A Holiday Fixer-Upper
Amateur, Unlicensed Contracting Adds to the Authenticity of Baltimore-Style Gingerbread Row House
Gingerbread engineering is its own art and science, with its own subculture and ritual. I won’t pretend that I’m part of this subculture. But I have created a passable series of gingerbread rowhouses, complete with marble stoops, Formstone and brick facades, ornamental crown fascias, and authentic-looking boarded-up windows. And it took only $78 of materials, a patient partner, two full weekends, plus about three hours a night for eight days. Literally, it was a piece of cake.
OK, it was ridiculous. Having never before attempted to make a gingerbread anything, I imagined, vaguely, that gingerbread houses practically built themselves. If questioned about my complete lack of expertise, I would probably have said something like: “But 12-year-old girls make these things all the time. How hard could it be?”
Um, pretty hard. I Googled “gingerbread rowhouse” and initiated myself into the world of baked contracting. Online I found books, contests, web rings, gingerbread haunted mansions, igloos, castles, and a New Orleans swamp house with elaborate wrought-iron porches. On FrankysAttic.com, the mother lode: tons of pictures of completed projects, myriad how-to tips, complete detailed patterns, and actual recipes for both gingerbread dough and “royal icing,” the universal gingerbread mortar.
Reading the dough recipes, which go on for several screens and require, in the case of Deni’s Deluxe “oven-plywood” dough, “13 Qt. stainless steel mixing bowl (must be stainless steel—it will need to be placed on direct heat), 9 qt mixing bowl, smaller bowl, measuring cups and spoons, whip, large spatula,” I had my first epiphany:
I don’t have any of that stuff.
Then, a second epiphany: Use instant dough.
I got a box of Dromedary gingerbread mix for $2.99 from Eddie’s. Instructions on the box indicate that “gingerbread cookies” can be made from this if one mixes into the powder just a half cup of water, plus a tablespoon and a couple of teaspoons of melted butter. OK, no measuring spoons in the cupboard, either. Call it a quarter cup.
To begin any gingerbread construction project, one needs a plan. Starting with my one baking pan, I calculated the largest single piece of gingerbread I could make, figuring that would be the roof and the front. Next I cut a piece of cardboard to the size of the pan and sketched out windows and doors on it. I cut some boxes, and within a couple of hours had assembled the simple structure, a nonedible template for my soon to be gingerbread block.
I decided use the first box of dough to bake a couple of the smaller pieces. With no rolling pin, I sawed off a length of abandoned closet hanging rod and rolled the dough to uniform quarter-inch depth between pieces of scrap plywood. Thrilled that the first walls came out, I then calculated the number of Dromedary batches I’d need to construct the whole edifice: nine. Back to Eddie’s to clear off the gingerbread shelf.
Over the next several days I baked the walls and roofs, including a third interior wall both for extra support and to block light from the “abandoned” rowhouse on one end. A proper gingerbread house has to be lit from the inside. So I took apart a nightstand light I got from Target and stuck it through a hole in the bottom. Later I would wish I had made one more interior wall, but I was yet ignorant of the finer points of ginger-neering.
FrankysAttic online showed me that windows could be made by melting hard candies into the window holes. I was skeptical, but it worked. Though the detail was quickly taken out of my hands when my girlfriend figured out that by crushing the candies and layering them in the window holes she could get a jazzy stained-glass effect.
By the second weekend, with all 10 walls and roofs waiting in the refrigerator, my girlfriend arrived with bags of decorative goodies I would not have thought to get. She had sugar wafers, food markers, licorice, something called “Kandy Clay” in a multicolor pack, and even colorful edible Legos she had bought in Rehoboth Beach, Del. These items turned out to be crucial to detailing the houses. But first we needed mortar.
Royal icing hardens up like cement, whereas regular icing (aka butter cream) stays creamy and buttery. Using frosting from a can to build a gingerbread house is as effective as using spitballs to assemble a jet airliner, but there is no such thing as instant royal icing. The simplest recipe requires confectioners’ sugar, egg whites, and baking powder. You also need an electric mixer, which I don’t have. Having once attempted to whip up a meringue using a fork jammed into a power drill, I decided not to repeat that adventure and instead scavenged a mixer from a kindly (albeit suspicious) neighbor.
The icing mixes and colors easily. We were only limited by my lack of bowls and our fear that the icing, like drywall mud, would harden before we got a chance to use it. We kept the bowls covered with foil and wet towels. Later we discovered that even several nights’ refrigeration does it no harm.
We made the Formstone and bricks by pressing a ruler into the half-dry icing, then using small pieces of cardboard to press the vertical lines. It was a mess that would have reduced any mason to tears.
In gingerbread construction, decoration comes before assembly. We made our doors and glued stoned wheat thins as plywood over the windows of the “abandoned” house. We affixed Wasa rye crackers (stronger than graham or wheat thins and they look more like concrete) to the sides of the rowhouse to simulate the spot where other rowhouses might have stood before the wrecking ball took them down. We used the edible food markers to write some graffiti on the sides.
Our plan was to decorate and assemble the houses by Sunday afternoon. But by then the project was still in pieces, lying on every flat surface in my tiny apartment as the royal icing dried slowly, slowly into sloppy Formstone and bricklike facades.
Final construction was left to me, and I soon learned why serious gingerbread builders don’t use instant dough. As I stood the back wall up it cracked. Determined to save the structure I glued a couple of stoned wheat thins over the fissure and braced the structure with soup cans overnight. Then the next morning I put on the roof, sliding it oh-so-carefully onto the assembled house, expecting the front to overhang just slightly. It didn’t. The roof just barely fit, and while the repaired wall stood, the roof buckled and cracked where it spanned the two “occupied” rowhouses. I piped more icing on the crack in desperate hope that it would hang on. It did, barely.
They say it’s the details that really make a good gingerbread house, but those are easy: some rock candy bits to look like broken glass (or broken icicles, for you optimists); a cinder-block enclosure in one backyard, made of Lego-like candies; crumbs, debris, a sprinkling of sugar “snow.”
Unable to construct an authentic-looking CitiWatch crime camera on the corner, we settled for a City Paper box made of edible clay. The addition of icing-coated wafers for the front stoops (with licorice handrails), cracked rye crackers for sidewalks, and a few piles of Tootsie Roll dog poop completed the scene. The result was a set of rowhouses both festive and forlorn, standing against all laws of gravity and taste—rather like the real thing.
Truly we were doomed to failure but for the lucky fact that we were aiming to emulate Baltimore’s pre-war (that is, pre-Spanish American war) architecture, and so plumb walls and square edges would have hindered authenticity. All success, then, owes to Baltimore. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my kitchen to chip green icing off my fridge, microwave, oven, counters, and dog.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Old Habits (7/28/2010)
Medicalization is the hot new thing in drug treatment. Just like in 1970.
Room for Improvement (7/14/2010)
Celebrated crime control measure actually a flop, former chief reveals
Shelling Out (7/7/2010)
Mortgage broker goes bankrupt, seeks mortgage modification as taxpayers face mounting bailout bills
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201