I am trying to start 2016 off on the right foot. I started this blog in early fall of 2015 before my life took a turn for the worse and I no longer had the time to commit to my blogging (which was lacking to begin with). When my Disney vacation in November was canceled at the last minute I decided to take the time for a staycation instead and go on my biggest baking adventure ever! I actually had intended to get this done for a gingerbread house competition before Thanksgiving, but a death in the family meant I didn’t get to finish it in time. But I am not a quitter and I was not going to give up! With some setbacks including multiple holidays, birthdays, many late nights at work, and some laziness…I was finally able to finish just before my end of year cutoff! I then decided I would post this the beginning of 2016 for two reasons: I didn’t have time to do it before the clock struck midnight and I figured this would be a great way to start off 2016 on a much better note than my 2015 started.
I was hoping to actually have more instructions and statistics. I can tell you this is 100% edible (except the wood/aluminum foil base), but I lost count of how many batches of cookie dough I made (not to mention some of them were double batches while others were single batches), how many windows I broke, or how many pretzel rods I went through. I had many mistakes which meant some pieces were remade multiple times and threw my numbers off. Then other times I just used some of my broken scraps instead of making new pieces (lazy or less wasteful?). I also completely lost track of the number of hours I put into this, but I can tell you it was a lot! The person who did the Instructables for this (more on that below) said it took them about 40 hours and I would say that sounds about right!
I guess I should also show you my inspirations. For those who don’t know and just clicked on this because it is a very odd looking huge gingerbread house – this is the Weasley’s Burrow from Harry Potter (to be honest I was shocked at how many people I told about this didn’t know what that was). I did not realize how few images there are of the burrow in the movies! This made it hard and also left things open for interpretation a little bit. My main sources of inspiration are here, here, and here. I also used anything that came up in some of my top google searches: “The Burrow”, “The Burrow Harry Potter”, and “The Burrow Gingerbread House”.
Let me also be clear – I am not the original mastermind behind this creation. A few years ago I was busy browsing baking creations across the internet and I ran into the original burrow gingerbread house. I was inspired by this Instructables post and followed it pretty closely at the beginning until about step 8. After baking the cookies I left it up to my own creativity to put things together and decorate and give it my own flair. But really, I don’t think I would have ever gotten half way through without those instructions! I would never have thought to cut out a foam board template (a key part of this project) and didn’t have a gingerbread recipe to start with. Plus the fact that I knew it was possible made it so I couldn’t quite and tell myself it was an impossible task!
So now a bunch of pictures from different angles followed by some high level tips/steps for any huge gingerbread house creation:
Step 1: Make a plan.
This is one of the main things I learned from the Instructables. It is key to make a plan for such a large and intricate gingerbread house. A couple of years ago I tried a different gingerbread house by just winging it only to find out that pieces didn’t quite fit together and eventually I gave.
So for this, I started with the basic template (“Step 2” of the Instructables). This was pretty lengthy process and I am sure there was a better way to do it, but here is what I did:
- Print out the template from Instructables on normal paper.
- Measure the template pieces.
- Multiply these pieces to fit your scale. The author’s suggestion is 3/16 inch to 1 foot, but I did it a little smaller (since there was a height limit on the competition I originally planned on entering).
- Draw and cut out the large scale pieces on paper. It is hard to cut the foam board, so I wanted to make sure I had everything right on paper first, especially the odd shaped pieces (which I consider anything that is not rectangular).
- Copy the paper pieces to foam core and cut them out.
- Tape together the foam core pieces to make sure everything fits. The author of the instructables mentions that she did the template in her instructions after the fact. I found that there were minor adjustments to be made, but for the most part everything fit together perfectly!
Step 2: Make some dough.
Phew! So many batches of dough! I think I started with 3 double batches. I used the recipe in the Instructables for a few reasons:
- It worked! Why mess with something that has already worked for the same thing. I didn’t want to take risks by using another recipe that isn’t quite as sturdy.
- This was actually my first successful gingerbread house ever! I made it halfway through one a few years ago, but I had no recipe that I was familiar with and can rely on.
- I wanted a butter based recipe – mainly because I had just stocked up on butter from BJ’s. I saw a lot of Crisco recipes, but didn’t want to go in that direction.
- I wanted a recipe that didn’t have ridiculous amounts of molasses because I am cheap (and by cheap I mean already spending way too much on this project). Plus I don’t use molasses much and am not a huge fan.
Step 3: Cut out your pieces!
Using the foam board parts as your templates, roll your dough and cut out your gingerbread pieces.
A few tips:
- If you want to make a texture on some of your pieces (like my main walls with the bricks and boards), then do this with a dull non-serrated knife before baking (like a butter knife). I actually use part of a clay sculpting kit that is dedicated to my baking projects.
- The bigger pieces take much longer to bake. I found that I was impatient and didn’t always bake my main pieces as long as I should have. If they were too thick or not baked long enough then the walls would warp or break when I tried putting things together.
- If you can – avoid the rain/humidity! It has been a ridiculously warm and rainy winter which did no good to my gingerbread house. This made the pieces sticky and less stiff/more bendy. I ended up putting on the AC for a bit to try and suck some of the moisture out of the air.
Step 4: Put the pieces together.
I used a royal frosting as my glue. This was made of egg white, cocoa, and powdered sugar. I used the chocolate only for color, since I wanted it to be brown to blend in more with the pieces of the house. To be honest, I did not measure the ingredients. I just played with them until it worked out. I did this in small batches, but there are some pros and cons to this:
- If you make small batches, then try to measure out the amount of chocolate and sugar you use (or find a good recipe to go by). I had a whole bunch of different shades of brown because I wasn’t quite consistent here. Whoops.
- I found that if you make windows or anything on the second day of the royal frosting then it doesn’t set as well. This is why I don’t have royal frosting railings on the porch.
- The royal icing gets darker with time. If you make it one day and put it in a container overnight so it doesn’t dry, I think the cocoa soaks up more of the egg white and gets darker.
- I started out trying to use brown food coloring but it took way too much. I think cocoa is the better option.
- You can always go back and use the brown “watercolor” I mention in the “Step 5: Decorate” section to paint over your royal icing. I did this in a few spots where it ended up being too light or off color. I only suggest this for touch ups though.
Moral of the story – make only what you need, but be consistent in color.
Step 5: Decorate.
This kind of overlaps with Step 4. It was build/decorate/build/decorate, as you can see from some of my progress pictures. This is just logic because many of the pieces overlap. You should decorate anything that is going to get layered over first. Here are some of my decorating methods:
- I painted the large walls using red/brown Wilton gel food coloring mixed with water to make a kind of watercolor. These food colors are available at Michael’s. I think in the instructables they did the painting at the end. I found it easier to paint first. Just make sure everything dries because the gingerbread gets a little weak after painting due to gingerbread soaking up the water in the paint.
- I used a spray food coloring to paint the shingles (which are cinnamon Quaker Life cereal). I ended up needing about 2 canisters. You can find these spray food colors at Michael’s and sometimes at a normal grocery store.
- The bottom walls are hard to see, but sort of sponge painted the royal icing on the walls. It seemed boring with just plain gingerbread. I put globs of royal icing and dabbed them with a paper towel until it looked like I wanted. Because the royal icing was a very light color I then painted it darker with my brown watercolor.
- All of the windows are royal icing. I have mixed feelings about this. I think they look a little less cartoony then using gingerbread for them, but they are very fragile and I had some issues. Sometimes either my gingerbread wasn’t flat or I didn’t dry the icing on flat enough surfaces, so the pieces didn’t fit well at all. I broke SO MANY of the windows. I also just don’t have much skill with making royal icing look nice.
- The grass is royal icing with loads of food color and the dirt is crushed graham crackers mixed with cocoa (to make it darker and less like sand).
Step 5: Adjust, retry, keep going.
I failed a LOT during this process. I tend to show people my final product, which *usually* looks all nice and pretty. But you missed the part where I failed a whole bunch! For big projects like this you either 1. need to just be awesome and perfect and never make mistakes or 2. be persistent and not give up! Rethink things and keep going. Here are some of the issues I had:
- The biggest pain was that the bottom roof broke about 3 times. It was a mix of not baking my pieces long enough, humidity, and measurements being a bit off so a lot of pressure was being put on the roof. The way the other pieces sat on top of it, the bottom roof would either crack or come apart at the seams. So I did two things to fix this.
- I added reinforcement to the corners. Not sure if this really helped, but it seems to make sense. Instead of just the two little edges being held together by royal icing a much larger surface area is holding it together.
- I made the back portion more stable in order to help hold up the big walls so they don’t lean on the bottom roof so much. The long skinny part of the big side walls were bending and breaking when I was adjusting things. Instead, I cut this off and made the bottom part a giant brick of gingerbread covered by prettier decorative pieces of gingerbread (does that make sense?)
- I woke up one morning to find my porch had fallen off and broken! This is why that part doesn’t look quite as nice as I wanted it to. I took scraps and pretzels and did what I could.
- So. Many. Broken. Windows. The royal icing is super delicate and I am both clumsy and not very gentle apparently. If you don’t have the steady hands, gentle pressure, or patience for this, then I suggest using cookies like the original!
- Things just don’t fit right. I don’t know how many times I had to cut parts down or try and hide gaps. With this many pieces it is hard to get them all exactly right. The key is being able to hide these mistakes/imperfections well.
- I didn’t have a pan big enough for the side pieces! I ended up veryyyyy carefully putting two pans side by side and it miraculously worked out! Unfortunately I then ended up breaking off the bottom portion anyway, so this was all for nothing.
And now the pictures of myself all the way at the bottom (because I need proof I did this, but don’t like including pictures of myself).