A winter gingerland
The Christmas period is upon us. Or at least, as I discussed on Sunday, the Advent period. Traditionally Advent Calendars were simple pictures where each door opened would reveal images from the Christmas story, but, as time has gone on, people have demanded increasingly much from their Christmas countdown. These days most Advent Calendars offer a little chocolate (usually not a terribly nice one, admittedly) in reward for another day less until the big day. They often also seem keen to include a door for December 25th (as if you won’t have enough to eat on that day without an extra bit of cheap chocolate). Sometimes, as with the excellent LEGO Advent Calendars, you even get little toys in them. Last year, rather than buying ourselves an Advent Calendar, we decided that it would be far more fun to celebrate the festive period by making our own for each other. At the same time, I was thinking about making a Christmas gingerbread house at the start of last December. I decided, then, to combine these two ideas (as much so I didn’t have to make two things as for any other reason). The picture on the right shows my efforts last year at making a gingerbread house with 24 windows covered in little gingerbread biscuits to remove through Advent. Now, at the start of this year’s Advent countdown, I had to do something bigger and better.
Like many popular festive traditions, Christmas gingerbread houses are an import from Germany and Scandinavia, where they are still at their most impressive, and a relatively recent one at that. While ginger, spice and sugar have always been ingredients for celebratory food and served at feasts and fairs, often at Easter rather than Christmas, the gingerbread house doesn’t really make its appearance until the last couple of centuries. It was the story of Hansel and Gretel that appeared in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s 1812 Children’s and Household Tales that really popularised the gingerbread house. In fact, there is often a claim that the Brothers Grimm may have essentially invented the gingerbread house.
The Hansel and Gretel story is probably mediaeval in origin, with a suggestion that the child abandonment and cannibalism elements date back to the Great Famine of the early 14th century. It’s worth noting, though, that the house isn’t really made of gingerbread in the versions of the story gathered by or presented by the Brothers Grimm. In their story the witch’s house is: “built of bread and covered covered with cakes…the windows were of clear sugar”, ginger doesn’t get a mention, suggesting that the house is made of Lebkuchen, a honey-cake type biscuit with a Christmas tradition that didn’t originally have ginger in, but usually does these days. By December of 1893, the opening of the opera version of Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck (not that one) served to establish the story, the biscuit house and the Christmas associations in the public imagination.
When it came to my own gingerbread construction, I had learned a few things from last year’s efforts and one was that I needed a lot of wall space to fit 24 windows and maintain the structural integrity of the gingerbread structure so that it didn’t just come apart. As you may be able to see from the picture at the top, I achieved this by adding not entirely practical windows into the chimney. This time I wasn’t going to be putting windows anywhere that windows didn’t belong, so I was going to need a lot of big walls, which was going to mean a lot of gingerbread dough to start with.
Gingerbread recipes are quite variable, but the core elements – flour in some form, some sort of fat, a sugar syrup, a kind of sugar, and ginger with potential for other spices – haven’t really changed in centuries. My version made well over a kilo of dough from 800g of flour, a hefty amount of golden syrup melted with an enormous pile of butter and lots of thick, dark muscavado sugar. This ensures an impressively sweet gingerbread, but what about the spices? Often gingerbread can taste like a syrupy biscuit with just the tiniest hint of spiciness, I wanted it to taste like ginger, so I added a few big spoons of powdered ginger, along with a little cinnamon and mixed spice and bicarbonate of soda to make the biscuits rise.
Structurally, putting together a gingerbread house is like any building project and requires thought about just how all the elements are going to go together that makes something that fits neatly into place and remains standing, only in this case all your building materials are edible. You really need to know what you want it to look like before you start and make your plans accordingly. And by “make your plans” I do mean literally make plans. Draw up designs, cut out templates and make sure that all the pieces are the size you want them to be.
At this point, then, I had to make some actual decisions about the house I wanted to make and that decision was that I wasn’t going to make a gingerbread house at all. I was going to make gingerbread houses, plural, a little community of them. A little gingerbread village would be sure to have all the wall space that I needed to fit 24 windows in and would definitely manage to top last year’s efforts in terms of its impressive scale and visual appeal. Of course, this would mean planning out a lot more pieces. Last year’s house featured four walls, two roof pieces, four chimney sides and a chimney top, so 11 pieces in total (plus 24 pieces cut out from windows that would then be stuck over to cover them. Even if smaller in size, every extra house that I added now in the same style would add the same number of pieces again and the same amount of potential for broken or mis-shapen gingerbread walls and roofs.
I decided to make four houses purely on the basis that three didn’t really seem enough for a little community and any more than four would make the whole thing ungainly and take up too much space. For two of them I simply made quarter size versions of the same basic gingerbread house as I had last year (sans chimney), which proved fairly simple to manage. For the third house I went for something a little more ambitious and added a covered porch area and a chimney.
After the difficulty of getting the chimney straight and well balanced on the roof of last year’s house, this year I made a chimney to fit against the side of the house. Finally, for the fourth structure I wanted something larger and more impressive, a centre-piece around which the other gingerbread houses could sit. No central building seemed more obvious for a winter festive village than a church, so I went with that, using a bigger version of the basic gingerbread house and adding a tower and spire. In all, compared to the 11 structural pieces and 24 window pieces for last years house, this year I had to cut out and bake and then trim again to ensure consistent sizes 49 structural pieces and 24 windows.
To be honest, when I started planning this out I didn’t realise quite how much more work would be involved in this year’s design compared to last years. However, once I’d started I couldn’t really change my mind and still fit all 24 windows in, so I persevered and made almost 50 pieces of biscuit. With each there was a possibility that they could break when I got them out or trimmed off the excess where the gingerbread had expanded beyond the shape of my template. A couple of the tiny pieces did just this and I had to roll out more dough and cut them out again, while two of the larger walls also lost a corner, but these could be repaired with icing.
With the window pieces cut out, I filled the vacant windows with crushed up bits of boiled sweets (breaking a pestle and mortar in the process), when these melt in the baking process they provide coloured windows in the Hansel and Gretel sugar style.
Assembling the gingerbread walls is an equally slow process. You have to leave everything for quite a while to stick in place using royal icing as the glue. Royal icing is a mix of icing sugar, egg white and a little lemon juice and, as with the dough, a gingerbread village on this scale requires an enormous amount of it. I ended up using two whole 500g boxes of icing sugar on the finished product. First I had to use the icing to stick the little biscuit window covers that I had randomly numbered over all the walls. Then I had to wait for those to set before spreading icing along the wall joins and standing the walls together, balancing them against glasses to keep them in place. Only after a couple of hours when I was sure that the walls were completely stuck in place did I then move up to sticking the roofs on.
After this I could begin to decorate. I used chocolate fingers to prop up the porch roof and provide additional decoration and a mix of butterscotch chunks, pieces of dried stem ginger and broken chocolate buttons to create an appearance of stonework around the chimney and the porch. The roofs themselves I tiled with overlapping white chocolate buttons and used the royal icing to represent a snow covering.
The spire proved particularly tricky as it involved a tower taller than the rest of the village on top of which eight gingerbread pieces had to come together to a point. To cover any of the mess that all the royal icing gluing had created I covered the spire in more royal icing snow and added more chocolate fingers and butterscotch chunks where the pieces joined. Looking at the finished tower I felt that, having used all my windows already, there was a bit of a blank space on the front of the church tower. So, I did what any Victorian would do with a bit of blank church tower space and stuck a clock on it, in this case made of a big white chocolate button.
Finally I used the remaining royal icing fully to make the gingerbread village into a snow covered winter scene. I even added a bit of edible glitter to make the snow sparkle. Last year’s gingerbread house/Advent Calendar had a gingerbread Santa emerging from the chimney. This year’s chimney was a little small for a Santa to fit, so I went with a snowman instead, which I made from the remaining bits of royal icing, making the little sugar snowman the quite literal icing on the cake of my gingerbread village.
It’s now the 4th, so the first few windows are already revealed. Over the next few weeks Professor Plum will gradually reveal more and more windows before, hopefully, by Christmas Day itself, the whole set of little edible edifices will be perfect to eat. In the meantime, though, it provides a much better festive decoration than
And here’s the finished thing. Better than last year’s? It’s certainly bigger, more sprawling, more ambitious. Next year I think I might just make a bigger single structure. As for the taste, well, I made it for Professor Plum, so only she can tell how each window shutter tastes. For the rest of us we’ll have to wait until after Christmas.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: This was incredibly ambitious. It didn’t help that I kept eating the ingredients before Colonel Mustard could use them – he had to go back for more chocolate fingers twice! The gingerbread is still quite soft, which is making the windows a little hard to remove, so it’ll be interesting to see if it hardens up over Advent. I love the variety in the buildings, the little path, the snowman, the clock tower on the church, everything. It’s just adorable.