By Leah Eskin
The housing collapse is discouraging, especially during the festive season, when so many of us are trying to keep the gingerbread house standing.
It's not easy. The traditional gingerhome is baked flat, in a series of cookie-thin facades. The construction crew is directed to lift four sides, barn-raising style, secure them upright, weld on two roof panels and produce a structure sturdy enough to withstand the efforts of the candy-happy exterior decorator.
It's a recipe for gumdrop-covered disaster.
In an effort to stabilize the gingerhome, many an owner puts her trust in royal icing, the caulk of the gingerbread-housing industry. The sticky mix of egg white and powdered sugar squeezes on smooth, dries hard and tastes like epoxy. Yet it does not guarantee success.
The discouraged may abandon the homemade or prebaked ginger cookie, turning instead to the Sheetrock-style graham cracker. Prefabricated in neat rectangles, inexpensive and available by the boxload, the graham cracker promises easy — and delivers frustrating.
Joining and plastering the graham cracker is no easier. To achieve the standard peaked-roof style, the graham-cracker architect may find herself going at the cracker, serrated knife in hand, a boxload of rubble at her feet.
The literal-minded contractor believes the shaky graham-cracker cottage needs scaffolding and looks to the pointed roof of the lunchroom milk carton. At many a preschool, the child-scholar adheres graham cracker to milk carton not with gluelike frosting, but actual glue. Undermining the principal gingerhouse principle: It's edible.
At the peak of the building season, a certain desperation sets in. The graham cracker now comes in the "limited edition" package destined for gingerhouse duty. The cookware catalog offers a grooved plastic contraption designed to steady the gingerwall.
We advocate a different approach. Instead of relying on the flat cookie, with its many technical difficulties, why not go 3-D? Old-fashioned gingerbread — more cake than cookie — bakes up thick and sturdy. It's easy to cut down into cube and triangle. One cube + one triangle = house. The solid cake building can't collapse, needs no glue and offers ginger-spiced, cinnamon-spiked warmth.
The cakehouse allows the homeowner to skip the construction phase and get right to the good part: encrusting with candy. Under such delicious conditions, she'll be happy to eat her investment.
Building your house
Gingercake house batter works in many formats. For the house pictured above left, we baked a 9-inch square cake and cut out a 4-by-4 base. You could cut smaller pieces and stack them, mortaring with whipping cream. Cut a triangle for the roof.
For our charming molded houses, above, we used the Snowy Village cake pan, available at williamssonoma.com for about $35.
Prep: 15 minutes
Bake: 25 minutes
Makes: 4 to 12 small houses
2 1/2 cups flour
5 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup regular molasses
1 cup whole milk
Whisk together flour, ginger, salt, cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda in a mixing bowl.
Beat together butter and brown sugar in another bowl, using an electric mixer, until fluffy, 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time; beat fluffy. Beat in molasses and milk.
Scatter on dry ingredients and mix to combine.
Scrape into a 9-inch square cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick poked in center comes out clean, 25 minutes for small cakes, 50 for large. Cool slightly. Unmold. Cool.
Cut the cake into 3-by-3-inch cubes (house bases) and triangles (roofs). Hold everything together with whipped cream. Decorate extravagantly with royal icing and candy, or simply with a shake of powdered sugar.
Individual gingerbread houses make a charming holiday tablescape. Before dinner they can serve as placecards. After dinner, doused with lemon sauce and accompanied by whipped cream, they can serve as dessert.
Whisk together 1/2 cup sugar, zest and juice of 2 lemons, zest and juice of 1 orange, and 3 egg yolks in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk until hot, frothy and thickened, 10 minutes. Stir in 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed. Strain. Serve warm. Enjoy!
Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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