Thursday, December 10, 2020

Gingerbread Foursquare: Completed


There she is.

Yes, there is a small electric light bulb inside, along with melted gummies over the window holes for that warm, aged-glass glow.

Len gets the majority of the construction credit. We worked together to get the main four walls up, but he assembled almost every other piece that didn't require more than two hands and even, somehow, some sections that did require more than two hands. And he glazed all the windows, built the chocolate block foundation, mixed the cookie-crumb concrete for the driveway and back patio. I sculpted the dinky, not-to-scale car out of fruit Tootsie Rolls and added frills such as peppermint patio furniture and our sunflower garden.

What would we do differently next  year?

Let's start with the roof. Most gingerbread house kits follow the standard pattern of two rectangular walls and two walls with triangular peaks -- why? So the two pieces of roof can easily sit atop them. The two triangular walls support the peak of the roof where the two pieces meet.

Notice, however, the roof of a foursquare-style house... The roof is nearly a pyramid four pieces that peak in the very center and slope down toward all four sides. The walls themselves do not follow -- nor support -- the slant of the roof. If you want the roof to have the traditional overhang (i.e., stick out past the walls a little), it has to be self-supporting. 

We found it impossible to assemble the roof on the house and instead assembled it separately, allowed the icing to harden, and then lifted it onto the house... where it would separate under its own weight. So the roof needs a platform. Imagine a gingerbread frame -- a rectangle just slightly larger than the footprint of the house's four walls, with a rectangle cut-out in its center, just slightly smaller than the footprint of the house's four walls. (I'd show you a picture of what we did, but we cobbled it together with the last scraps of our cookie dough, and it looks like a lump attic floor with a gaping collapsed hole in the center. Next year, I will measure and cut out and nice, neat rectuangular frame to support the roof.) You assemble the roof on the frame and then the frame sits evenly atop the four walls.

Why a frame with a cut-out center and not just a solid rectangular piece? Why, so it doesn't obstruct the light inside from shining through all of the house's windows, of course.

So that's another thing we'd do differently to the roof next year. I'd cut out rectangles over which the dormers will be built, just like I did in the wall for the bay window -- so the light can shine through them.

Next, some general gingerbread tips I really did know but didn't heed -- and will next time. 

Bake the large pieces together and the small pieces togther and never a mix of the two on the same pan. Why? They bake at different paces. We have some rather crispy small pieces with some lighter-colored large pieces because we put them together on the same pan -- and no, you can't just remove the smaller pieces early and let the larger pieces continue baking. The cookies must cool (and therefore, harden) on the pan before you can move them.

Pay attention to how thick/thin you roll out your dough before cutting the shapes, and try to roll every batch to the same thickness every time. We have some rather thick pieces that are quite sturdy but probably unnecessarily so, and some rather thin, delicate pieces that I was terrified of snapping during assembly.

If your cut-out gingerbread pieces spread in unexpected directions as they bake or for any other reason need a trim or to be cut apart, do it immediately upon taking them out of the oven! While it's still warm, the gingerbread is just soft enough to cut. As it cools, it hardens (because it's construction gingerbread!), and trimming, while not impossible, becomes a more tedious and risky task.

Have some items on hand for structural support as needed. This is mostly for larger, heavier pieces during the beginning construction stages when the house is not yet self-supporting and/or the royal icing hasn't hardened enough to hold a piece in place. In my last post, you saw some plastic cups (candy packaging) acting as a column under a section of wall to hold it level while the icing dried. Boxed cake mix also makes a sturdy, straight, and tall support to stand against a wall and hold it plumb. It's good to have these random supports within reach, or else one of you is left holding the piece in place while the other one scrambles around the kitchen looking for something to use as a support (and that's assuming there are more than one of you working on the gingerbread creation).

Carefully consider the order of assembly and decoration. Or else you may find yourself squeezing precariously into awkward nooks just to add one little (but important!) detail.

And then, some lessons specific to this gingerbread house, most of which can be summed up by the adage, "Measure twice, cut once." In this case, it would be measure twice, stop and think about how the pieces fit together, measure again, cut once, bake once, avoid having to trim the cookie after it's baked.

There are pieces I'd make smaller next time, and others I'd make larger. The are some angles I'd adjust, either because I really just guessed this time or because baking affected the geometry enough to matter. Above, I mentioned several roof lessons learned.

But all in all, we're very happy with this gingerbread recipe from Serious Eats and this royal icing recipe from Spend With Pennies (which I chose because it uses egg whites instead of meringue powder, not because I have anything against meringue powder but rather just didn't have it and didn't want to go out). Our templates worked fairly well, so I have saved them for next year, with notes on adjusting measurments.

Merry Christmas!

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