Gingerbread houses can be the cause of much frustration. After spending hours planning, baking, and then constructing, it can all fall apart due to simple mechanical issues. The prime culprit in any gingerbread house disaster is the cement used to hold everything together. Do you know what kind of icing you’re using? The second issue is simple structural engineering. Are you building with the equivalent of drywall sheets or are you building with bricks?
Yes, as with most things in the kitchen, a bit of science (in this case, physics) can save the day. Let’s examine the cement first, which is to say, our icing. If you’re just whipping powdered sugar together with a little water or milk, you’re going to have a mess on your hands. You see, that sort of icing, the kind we make on a whim to glaze a last-minute batch of sugar cookies, will take too long to dry. And when it does finally set up, it won’t have the snap and strength you need to hold a house together.
The solution, then, is to add a bit of a baker’s secret ingredient into the mix. Powdered egg whites. When you mix a few tablespoons of powdered egg whites (also known as meringue powder), suddenly you are gifted with the impeccable strength of the mighty egg. This kind of icing is known as Royal Icing. What makes it so strong is the variety of protein strands available in egg whites. The sugar-water mixture has virtually no natural binding power, but egg whites are packed with it. Egg whites are about 10% protein, and the rest of their body is mostly made up of water. When the substances are pasteurized and dehydrated, the water is largely removed from the product. Consequently, you have all the strength of protein without any of the interference of water.
- 1 pound Powdered Sugar
- 4 tablespoons Meringue Powder
- 4-6 tablespoons Cold Water
- Whisk dry ingredients together in stand mixer.
- Add water one tablespoon at a time until the icing just barely comes together. It should be thick and strong. If it is too loose, add more powdered sugar.
Royal icing will dry quickly, and hold tight. It will provide you with a solid and crisp surface for decorating.
But there are, of course, other cements that can be useful. Look at the candies available to you this time of year and think about their properties. Gummy candies seem powerful for construction, don’t they? And what of marshmallows? Indeed, melted down both of these candies will work marvelously as cements. The gummy candies work because of their high concentration of gelatin, while the marshmallows work because of their egg white protein. Beware: both of these ingredients (once melted) are extremely messy. But then again, isn’t that part of the fun of making gingerbread houses?
The traditional format for building a gingerbread house is to draw a pattern on paper, then cut those pieces out of a large sheet of gingerbread. But that offers you the equivalent of sheets of dry wall when it comes to construction. They aren’t very stable, and they’re hard to hold up. We tend to jam them into thick moldings of icing and frosting just to get them standing. It’s all nonsense. We’ve had a perfectly sound solution in the toy cabinet for years! Legos are designed on the property of simple structural engineering. Certainly, they lock together, but even if they didn’t, the notion that bricks stacked on top of each other are strong is not a new concept. I recommend cutting your sheets of raw gingerbread into as many little bricks as possible.
Roll out the dough a bit thicker than usual, then measure out lines to make bricks. Bake the bricks (just as a brick maker would have to do with clay) and then get to work. With a pastry bag of icing you can build anything you want. This is much more fun than building the pre-designed house that you cut out with a pattern. Bricks allow you to build in circular fashions, they allow much more creativity, and they are much more stable. Use royal icing like mortar and lay the bricks down one at a time. To affix decorative details I suggest using the melted gummy bears, they’re perilously strong!