Gingerbread House Part 2, the Construction

In the last installment we mixed up our gingerbread, traced out our pieces, and baked everything. Now its time to put it together in the gingerbread house construction phase.

Holding the parts together requires some icing to use as glue. Traditionally this is done with a “Royal Icing” made from icing sugar and egg whites with a bit of flavor added if that is your preference. This works fine and is the way my dad did it while I was growing up. I have a bit of a challenge in that my youngest daughter developed an anaphylactic allergy to egg when she was very young. Although she has now, luckily, grown out it, it did force me to find a different recipe for the icing that didn’t use eggs.

In searching around the interwebs, I came across a recipe that used the liquid from a can of chick peas, also called aquafaba, as a replacement for the egg. There are a few of these recipes floating around and I’m sure that most of them would work but, for reference, the one I use is essentially what you can find here. The only change I make is to reduce the amount of aquafaba a bit to make the icing slightly thicker. Once dry, it is more or less indistinguishable from traditional egg based royal icing.

With pieces and glue in hand, its time to put things together. There are two gotchas in the gingerbread house construction that you’ll need to deal with. The first is that no matter how carefully you mark the pieces and cut them, the cooking process will distort the lines just enough that things won’t come together cleanly. Second is that the icing isn’t structural until it has finished drying so you need a way to keep to the pieces in place until that happens. If you read many of the other blog posts on our site you’ll know I do some woodworking as well and the skills come in handy in addressing these issues.

Squaring the Pieces

Unless you have some baking secret that I’m unaware of, the pieces that you prepared for your house are likely not very square. You can put a house together as is but you’ll end up using a lot of icing to try and bridge the gap. To minimize this, you’ll want to make sure that the edges of the pieces are a straight as possible.

If I was doing this with wood, I’d pull out a plane and do a few passes to straighten the edge. As this is gingerbread, that’s not really an option but you can do something similar by laying a fine grater on a cutting board and running the pieces across it until true.

Straighten the edge of piece of gingerbread with a grater.

It only takes a few passes per piece and will make the rest of the construction considerably easier.

Gluing It Together

This is the fun step as you move from preparations to activities to actually building a gingerbread house! As I mentioned above, the icing doesn’t become structural until it is dried so one of the main challenges is holding the pieces in place until that happens.

When I first started building these houses, I would use Popsicle sticks to try and shore up the construction but this was less than successful. I’ve found a better method is to “nail” the pieces together using toothpicks for nails.

The process is pretty simple:

Put a bead of icing down and stick the two pieces together, While holding them in place, carefully drill a small hole through the gingerbread sheet and into the edge of the adjoining one.

The diameter of the drill bit you use should match the diameter of the toothpicks you will use later. You do need to take some care at this stage to drill into the middle of the thin edge of the adjoining piece. Its easy to get a bit crooked and come out the side. If this happens, don’t worry, it’s easy to cover up later.

Once you have the hole drilled, simply insert toothpick to act as a mechanical fastening device.

After sitting overnight, the icing will have hardened into a very effective structural component and you can simply pull the toothpicks and move on. When putting on the roof sections, you really only need one toothpick at the top corners of panels. There is no need to pin at the bottom, the weight of the panel will hold it in place as is.

Here’s a look at the completed structure waiting to set up.

That’s about enough for now. In the section, we’ll do the decorating to finish up. Thanks for reading!

Part One of this series can be found here.

Gingerbread House Part 1, the Recipe

Its been a while since I last put a post up so I’m actually writing about our Christmas tradition in the middle of July. Embarrassing I know. Still better late than never I suppose. In this post, I’ll cover off the gingerbread house recipe and baking process that I use to create the pieces of gingerbread used in the construction of the house.

The Christmas season pretty much uses up all my time preparing for the holidays and doing fun stuff with the family. One of the pieces of that preparation is the annual Gingerbread House build. This is something that we do every year. I’ve posted pictures of the houses from previous years here.

This year, I decided that I would document the creation of the house rather than just posting the pictures of the final project. Though, as I mentioned, I’m only actually getting to that 6 months later!

The gingerbread house recipe that I used here (and every year) is the same one that my father used when I was growing up. It is simple, straightforward, and creates a solid but tasty substrate for building the house. The only real challenge in making the recipe is how solid it is. It makes mixing it by hand a chore and by traditional mix master nearly impossible. Luckily, if you have access to a strong mixer, a KitchenAid in my case, that has a dough hook, it can handle the mixing duties just fine. So, without further ado – lets get going.

As I mentioned, the recipe is straight forward. The amounts shown below are for a single batch but I use two batches to make the house each year.

  • 1 cup shortening (I use vegetable shortening)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 Tbsp ginger

In a large pot melt the shortening and remove from heat. Transfer to the bowl of the Kitchen Aid and, using a dough hook, add the sugar and molasses. Sift 4 cups of flour with the remaining ingredients and add gradually into the molasses mixture while running the Kitchen Aid on low. Continue to mix the dough while working in the last cup of flour. The dough will be crumbly but do not add liquid. Divide in half and wrap in foil. Make a second recipe of dough and refrigerate both.

When ready to bake the dough, remove from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. If needed, you can place it in the microwave for a few moments to soften the dough but be careful not to overheat. Roll out the dough to about 1/4″ thick and place on a silpat on a cookie sheet. Mark out the house pieces with a sharp knife but do not cut all the way through. Leave the excess dough in place.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, or until deep brown. Remove the gingerbread from the oven and retrace the lines with a sharp knife cutting fully through. Let cool and separate the house pieces from the off-cuts. Please note that in the pictures below, I’ve already pulled the off-cuts away after baking. Do this after baking, not before! If you pull them off before baking, the edges of the pieces will distort severely.

Don’t throw away the off-cuts! The tradition in our house is to not break into the gingerbread house until Christmas day so the off-cuts are the only chance you’ll get to taste the wonderful gingerbread before then.

Next installment, we’ll put the house together!

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

Cat Themed Birthday Cake

Well, my little girl has just turned 9 and in the tradition we have been following for many years, she was allowed to pick what she wanted her birthday cake to look like. Her decision was a cat themed birthday cake which is not surprising as she’s asked for a lot of animal themed cakes over the years. If you are interested in seeing any of the others, have a look here.

As you can tell, the design is pretty tall so it wasn’t very feasible to make the whole thing out of cake. Instead, I turned to one of my favorite sculptaple materials for cakes – Rice Krispy Treats!

I started with a base of chocolate cake covered in chocolate icing. I sculpted the cat out of warm Krispy treats and then popped it in the freezer to firm it up. Finally I dropped it on the top of the cake leaving room for the lettering.

From that point, it was just a matter of piping on icing to form the fur, eyes, lettering and other details. I used a comb tip while piping on the white base layer. This allowed me to use the direction of the piping to suggest the shape of the body and fur. I then used a fine tip with chocolate icing to simulate tabby markings on the cat.

Overall, I think it turned out pretty well – and it was delicious.

Of course, the birthday girl got to have the first piece. Her selection was perhaps a bit morbid but appropriate given how close to Halloween we are.

But don’t worry, it rest was handled pretty quickly and I can assure you there was no suffering! Just lots of happy, full tummies!

Thanks for reading!

Scary Brownie Eyes for Halloween

Halloween is upon us as are the parties that people have at this time of year. We were invited to a party this weekend where we were asked to bring along some “scary” food. So we are bringing some Scary Brownie Eyes for Halloween!

Here is how we put them together.

The Ingredients

The ingredients are pretty easy. You’ll need the following:

Some Two Bite Brownies…

Some Candy Eyeballs…

Chocolate Icing…

And any assorted other colors of icing for details I’ll discuss later…

Putting Things Together

The idea is to make the brownies look like they each have eyes peering out of them. Doing this is actually pretty easy.  Start with the brownies and put a dollop of chocolate icing to hold the eye in place.

Now drop the eye on and press to adhere.

Next, we piped chocolate icing on to form the upper and lower eyelids.

For the final touch, and to make the eyes as creepy as possible, we used a variety of different color icings to simulate blood, pus, or other bodily fluids dripping out of the eyes. Delicious!

As you can tell, this is well suited to assembly line production and, using that, the girls and I managed to put together a lot of these in very short order. So we have a good collection of brownie eyes for the party and some extras on top of that.

Happy Halloween!

 

 

Apple Pie!

As fall is making itself known, with cooler weather and trees starting to dress themselves in red and gold, it is the perfect time for pie making! A few weeks ago, we visited our local orchard to do some apple picking. Among the haul was a bag of Cortland apples. The level of flavor and acid in these apples makes them perfect for baking. And so, that’s what we did.

Pastry

I actually made up the pastry last night and neglected to take pictures. Nothing special, I just look up a recipe on the net (for this time this is it) and follow it. Haven’t followed the same one twice yet they always seem to work. What that says to me is that technique trumps over recipe here. For me that means keeping things cool, not cutting the lard (always lard, not shortening) too finely, and not overworking it once you add in your liquid.

Our counter top is soapstone. In my opinion it is the best counter material you could ever ask for and does a good job of keeping things cool. In any case, pastry was made and wrapped up in cling wrap over night.

Prepping Apples

Getting the apples ready is the main job in a good apple pie. You can never have too many so it is good to have tools to speed along the peeling and coring. We actually have two implements, one traditional metal one and one modern plastic Starfrit one. The Starfrit is an amazing peeling machine removing only a thin layer of apple. It does not do any additional functions however.

The  traditional metal peels, cuts, and cores the apples. The peeling action is less than efficient, however, often resulting in missed sections. Even when it does peel, it takes a thick layer of flesh with it so a lot of the apple is wasted.

The answer is to first peel the apples with the Starfrit and follow that up with cutting and coring on the traditional machine. With the help of two of the girls, it is a very efficient production line. They had all the apples ready long before I could get the pastry rolled out and placed into the pans.

To the apples, I added a couple of heaping tablespoons of flour, some sugar (3/4 cup?), salt, vanilla extract, and some spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves). I don’t really have any measurements as I just do it by eye. Every pie is a little different – it’s a nice surprise!

The End Result

Once the apples are ready and the pastry is rolled, it is just a matter of putting the pies together, brushing with egg wash, sprinkling a little sugar on, and popping them in the oven. Any left over pastry can be re-rolled, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, cut into pieces, and baked.

First, this gives a nice little treat that gives you a sense of how the pie is going to turn out. Second, and more important in my opinion, is that it reminds me of growing up where my mom would do the same thing when making a pie. My brother and I loved to eat the baked pastry.

So, after about an hour in the oven at 400 degrees F, the pies are ready.

Based on the look of the crust at the edge combined with the off-cuts we had earlier, I’d say that these will be delicious and very flaky!

For those of you that are wondering if I make all our pies, I don’t. Here is a picture of one of my pies sitting next to a giant pumpkin pie from Costco that we are saving for supper tomorrow. Yes, the pumpkin is bigger and I’m sure will be good but you gotta admit, my apple pie looks much more delicious.

For all my fellow Canadians – Happy Thanksgiving!

EDIT: For those of you that were wondering – the pies turned out great!

Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival 2018 – Day 2

The Festival continues today but, unlike last evening, the weather has been much better. Although there are plenty of clouds in the sky, they are not bringing any rain, yet – they’re actually doing a very good job of keeping the hot sun off us while we watch the performances.

We actually started things off with a trip to the Lancaster Smoke House for some lunch with the folks from East Village Animal Hospital where Heidi is a vet.

I ate so much pulled pork and brisket that I could barely move – and still had enough left over for an entire extra meal! If you are ever in Kitchener-Waterloo, it is definitely worth visiting. In hindsight, we maybe should have hit the Kitchener Rib Fest and Craft Beer Show instead.  For some reason, it is scheduled on the same weekend as the Jazz Festival every year so we’re competing between the two of them. I guess I’ll just have to eat ribs tomorrow.

But back to the festival. All five of us were there today and even brought along Ralphie for part of the show  as it’s a pet friendly venue.

To start things off, it was Jim Gelcer who was great though we only caught the end of their set.

We followed that up with Turboprop who also put on a great show. A lot of horns – very enjoyable.

And finally a 19 piece jazz ensemble, Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night Club, that was Adelaide’s favorite band of the festival so far.

Ralphie was getting a bit restless so we headed back to the house for supper. Just in time too as the rain has just now decided to make another appearance. Looks like we’ll have to pack the umbrellas for the evening shows. On the other hand, shouldn’t be difficult to get seats I guess.

Smoked Ribs!

Supper tonight was a full side of home smoked pork ribs with corn bread and Greek salad. It turned out really well – maybe not quite as melt off the bone as I would like but still very tender and juicy.

The five of us didn’t even come close to eating it all so we’ll have at least one more full meal of delicious ribs.