Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Gingerbread House Chronicle

The first time I attempted to make a gingerbread house was four years ago. I was in Tokyo and going to Le Cordon Bleu. That was also the last winter we lived in Japan. Since then, Christmas seasons had been spent moving, traveling, and being busy with teaching and churning out cake orders. This year, I made a decision to stop teaching all classes one week before Christmas and not to take any orders for Christmas and New Year. This year, Christmas was to be spent cooking for friends and family.

Ever since the success of my first gingerbread house, I’d been itching to make another one. Living in hot and humid Singapore, however, presents its challenges. With the humidity level constantly hovering around 90% , everything turns soggy so a gingerbread house will no doubt collapse within hours of being constructed when the walls absorb moisture and give in to the weight. Two years ago I made a gingerbread tree with the yummiest, most buttery recipe I’d ever tried, but making a gingerbread house with that recipe is out of the question.

After some research I found two “structural” recipes. They are supposed to be very sturdy and humidity proof. In the end I chose one that had very simple ingredients because the alternative is one that contains honey, which is bad news because the house will be an ant magnet.

Time spent searching for recipe: 2hrs

Once the recipe is chosen, the next step is to finalize the design of the house. The cottage I built in Tokyo was cute, but for my second house, I had grander plans. I wanted Victorian, with two sections, a bay window, and maybe a porch. I found a basic template on the internet but to make sure everything fit, I cut out some foam boards and fine tuned the design. The pitch of the second roof that joins the main roof proved the most troublesome. I knew I should’ve paid more attention in three-dimensional geometry, but who would’ve thought you’d need that for anything, let alone baking? After endless tweaking, the roofs finally fit together, but I made the executive decision to forgo the porch this year. After all, I need to keep something for next year, don’t I?

Time spent building and fine-tuning the foam model: 4 hrs

Just like landscaping is an integral part of building a real house, some thoughts need to be put into building a garden for the gingerbread house. A snowman is a must, of course, and since the house will sit on a big board (13”) there’s space to place a girl making a snow angel, plus Princess Libby doing a doggie angel in the snow. But why limit yourself to just outside the house? Since I had all those big windows, I made a Christmas tree for the living room too.

Time spent making fondant figurines and ice-cream cone trees: 4 hrs

At this point, I was spinning a little out of control. Never mind I had no idea just exactly how sturdy this supposedly “structural” recipe is, and whether it can really stand up to the Singapore humidity, I must have light in the house! Here is where I ran into some trouble. You see, once upon a time in high school physics, I clearly recall yours truly wiring light bulbs and building circuits, but that part of my education must’ve been permanently deleted from memory. It didn’t help that there’s no true DIY stores like Home Depot back home, so I wasn’t able to find any electrical wires even if I were capable of wiring the house. Dear hubby, whose Electrical Engineering degree from M.I.T. had been collecting dust since the day he graduated, offered this when I asked how come he could once build a robot but now can’t even wire my house: “Do I look like an electrician to you?” Plan B: I bought a mini flashlight to be stuffed inside the house through the doggie door in the back. Whatever works, right?

Time spent pondering the myriad of products on display at Home Fixe and other DIY stores: 30 minutes

Baking the cookie pieces with this recipe was so easy. Since there’s no baking soda or powder in the dough, whatever shape I cut out, baked the same exact shape after it came out of the oven. There was no need to trim after baking!

Time spent baking: 3 hrs

After baking the cookies, I let them rest overnight in a spare bedroom with a dehumidifier running before decorating them. The one lesson I learned from making my first house: it’s much easier to decorate the walls and windows BEFORE you put them up. I had a lot of fun dreaming up how the house should look. I knew I didn’t want a childish rendition, but I also didn’t want a pure brown and white house, so I went with a classic look. I knew I wanted windows this time, but didn’t want to melt candies inside the window holes (again, fear of ants), so I used gelatin sheets instead. Simple! To decorate the roof, I decided not to cover it with candies or cookies. I was afraid that the added weight would cause the walls to buckle, so instead I piped snow “garlands” and small designs inside. The inspiration was from a flickr member’s gorgeous gingerbread house designs, and it worked out well. Another decision I made was to not leave the back wall blank, because, even though nobody will look at the back, I thought the back deserves some attention too. Since I’m planning to have Santa stuck upside down in the chimney, I thought I’d pipe Santa’s sleigh and his reindeers on the back wall, to make it look like they’re waiting for him. To fill up space, I also did a Star of David, and a doggie door through which the light source is to be stuffed inside the house to light up the rooms.

After decorating the pieces, however, I was horrified to find some of the cookie pieces starting to sag. NOOOO!!! The culprit, after I calmed down to find cause, was the flooding of royal icing. The extra water used to thin out the icing was absorbed by the cookies and made them soft. Horrified that I may not have a house after all, I laid out all the pieces on cooling racks and placed them into the spare room, with not one but TWO dehumidifiers running around the clock. I went to bed with my fingers crossed, hoping the pieces would dry out the next day.

Time spent decorating cookie pieces: 7 hrs

D-Day: will the house stand up or will it collapse? Holding up the walls with royal icing was very easy, but you know sometimes you have this nagging feeling but couldn’t really put your finger on it? For days I’d been thinking the position of the doggie door was weird, but didn’t know why I thought so. Then it came the time to put up the back wall, where I painstakingly piped Santa’s sled plus reindeers, along with the beautiful Star of David that almost caused the wall to collapse, and it hit me! I had forgotten to flip the template when I cut out the back wall, so now, all the piping details are INSIDE the house! I was so sad I could’ve cried, but construction must go on. Besides this major blunder, the only other minor hiccup encountered was that after putting up a weight-bearing support wall between the two parts of the house, I realized that I needed a hole in that wall for the light to shine through, because (didn’t I say the position of the doggie door was bothering me?) the doggie door where the light was going to be pushed in was on the other side of the house! So that wall quickly came down and I managed to saw an opening in it. Boy, now was the first ray of hope that this house just might stand up after all, because that wall was so tough to cut through!

After I had gotten over the trauma of the inside-out back wall, I started to enjoy the process of putting all the pieces together. I took one last look at the Star of David that is now a wall mural for the living room, and placed the roof on. Now it’s looking like a house! Even with all the tweaking and fine tuning, the two roofs still didn’t fit exactly, but the beauty with gingerbread house is that you can fill up any holes with royal icing and call it snow! I know I did a lot of planning for this house, but this is where I improvised. I added candies to the bay window roof, made extra bushes with gummy candies, put down a Quaker oat square doormat, and placed a pretzel fence around the house. I was having so much fun it was hard to stop adding stuff to the house!

Time spent assembling the house: 2 hrs

So there you have it, the gingerbread house that cannot be eaten and has to live in the spare bedroom where the humidity level is maintained at 50% by two very hard-working dehumidifiers. It did sit in the living room front and center during my dinner parties and will go to Palate Sensations for a photo shoot. After that, it will live in the reception area of the school until the humidity gets the better of it.

Until next year!