Friday, 4 December 2015

Christmas Baking: The Gingerbread House Centrepiece

At last, Christmas is coming! 

And as always, I've gone in all guns blazing. I've visited Christmas markets in two different cities (Bristol and Manchester), done nearly all my Christmas shopping, am mid-way through sorting my office party outfit (after ordering and rejecting countless dresses) and have been doing some serious Christmas baking.

So let me tell you what I've been up to. A few weeks ago, on our first Christmas shopping expedition, my mum saw some gingerbread houses in John Lewis. This put ideas in her head, so she asked me to make her a gingerbread house as a Christmas centrepiece.

She was joking, I think.

But I did it anyway. I spent almost 6 hours in the kitchen, burnt my thumbs, got icing and gingery crumbs everywhere and at the end of the day I presented her with this:

A gingerbread house, complete with roof tiles (giant milk chocolate buttons), trees, windows (crushed cough sweets - don't ask) and a liberal coating of snow (royal icing).

We put an electric tealight in the back of the house so that it glows through the windows, almost as if they have a roaring fire in there.

I used a Mary Berry recipe, which can be found here on the BBC good food website, or in a GBBO recipe book - the full title is: "Great British Bake Off: How to turn everyday bakes into showstoppers".  

But having now baked it myself, I can take you through the recipe with a few extra tips and tricks for when the going gets tough. The printable pdf template for the house can be found here or in the book but please note it belongs to Mary and the BBC, not to me. 

You will need:

For the gingerbread:
375g unsalted butter
300g dark muscovado sugar
150g golden syrup
900g plain flour
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsp ground ginger
a lot of greaseproof paper
2-3 baking sheets

For the icing:
3 egg whites
675g icing sugar
3 tsp lemon juice
one piping bag with a fine nozzle or small hole cut out (I used greaseproof paper rolled into a cone)

To decorate
15 yellow or orange boiled sweets (I could not find these and had to use cough sweets)
12in square cake board
250g giant milk chocolate buttons (Mary says to use 200g - it is not enough!)
1 electric tealight
4 long wooden skewers, cut to just a little longer than the height of the sides of the house

1. Preheat the oven to 200C and sift together the flour, ginger and bicarbonate of soda.

2. Melt the butter, muscovado sugar and golden syrup together over a low heat until they are dark and treacle-like.

 3. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients, stirring with a wooden spoon and then, when cool enough to handle, knead the mixture together with your hands. Divide the mixture into six equally sized pieces and put each on a sheet of greaseproof paper.

4. Roll out the gingerbread and cut out the front, back, sides and roof parts of the template. Keep one of the door cut-outs to use as a front door and roll up the rest of the trimmings and use to cut out the chimney, trees and wedge-shaped supports for the trees (cut out an extra chimey and cut into 3 for this). You'll see I didn't add a chimney because mine didn't come out very well. Bake the gingerbread for 6-8 minutes.

5. As soon as you take the gingerbread out of the oven, put the template over the top and cut around it to ensure the cut-outs have sharp, straight edges. The recipe would have you wait for the biscuit to firm a bit but I found that this made the biscuits more likely to crack. Leave the oven on.

6. Crush the boiled sweets and sprinkle them evenly in the holes for the windows. Bake for 3-4 minutes, checking every 1-2 minutes to see if they have melted. I found that as my sweets melted, they spread unevenly and holes appeared, so have a teaspoon or cocktail stick ready to do any repair work while the sweets are still melted. For this reason you may want to do the biscuits with windows in one at a time. You may also want to use fresh greaseproof paper to ensure you don't get crumbs in the windows.

7. Make your icing by beating the egg whites until foamy and then folding in the icing sugar. Do not use an electric whisk unless you're using a standing mixer with a lid because otherwise the icing sugar will go everywhere! 

8. Measure out 6 tablespoons of the icing onto the cake board and spread to make a base for your gingerbread house to stick to. Then, making sure the biscuits are free of crumbs, pipe a line of icing up the vertical edges of each and put the house together on the base. 

9. Put a small blob of icing on the back of a giant chocolate button and stick it in the corner of one of the roof pieces, then repeat, overlapping the buttons like roof tiles. If you run out of buttons like I have here, don't panic. You can cover that with icing to give it the appearance of snow.  

10. Ice the short sides of the roof pieces and stick them onto the top of the house. In the recipe, it says to use cocktail sticks, inserted blunt-edge into the house to pin your roof pieces on, but when I tried this the biscuit looked like it would crack. Instead, I used long wooden skewers cut short to prop up the roof bits while they dried. 

11. Decorate the house by piping snow along the roof edges, either roughing it up with a spoon or cocktail stick or carefully piping icicles. Pipe a doorknob and design on the door, snow along the windowsills, pipe around the trees and stick the supports to the back of them with icing. Pipe a design around the star shaped window - just be creative and do what you think will look good.

12. Leave the icing to set overnight and stick an electric tealight in through the back door and you're done. A pretty gingerbread house which also smells amazing, meaning you don't have to buy those expensive Christmas-scented candles.

If you're going to eat the house, probably do it within a week, before it goes stale, but you may want to keep it as a Christmas centrepiece, like my family will be doing. 

Happy Christmas Baking!