Dream house: Gingerbread experts share the secrets of the trade

Clark Fulton has transformed gingerbread into a 1800s-style home for this year's Gingerbread House Festival and Auction.

The Gingerbread House Festival and Auction

When: Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., for public viewing. The auction is 7 p.m., Dec. 7, with doors opening at 6 p.m.;

Where: The Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St.

Cost: The public viewing is by donation, $3 per individual or $10 per family; The auction and gala are $40 per ticket.

Jena Dick checks the thickness of her dough after rolling it out. She is making a gingerbread house that will be a fireplace structure with Santa wedge in the fireplace. The structure will be part of The Gingerbread House Festival and Auction that will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Clark Fulton's technique is to make a brick

They look like a dream, sitting there under the glow of admiring bidders each year at the annual Gingerbread House Festival and Auction benefiting Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County. But those gingerbread structures are a very real task — no dreaming on the job.

Those whimsical cottages and stunning recreations of real buildings take hours upon hours of work. Architects must design, plan, bake and assemble contest entries on their own time. Much of the trade is honed on the Internet and through the college of trial and error.

That said, if you have designs on making your own gingerbread house as a holiday decoration, it’s a perfectly plausible holiday project, say a handful of repeat auction competitors — no kit needed.

The pieces and parts

Gingerbread houses are technically edible, though chances are they wouldn’t taste very good if you were to chomp through a roof or chimney. All you need to create one of your own can be found in your kitchen, save for a sturdy base (unless you want to give up a cutting board) says Allen Blair, a Lawrence resident and chef at Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe. Blair has been donating gingerbread houses for 12 years and just taught a class, “Gingerbread 101” at Shadow Glen. His take on the pieces and parts:

Gingerbread: Find a really tough gingerbread recipe — if you get it right, you won’t want to taste-test it for fear it might crack a tooth.

“We fight humidity here in the Midwest and so there were years were I’d build walls and they would be sagging because they’d be really wet and damp,” he says. “It took me awhile to find a humidity-proof gingerbread that pretty much works — the walls are as hard as a rock.”

Royal icing: If you think of your gingerbread pieces as building blocks, this is your cement.

“The icing is also the key ingredient because that’s what glue it all together and makes it bond,” says Blair who prefers a royal icing that contains powdered sugar, meringue powder and water.

Gum paste: Blair makes his own gum paste for special little touches of all sorts.

“It’s powdered sugar, cornstarch, gelatin and water, but it hardens like rocks,” he says of gum paste. “So, you can make little figurines out of it, you can make flowers out of it, I make roof tiles out of it. You can color it whatever color you want, so depending on what your theme is.”

Tips and tricks

Design a template: Sally Garman says she and her gingerbread partner, Staci Garman, have been cutting out templates on poster board since their first year.

“We started two months in advance,” says Garman, who donates for Brits, 929 Mass. “We got poster board — we did the (British) House of Parliament as the first one — and we cut out all the walls and the roofs and everything and that was great, that was very helpful.”

Play with color and technique: Clark Fulton, who is on his fourth year of gingerbread house donation, likes to keep things looking rustic and real by using a technique he honed on his own — creating “brick walls” of individual gingerbread tiles.

“I bake the bread into slabs and when it comes out of the oven, I flatten it out with a book and when it’s cool and about the consistency I want, I cut it up into bricks. The gingerbread is about a half-inch thick and the bricks are about maybe 2 inches long and an inch wide,” says Fulton, who also likes to add color to his designs by melting Jolly Ranchers and using them as windows. “The first year, I literally built the house brick by brick from the ground up. That proved to be way too tedious. … Then, after that I started building brick walls separately, on a flat surface. I would just build a slab of brick and then I would cut it to size.”

Make sure all your surfaces are flat: Blair says that to avoid stretching or warping your biggest ally is a flat surface. Make sure the cookie sheet you’re using hasn’t been previously warped in the oven, even just a little bit. Next, roll out your ginger bread on the cookie sheet, and if you’re going to cut out a pattern, do that on the sheet as well.

“Some cookie sheets will warp in the oven, kind of angle a little bit. Whatever you use, you want to make sure it stays flat in the oven. Everything has to be flat because you’re dealing with the one-dimensional when it comes to sides and walls,” Blair says. “And get it off the tray as soon as it comes out of the oven, and put it on a flat surface so it can rest.”

Remember, it doesn’t have to be a house: Third-year designer Jena Dick says not to think of your gingerbread dream as a house, but as a structure. In fact, she’s never done “just” a house — rather, she’s done a forklift (driven by Santa) and a carousel horse in previous years.

“Have fun. Let your imagination go wild,” she says. “I want to stay innovative and do something different. Just have fun with it and leave yourself plenty of time.”


Gingerbread Dough (for creating structures)

7 1/2 cups flour

2 3/4 cup sugar

5 eggs

2/3 cups honey

1 2/3 teaspoon cinnamon

1 2/3 teaspoon ground cloves

1 2/3 teaspoon ginger

Cream eggs and sugar. Add honey. Add spices, then gradually add flour. Wrap tight. Spray a cookie pan with cooking spray. You want to make sure the pan isn’t warped — a flat surface is necessary for creating bread flat enough for use in gingerbread structures.

Roll out the gingerbread to 1/8 inch thick on your baking pan. It is recommended that if you’re going to cut a pattern, to do so while the dough is on the cookie sheet and before baking. Bake in a 325-degree oven until just browned. Make sure it is an even brown color. Remove from the cookie sheet and lay on a flat surface to dry.

— Recipe from Allen Blair

Homemade Gumpaste

1/4 ounce package unflavored gelatin

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon cream of tarter

4 cups powdered sugar

1 cup cornstarch

Place gelatin, water and cream of tarter on low heat and stir. When dissolved, add powdered sugar and cornstarch. Work like pie dough. Use cornstarch to prevent sticking.

Wrap tight after this mixture is made. Air will harden it.

Roll out to desired thickness and cut desired shape. This is great for making roof shingles. You can make snow men out of this mixture or any figurine that you choose. The paste is dyeable to any color. Let dry until hard.

— Recipe from Allen Blair

Royal Icing

3 tablespoons meringue powder

4 cups powdered sugar

6 tablespoons water

Mix all ingredients together and then store in an air-tight container. Makes 3 cups of icing. Use to bond sides of your gingerbread house.

— Recipe from Allen Blair

Gingerbread Cookies

5 1/2 ounces butter

4 ounces brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/8 teaspoon ginger powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 egg

5 1/2 ounces molasses

12 ounces cake flour

Cream butter and sugar together well, then scrape bowl. Add egg and mix well and scrape bowl. Add molasses and mix well. Add the baking soda and all the spices and mix well. Gradually add flour until well incorporated. Let rest in the refrigerator until ready to use. Roll out to 1/8-inch thick and cut out into desired shapes — gingerbread men, gingerbread women, circles, etc. The dough is soft, so move quickly, the warmer it is, the harder it is to use.

Bake at 325 degrees until just browned.

— Recipe from Allen Blair