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David Lissner
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Eat this! Gingerbread houses, a Christmas tradition

Kim Schwenke

In 2008, Chef Kimberly Schwenke of 312 Chicago at the Hotel Allegro built a complete gingerbread replica of the hotel and its LaSalle and Randolph streetscape. This year’s creation, Daley Plaza — with Christmas tree, fountain and Picasso sculpture — will be on display at the restaurant through early January.

What it is: Elaborately decorated houses made from spicy gingerbread and covered with icing and colorful candies are a fun, fanciful Christmas tradition.

The dough used for construction purposes tends to be baked harder than that intended for cookies, and a sugary glue called royal icing is used to cement the pieces together.

Where it comes from: Cakes or cookies seasoned with ginger date to the 11th century, when returning Crusaders brought the spice to Europe with them from the Middle East. The name has nothing to do with bread, but is a corruption of gingerbras, the Old French word for “preserved ginger.” Medieval bakers molded gingerbread into a wide variety of shapes using elaborately carved boards.

Historians disagree on when the first gingerbread houses appeared. Some attribute their creation to the early 19th-century fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, in whose “Hansel and Gretel,” such a house figures prominently, but others suggest that the Grimms merely enlarged upon an extant idea.

What to do with it: Chef Kimberley Schwenke of 312 Chicago in the Loop offers these construction tips:

  1. Draw/get a pattern or template. Make sure no piece is bigger than your cookie sheet.
  2. Make your dough.
  3. Roll out dough to 1/2-inch thickness on parchment paper. Lay the template on top and cut around. If you want doors and windows, cut them out now. An X-acto knife works best. Leave space between the pieces for expansion in the oven.
  4. Bake. When you pull the pieces from the oven, trim the sides, windows and doors with a knife to get straight edges again.
  5. Let pieces cool completely and make sure they are totally dry or the house will start to bend. If they are not dry and hard put them back in the oven to dry out some more.
  6. While the cookies are cooling, make your royal icing.
  7. Prepare whatever you are going to build the house on, cardboard etc. The cookies will be iced directly onto it, so if you want to cover the base with wrapping paper, foil, etc., do it now.
  8. Prop up two side pieces with bottles or spice containers and apply royal icing along all of the seams. More is better. Don’t worry about decorating right now.
  9. Add the rest of the walls and icing all seams.
  10. Let house sit for 30 minutes for the icing to start to harden.
  11. Attach the roof with icing.
  12. Let the house sit until the icing starts to harden, preferably overnight.
  13. Decorate with icing and candy.
  14. Remember that “snow” can cover a lot of mistakes and make your gingerbread house a winter wonderland.

312 Chicago gingerbread house dough
Kimberly Schwenke

While a gingerbread house made from this recipe is completely edible — in the sense that it’s safe to eat — the dough is baked very hard and dry. And once it’s been on display for a while, it won’t be very toothsome. We suggest baking gingerbread cookies separately for eating purposes.

1 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground ginger
5 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large pot, combine the shortening, granulated sugar and molasses. Heat to melt, making sure the sugar dissolves completely.

Mix together the baking soda and spices and add to the melted mixture. Put in the bowl of a mixer and beat in the flour. Roll out immediately.

Roll a piece as large as your largest baking pan on a piece of parchment paper, then using a knife or box cutter cut around a paper template and remove excess dough.

Bake until the dough puffs up and then falls again, 20 to 30 minutes. You need it to be much more dried out than a normal cookie or the house will fall.

(You can easily double this recipe but it is better to make just what you need. Rolling out cold dough is next to impossible.)

Royal icing

1 pound (4 cups) powdered sugar
3 tablespoons meringue powder (available at craft stores)
1/2 cup warm water

Combine the sugar and meringue powder in the large bowl of an electric mixer, and mix on low speed until combined.

Slowly beat in the warm water (start with 1/4 cup and gradually increase to 1/2 cup).

Whip on high speed for 5 minutes. You want it to hold a peak but not be so stiff that your hand will hurt when you pipe it through a bag.

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