A brief history of the gingerbread house and finding a holiday’s sense of home in a Christmas tradition
Gingerbread houses are a holiday staple in my house.
We didn’t quite get the memo the first year we tried it – you know, to use actual gingerbread? There were five of us kids, early elementary to middle school, and graham crackers were simpler and much more accessible. We were on the cutting edge of candy architecture – the gingerbread tiny home! Though it wasn’t technically gingerbread, the name stuck and it became a tradition. A week or so before the Christmas holiday, my grandmother or my mom would head for the nearest grocery store and purchase several boxes of graham crackers, a few cans of cake frosting, every type of sprinkle and baking garnish known to mankind and finish off the trip with a haul from the candy aisle for gummy-everything, chocolate, peppermints, candy canes and much more.
It’s an all-day affair – we take everything to my grandmother’s house, lay everything out on her kitchen counter and then the carnage commences. Step one is always to set up a solid foundation: On your plate or baking sheet, you want to position your floor plan exactly how you want it – graham cracker serrations work perfectly to break up the cookies exactly how you want them (it’s like they were made for this!). Using a mix of royal icing (see recipe below) and cake frosting, we piece the walls together and gradually add on the roof. Pretzel sticks and larger pretzel rods make great wall studs and corner supports.
Once your basic structure is constructed, the sky’s the limit! Creativity is encouraged, and it’s often entertaining to hear each person’s take on their design and the back story of whatever North Pole resident lives in their candy bungalow.
Certain breakfast cereals make a perfect substitute for exposed stone or roofing shingles. Gummies make great lawn greenery or decorations. Round peppermints make magical windows. See where it takes you – that’s half the fun.
Things have changed since that Christmas in the early aughts, but it’s still a solid evening of fun when we’re fortunate to have all five of us (now adults) home for the holidays. Christmas 2020 marked a new chapter: for the first time, we selected architectural styles out of a hat: modern, Victorian, Gothic, etc. Someone’s roof caved in, one of the in-laws abandoned his more modern style in favor of a Christmas shed and my attempt at (what I believe was) a Cape Cod came out looking a little bit more creepy vs. cute. Still, we had a great time, and it made for an entertaining judging session.
…Oh, I forgot – that’s the best part. Parents, grandparents and non-participants survey the final results and declare a winner. Then we get to dig into the sweet, sugary fruits of our labor. Hello, candy coma.
Gingerbread houses are not a new part of the holiday season – they (and the gingerbread dessert we have come to know and love) have been around since the 1600s, according to Kat Eschner for Smithsonian Magazine, referencing the work of food historian Tori Avey. Avey has written an interesting take on the background and historical significance of gingerbread houses (see “The History of Gingerbread” at https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-gingerbread/). Many believe that the European origins of the gingerbread house can be traced back even earlier, to the first mentions of the Hansel and Gretel tale, which would later be annotated by the Brothers Grimm in their writings. The Grimms’ stories would popularize gingerbread houses, and German settlers would later import the tradition to America.
Per Avey’s article, ginger root was originally developed in China and made its way to Europe via explorers and merchants along the Silk Road. Europeans were the last to come up with their own version of the treat – “the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 BC. Chinese recipes were developed during the 10th century…” The details covered in the article make for fascinating reading if you would like further information.
Now that we have a little bit of background, let’s pull ourselves back to 2021. How do we make a *real* gingerbread house?
While there are pre-fabricated kits that will do in a pinch, in the spirit of sustainability and DIY, we want to avoid that direction (plus, it’s more fun that way).
Recipes for the actual gingerbread are a dime a dozen, and everyone’s mom, grandma and aunt have their own variation tucked away on a notecard in their recipe box. A quick internet search will pull up multiple options. The biggest word of caution is that you seek out actual gingerbread house recipes, as basic gingerbread recipes will range in consistency from a lighter texture that’s more of a ginger loaf to the harder, crispier cookie-like texture. You want to make sure your walls are nice and stable!
(The Glue that Holds It All Together)
3 large egg whites
3 ¾ – 4 cups confectioners sugar
If you were using this as an icing on larger scale, you would likely use additional ingredients to get the color/flavor that you wanted. However, as this is functioning as glue to hold your house together, not a lot of pomp and circumstance is necessary. It’s a very simple combination.
Combine the ingredients and whisk until stiff. Add to the mixture/double as needed. Place in a piping bag, and once your gingerbread is cooled, you are ready to start assembling your gingerbread house.
Everyone needs to have the experience of building a gingerbread house from scratch at least once in their life. However, if you’re overwhelmed with younger kids, or if you just aren’t looking to spend long hours in the kitchen perfecting a new gingerbread recipe and are looking for simplicity, graham crackers can lend hours of fun as well and sweet memories for you and your family to look back on.
I’m very nostalgic (and a little bit of a Christmas fiend) but there is just something about little traditions like this – you’re gathered around a warm kitchen, surrounded by those you love, filling the room with laughter. Bing Crosby croons on the radio. Maybe a log crackles in nearby fireplace. The teasing scent of Christmas confections waft from across the room.
Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.
by Andy Haman