A long-standing and rather messy tradition will take place at my home this weekend: it's time to construct our annual gingerbread house.
First, I'll go shopping and gather everything I need: molasses, brown sugar, and powdered sugar for the baking and vanilla wafers, candy canes, ice cream cones, coconut, Jolly Ranchers, Hershey's Kisses, butterscotch candies, M&M's, gumdrops, licorice, rope licorice, nuts, lollipops, and square cereal for decorating. I'll also do a pantry check and make sure I have food coloring, eggs, flour, powdered ginger, cream of tartar, and vanilla.
The day before "assembly day," I'll make three batches of gingerbread dough and put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight. (I make three batches because one year I ran out before the house was built. It also helps to have extra if you accidentally break a wall or have some other architectural catastrophe. With dough that is left over, I make gingerbread men.) Then I'll design a template (you can find plenty on the Internet to print, or design your own out of cardboard) and find a sturdy base. (You'll want something flat and inflexible – I find that a large wooden cutting board or sheet of plywood covered in tin foil works best. The tin foil can show through in spots – it will look like ice patches.) Then I let everyone know when to show up the next day. This has turned in to a bit of an annual party. I ask everyone to bring their pre-assembled, undecorated house and I'll supply the decorations. Or, if they'd rather help me with mine, they can do that – but bring some eggnog.
Then the fun begins. A few tips and tricks I've learned along the way: butterscotch makes great windows. Put your sheet of gingerbread with the window cut-out on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Crush the butterscotch candies and place the bits in the window. Melt at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes (watch it carefully!). Let it cool before trying to lift it off the wax paper. You'll have a warm glow to your windows. If you like a stained glass look, do the same thing only mix different colored candy pieces. (People who get very serious about their gingerbread houses use leaf gelatin for the windows – I've never tried it. My houses are just for fun.) Pick out the blue Jolly Ranchers and set those aside. Crush them and melt them on wax paper – when you place this on your base, it will look like water. Pile "snow" around the edges and you'll have a perfect winter pond, or place the candy in a long, winding shape and you'll have a stream you can build a bridge across.
The roof is always the hardest part – I've tried all types of flat wafer candies, gumdrops, sticks of gum – I think the item that works best is Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Overlap them and they look like a thatched roof. Pipe on some white frosting and dust with powdered sugar to give a look of freshly-fallen snow.
My kids love making the Christmas trees. Turn an ice cream cone upside down and pipe on green frosting. Decorate with small, multi-colored candies and place the trees in a line leading to your front door. Use crushed candies or whole nuts as a pathway between the trees to the door. Make a fence out of candy canes and rope licorice. Add a stack of pretzel sticks on the side of the house as firewood. Turn cookies into wagon wheels. Use your imagination! There's no wrong way to decorate your house. The first gingerbread house I made with my then-very-young children came out looking as though it should have been condemned – one wall was slightly caved in, the "shingles" were sliding off the roof, and the whole structure was slightly tilted. My kids and I were covered in powdered sugar, frosting, and sticky bits of candy by the end of it. We laughed every time we looked at that house. I took a picture of it and it is still one of my favorite houses. It's the process, not the end result.
Of course, sometimes it is the end result! The National Gingerbread House Competition is held annually in Asheville, North Carolina. If you've never made a gingerbread house, you may be inspired by this event. (Not to mention that Asheville is a winter wonderland and well worth the trip!)