups (21.25 ounces) flour

Heat oven to 350 F. Cut several sheets of parchment paper large enough to fit your baking sheets.

In bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine the shortening, sugar, salt, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Beat to fully combine.

Add the molasses and 2 tablespoons water; beat over low speed until combined. With mixer running at low speed, slowly add the flour, a spoonful at a time. Dough will become very thick as flour is added. If desired, turn dough out into a large bowl and add last quantity of flour by hand, mixing until fully combined. If dough feels too thick to work with, add water, a tablespoon or so at a time, until it becomes more pliable.

Roll a piece of dough between 2 sheets of parchment until it is 1/4 inch thick (if you roll dough between parchment, you will not need to flour dough). Cut dough to size using cardboard cutouts but being sure to leave at least 1 inch between each piece. Remove and save excess dough to roll again.

Carefully grab parchment and transfer it to a baking sheet. Bake until pieces are fully set and there are no dark patches of underdone dough anywhere on pieces. Remove sheet to a cooling rack and set aside until completely cooled before removing from sheets.

Makes about 2 1/2 pounds dough.

NOTE: Even though there is no leavening in dough, it might expand a little as it bakes. If needed, carefully sand pieces before assembling your structure for a more exact fit.

Royal Icing

3 egg whites, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 pound powdered sugar

In bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until whites are fluffy and have formed soft peaks. With mixer running, begin beating in the powdered sugar. Continue beating until all sugar has been added and icing holds stiff peaks when beater is raised. If not using immediately, cover surface of icing with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying and hardening.

Makes a generous 3 cups icing.

NOTE: Consuming raw eggs can pose potential health problems. If icing is to be consumed, consider using pasteurized egg whites or substituting powdered egg whites or meringue powder (consult packaging for proper substitutions).

Drawing Up the Blueprint

Step 1: Construct your structural support. Purchase craft foam sheets from your local craft store, which you can cut using a box cutter and assemble with a hot-glue gun. Add a string of clear LED lights to the inside of the structure so the windows can light up after the shack is constructed.

Step 2: Cardboard cutouts. To make sure you have the desired shapes, make cardboard cookie cutouts. These include four rectangles: No. 1 (13 by 10 inches), No. 2 (13 by 12 inches), No. 3 (15 by 10 inches), No. 4 (15 by 7 3/4 inches); and two triangles: No. 5 (15 by 8 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches), No. 6 (13 by 8 1/2 inches by 8 1/2 inches).

Step 3: Bake the cookies. Bake three of No. 1, two of No. 2, one of No. 3, one of No. 4 (we also cut out two windows for this piece), and one each of Nos. 5 and 6. You will go through almost 6 batches of dough to construct the shack, along with extra to bake a door, a strip for the top of the roof, and surfboard and boogie board decorations.

Step 4: Make the sugar windows. Cook about 3 cups of sugar with some water (enough to give the sugar a wet sand consistency) and a teaspoon of corn syrup on the stove-top until the sugar reaches “hard crack” stage (300 degrees). As soon as the sugar reaches the right temperature, add a little blue food coloring and pour it into the “windows” of the baked No. 4 cookie.

Step 5: Assemble the house. Glue the cookie pieces over the craft foam structure using either royal icing or a hot glue gun (use the hot glue gun only if the finished piece will not be eaten). If the pieces are a little mismatched, they can be filed using a Microplane or sandpaper. Seal corners and gaps between pieces using pretzel rods.

Step 6: Decorate. Use original Shredded Wheat cereal squares to construct the “thatch” roof and sesame candy pieces for the porch roof. The porch can be constructed of pretzel rods, and the fake “rocks” on the side walls can be added using Raisinets and royal icing. Chocolate and royal icing are used for the detail work, and prepared rolled fondant is molded into the cooler and life preservers. Saltwater toffee candies are molded into the shellfish and starfish on the back wall of the shack, as well as the cans on the porch. The “sand” can be created using ground sugar cookies.

Tribune News Service photo