Gingerbread Dream House

Create Your Gingerbread Dream House

Come together with friends and family to craft a sweet home that’s far from ordinary. All you need are these tips from Tom Gumpel, of the Panera Bread® Food Team.

Just ask Hansel and Gretel: a gingerbread cottage is downright irresistible. Kids of all ages love to assemble and decorate these candy-covered confections—maybe even more than they enjoy nibbling on them throughout the season.

“I’ve been building gingerbread houses with my 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, every year since she was born,” says Tom Gumpel, Panera Bread’s head baker. “This is an opportunity to really use your creative mind and your analytical mind. Once you have the basic structure, put aside any imagined constraints and start playing!”

Whether you’re constructing your first cottage or your 25th château, Tom offers these tips and tricks.

A solid foundation

For the base beneath your house, make a double-layer foundation using two pieces of uncreased corrugated cardboard. “When you get holiday deliveries, save the nicest boxes for this project,” says Tom. Cut two pieces of cardboard to the size you want the property to be; then cut a 3-by-5-inch hole in the center of each so you can feed a string of colored or white Christmas lights into the center of the finished house before displaying it. Tape the two pieces of cardboard together before attaching the gingerbread.

Recipe for success

Use your favorite gingerbread recipe, and bake the cut-out walls and roof pieces until completely set. “The longer you bake the dough without burning it, the stronger your structure will be,” says Tom.

Window treatments

To create “glass” windows, lay the baked gingerbread walls on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Fill each window with crushed, colorful hard candies. Bake the walls in a 350°F oven until the candy is melted and flat, three to four minutes. Remove the baking sheet to a cooling rack; don’t lift or touch the pieces until the candy has completely hardened. Peel away the parchment paper before attaching the walls to the foundation.

The icing on the cake

Royal icing makes the strongest “glue” for gingerbread houses. For an edible icing, use meringue powder (available in the supermarket baking-goods aisle) instead of egg whites. Tom recommends making the icing the consistency of toothpaste and beating it to aerate it. “Air bubbles lend strength to the icing when it hardens,” he says. Spoon the icing into a pastry bag for easy application. To keep the remaining icing from hardening until you’re ready to use it, place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the icing (not across the top of the bowl). “It will keep all day,” says Tom.

Some assembly required

When you assemble the house, make sure to attach the walls to the floor and to each other using the royal icing. Wait 10 minutes before roofing your structure. To prevent the roof pieces from sliding off, use stacked soup cans to prop up the roof edges until the icing dries. Wait another 30 minutes before decorating the house.

Exterior decorating

“Everything on your house should be edible,” says Tom. That is part of the creative challenge of gingerbread-house building, and it’s necessary for safety reasons. “Little kids are drawn to gingerbread houses,” he says. “You don’t want them trying to eat a cotton ball.” A few of Tom’s tricks: Powdered sugar adds a snow-covered look when dusted over the scene. Tufts of cotton candy make beautiful smoke drifting out of a chimney. And colorful candy wafers work perfectly as shingles. “Look outside the candy aisle as well,” says Tom. Consider cookie teddy bears, Santas made of pretzels, and snowmen crafted from marshmallows, for instance.