Holiday Cooking with Kids
Holidays are a great excuse to get kids into the kitchen. From chocolate truffles to Gingerbread Houses or Sugar Cookies (anytime!), sweet treat-making can quickly become a much anticipated tradition. Don’t limit yourself to December. We made Haunted Gingerbread Houses for Halloween and even a Spring Gingerbread Farm! Chocolate Truffles for Valentine’s Day or a Chocolate House which we made last year! The goal is to get into the kitchen together, even if there is no actual “cooking” involved.
I’m not a gingerbread house expert (but they are out there). I’m an enthusiastic decorator with an enthusiastic helper. Gingerbread Houses can be an incredibly fun “no-cook” project which can entice kids (and adults) of a huge age range – and are wonderfully creative project as well. Although they sound like a lot of mess, the mess is easily contained with a little pre-planning. Also, see our Halloween Party page.
Pre-Built House Kits
I’ve noticed pre-built house kits in grocery stores. While containing all that awful stuff we avoid in food, they happen to be a great way to save some time and get straight to the decorating. Alternatively you can buy kits with pre-baked pieces (resources below and right). Your third option is to buy a kit where you bake the house. The fourth (and most complicated) option is to take on the baking and cutting yourself - special pans are offered to shape roof, walls, etc. or you can just bake sheets and cut them up when they are still soft.
I’m assuming here that your house is already built, and that the icing to bind walls to roof, etc., is dry and hard (at least 8 hours, preferably 24 hours). If you want to make and bake from scratch - here's our step by step experience with the Dancing Deer Kit.
Keys to Decorating Success
1. Cover your table (and floor) with something disposable, like newspapers, waxed paper, cut garbage bags, etc.
2. Make sure you have enough icing but make it in batches as it dries quickly and keep the bowl you are using covered with a wet dishcloth if it’s going to sit.
3. Make sure the icing is stiff enough. If it’s too runny candy will slide off and walls will fall apart. If your royal icing is not stiff enough then beat in more confectioner’s (icing) sugar.
4. Make sure you have enough candy. Seriously! Even little creator’s houses will look spectacular if they are encrusted with enough candy.
5. Make sure the candy is the right color/right for theme. Choose candy colors in your holiday theme.
6. A stable work surface for the house. I use a large plastic cutting board (keep in mind that cutting board is going to be out of regular use until the gingerbread house is gone) and place the house on top. You can also use cardboard and cover it with tinfoil or paper for your theme.
Then when we work on the sides, back or whatever we can easily turn the house without actually handling it. If you are making the house from scratch I suggest you mount it on a piece of white cardboard and then place the whole thing on top of the cutting board or a larger piece of cardboard. Using a cutting board also allows you a bigger landscape to decorate if you wish to add a garden, etc. A really large board might accommodate two or more houses.
7. Use disposable pastry bags - or makeshift pastry bags, such as Ziploc bags (thicker freezer bags are best), with a corner nipped off. If you are working at home or with a small group we found that the Kuhn Rikon Decorating Sets work well as long as the icing is on the runnier side.
8. Royal icing will keep overnight or longer in the refrigerator. It will be runnier the next day but will still work for gluing decorations on - but make sure you place food film (plastic wrap) right on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. I've kept pastry bags for more than a week (with the tips wrapped in damp papertowels in a tightly covered container).
Quick tip: Stapling the open end of a filled pastry bag or tying it tightly with a rubber band allows littler decorators to squeeze without icing flowing out both ends. and extra-tight rubber band accomplishes this too - and is my preferred method.
Our house rule: All things on the gingerbread house must be edible – but they don’t have to conform strictly to our general “food rules” which means some of the candy we might use might have PHOs and HFCS – although I try and still choose the best choice of what’s available and we still try and make informed purchases, especially since most of the candy seems to get “tested” during building. We don’t eat the gingerbread houses we decorate. If we were intending to eat it, I would make the gingerbread myself and watch very carefully what was purchased to put on it. One exception to the house rule is toothpicks.
Gingerbread House Decorating Party
A gingerbread house decorating party can be tons of fun with party goers bringing an “edible house decoration” to share (i.e., a favorite candy or cookie), etc. The hostess provides the houses and the royal icing (the glue). You will need tons of royal icing for multiple houses. Using smaller houses makes this more manageable. Also look around your neighborhood – as there may be “gingerbread house decorating” parties at local schools, community centers and cooking schools.
Some Fun Edible Building Materials Suggestions:
• Packaged White Cotton Candy makes great snowdrifts, and smoke for a chimney
• Marshmallows to build snowmen
• Stale marshmallows flattened for signs or gravestones (Halloween).
• Chocolate Wafer cookies like Newman’s Own Tops & Bottoms for shingles
• Marshmallow Crème for snow drifts
• Ice Cream cones (to be covered with decorations for turrets and trees)
• Pastilles for Eyes (use food coloring markers)
• Food Coloring Pens - Foodoodler Markers
• Taffy for shaping feet, limbs, or anything!
• Pretzel rods for holding things up and little pretzel sticks which make a fantastic wood log cabin effect on walls, and great woodpiles.
• Pretzels with windowpane pattern (make great windows)
• Sunflower seeds (for Halloween or slate roof tiles)
• Marshmallow Peeps (they make seasonal ones like ghosts and pumpkins for Halloween, Christmas trees, hearts, etc.)
• Gummy worms and Gummy Spiders.
• Necco wafer disks make great patio stones or broken great mosaics.
• Wafer cookies for bricks.
• Vanilla cookies for roof tiles.
• Shredded Coconut (with green food coloring for grass – seal coconut in a bag with food coloring and shake and rub gently till the coconut is tinted.)
• Peppermint Candies & Candy Canes for Christmas
• Cookie crumbs for dirt
• Gelatin Sheets for glazing windows.
• Fruit sheets/leather for pathways and windows
• Cinnamon Sticks for woodpiles
• Cereal: from shredded wheat (great hay) to mini shredded wheat for roof tiles. I've seen colored sugar cereals used effectively as decoration - the colors are muted so give a storybook effect
• Chocolate or Candy coated raisins and seeds -
• Lifesaver candy or clear hard candy like Jolly Rancher (Which will melt into gingerbread if placed on walls/windows before baking)
• Wonka offers a Nerd's Rope which is an expensive but a really great roof trimming.
• Sticks of gum cut up into squares make nice roof tiles and are good for signs as well (you can write on them with food color markers).
• Sheets of Nori make great "grass" effects
• Granulated white sugar, pearl sugar (or hail sugar) and white sugar cubes.
• Martha Stewart's Recipe for Gingerbread House Dough (which also includes instructions on making a kit to give as a gift)
• Meringue Powder to make Royal Icing
• Or Royal Icing Powder
• The Food Network's Christina's Gingerbread Dough Recipe
Other Sites of Interest
• Bob Vila's How-to Build a Gingerbread House
• Wilton's Gingerbread House Patterns and Templates at Slice of Heaven
• An article in the Orange County Register on Gingerbread Houses with lots of basic recipes and tips (including a recipe for making your own corn syrup glazing for windows.
• HGTV's Winter Gingerbread Houses
• A YouTube food video on how to make a gingerbread house from scratch.
• A .pdf file on building a Moonin Gingerbread House (a small house with a tower - based on the Moomin books) with complete instructions and templates.
• Chocolate Wonderland House from Wilton
• Printable Gingerbread House Templates from The Food Network
• Prize-Winning Gingerbread Houses (I love the dragon castle!)
• The Food Network has a number of Gingerbread videos, recipes and interesting links.
Inexpensive/Bulk Gingerbread House Kits for kid's classes - pre-baked:
Search Amazon.com for Gingerbread Houses, Kits, and Molds!
Search Amazon.com for Gingerbread Books!
Other Holiday Gingerbread Houses
Bunnie's Gingerbread Farm We had a great time making this farm. The kit was excellent quality. We turned our spring farm into a haunted farm at Halloween. Hearthsong also offers a Spooky Shack Kit for Halloween.
Gingerbread House Resources
Gingerbread House Kits
Caveat: I have not tried most of the kits listed below. Exceptions are the Hearth Song kit which was of exceptional quality, the Dancing Deer house and the Wilton kit which our local Sur La Table uses in their classes (but not the exact one listed as they change their product lines regularly).
Kits (pre-built or
Try your local grocery store or bakery. I’ve also seen these in big chain grocery stores. Wilton made one in years past, but this year offers the pre-baked type instead. Keep in mind that most of the pre-built houses I've seen for sale contain undesirable ingredients like PHOs.
Stonewall Kitchen's Gingerbread House is available as pre-built or buildable kit.
They also have a Lobster Shack!
The Gingerbread Construction Company in Wakefield, MA, makes small houses which they ship or if you are local you can pick a larger house up. The houses are pre-assembled and lightly decorated. They offer Valentines, Easter and Halloween houses.
LLBean is offering a pre-built pre decorated lighthouse - which might inspire someone to "customize" it. I love the shape!
What you get are pre-baked walls and roofs that you will use royal icing to glue together. You need to glue these pieces in advance of decorating.
Mini Gingerbread House Kit from HearthSong. Ready to assemble and decorate.
Sur La Table's Ultimate Gingerbread House
Sur La Table's Wilton Kit
Wonka's Gingerbread House Cottage Kit
Create a Treat Gingerbread House
Create-a-Treat's Gingerbread Train
King Arthur Flour (Baker's Catalog) offers pre-baked train & house kits.
Kit – Baking required:
What you get is a gingerbread house mix and templates or instructions. You do all the work. But this can be lots of fun as it’s a multi-step project. This house would be one you could eat when you got finished. See our results using the Dancing Deer's Bake your own Gingerbread House Kit last year.
Sweet Home Gingerbread House Kit The finished House will be the size of the box (not the cookie cutter.) In fact you glue the baked pieces onto the box with icing. The cutters are an extra treat in the box.
A really cute gift - almost a gingerbread stocking stuffer although you likely won't want to wait until then to try it out. It comes with mini cookie cutters for shaping walls and roof, plus two reusable chimneys. Recipes and tips fill the illustrated, 32 page book.
Gingerbread House Cutters: These “cookie cutters” from Fox Run are house piece shaped. They also offer a graduated Star set to make a gingerbread tree which looks really cute next to a gingerbread house.
There is also a gingerbread house mold from Kitchen Supply which Amazon carries it's similar to the Nordic ware mold.
Kuhn Rikon Decorating Sets offer reusable plastic bottles (some squeeze by compression - great for little hands) with metal fitted pastry tips.
Sugarcraft have a large selection of kits and links to other gingerbread resources.
Beryl's offer lots of decorating supplies and cutters, etc. (Caveat, they are a pastry and cake decorating store with no emphasis on natural)
Enchanted Gingerbread Co. will make Hannukah and Custom houses and have beautifully boxed (albeit expensive) Kits. If you happen to be in TN, they offer Christmas workshops.