It is a tradition in a bakery culture like the German to make gingerbread houses (糖果屋) as the one described in the fairytale Hänsel and Gretel (漢賽爾與葛麗特), inhabited by an evil witch. This is the recipe for a gingerbread house as my father taught it to me. Strictly speaking, it is not “gingerbread” at all, because real gingerbread is not suitable for houses like these. First, it gets hard and dry after three days standing (and the houses are usually displayed for a few days for decoration), and it also gets too thick and massive so that it is not easy to produce the parts in the right size, especially for more sophisticated designs. The dough described here is based on a recipe for “Spekulatius”, traditional German Christmas cookies. With the right spices, however, it can taste almost like gingerbread. The amount of ingredients, here, is enough for a rather big house (let’s say, about 50cm high, wide and long).
- 1000g Wheat flour
- 750g Sugar (half white, half brown)
- 500g Butter (can partly be replaced 1:1 by Marzipan, for example 400g butter + 100g Marzipan)
- 4 Eggs
- Leavening agent: For special taste and right balance between brittleness and expansion during baking, it is recommended not to use baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), but potash (potassium carbonate) and/or salts of hartshorn (ammonium carbonate). I usually use a mix of the latter two, if available.
- Spices: Cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, anis, etc… If your supermarket has it, get “gingerbread spice” or “Spekulatius spice” mixes. In Asia (Taiwan, China,…) you may use “Five spice” (五香粉), which also gives it a “christmassy” flavour.
- For the “glue”: powder sugar, water, lemon juice (or “Citronella”).
- Block chocolate (“couverture”) for the coating.
- Candy and anything colourful for the decoration.
Mix all ingredients to obtain a homogenous solid dough. Homogenous means you have to knead it quite well for quite some time. It is easier when the butter gets a bit warm. However, you know the dough is good when your hands start getting sore. Put the dough into a fridge for at least 2 hours or, ideally, overnight. When it is cold it is much easier to process it.
Now the dough is rolled out (3mm thick) and the pieces that are needed for the building are cut out. It must be planned and measured in advance! This is the design and architectural part of the work. Then the pieces are baked in the oven. Depending on the type and power of the oven, the baking time is 10-15 minutes. Be sure to put the hot and still slightly soft pieces onto a plane surface where they can cool and harden without deformation.
You can either bake everything first (for simpler buildings where you can estimate the size of all parts beforehand), or start assembling the first pieces before baking more parts (which might be necessary when the size of further pieces depends on how the construction proceeds). The parts are “glued” together with a thick mix of powder sugar in water with a bit of lemon juice for better taste. Without the lemon juice, it will be too sweet (and only sweet)! As an alternative, my father mixed the powder sugar into egg white. It glues very well, and you can also apply it in the form of decorative snow and icicles. However, it turns so hard after a few days that sharp edges and pointy tips can injure your mouth while eating. Therefore, I prefer the softer version with lemon water. Be prepared for needing 500g of powder sugar for a house of the abovementioned dimensions. For 250g you will need only 2-3 spoons of water and a few drops of lemon juice. Apply the sticky mass to the edges of a piece and press it against the edge of the piece that it has to be connected with. Use supports (glasses, cups, boxes, books, etc.) if you are tired of holding the pieces with your hand. It usually takes 5 minutes for the pieces to be securely attached.
The most difficult part is usually the roof, or any part that protrudes or “hangs”, or is positioned in a slope. Big pieces need support from below, or they will bend and break after a while. When the building is complete it can be coated with chocolate and decorated with candy. Some candy might stick on the chocolate coating directly, others must be attached with a bit of the powder sugar glue. In my opinion, it should be as much candy and as colourful as possible, but in this point everybody is creative in a different way. Moreover, one of my maxims is that everything on and in the gingerbread house must be eatable (except, maybe, the gold foil of those chocolate/caramel coins, and, of course, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat)! See examples of gingerbread houses that I made in the past years in the following “background story”.
One of my very vivid childhood memories is the annual gingerbread house that my father made, usually around Christmas. We invited all the Kids from the neighbourhood and ate it together. Here is a photo of the house from 1984, and one with the neighbours’ Kids from 1985.
From the late 1990s onwards, I continued this culinary tradition. I was 16 when I first made a gingerbread house together with some friends. In the second year, a piece of gingerbread broke and we couldn’t build the house as planned. Instead, we improvised and assembled a “bunker” instead of a normal house. An idea was born: Why not making different buildings every year with some funny features? In the following years the designs and constructions got more and more sophisticated. Unfortunately, most of our early houses (like a nuclear power plant, or a football stadium) are not documented by photos. The oldest I found is from 2004 (poor quality though): Two gingerbread towers with a gingerbread airplane crashed into one of them.
When the constructions became more complicated and needed much time (it takes me three days to make the houses of the past few years), the preparation and the consumption had to be separated. The annual gingerbread house party with the candy house, additional other food (because just the house would be too sweet!), and a traditional German alcoholic drink called Feuerzangenbowle (fire punch) became an institution in my yearly schedule, usually around Christmas (even though one has nothing to do with the other). In 2005 and 2006 we held this party in the form of a contest with several teams making houses and a jury awarding the best, most creative or most delicious. In 2005 (too bad, no photos…) we had the most impressive and at the same time most disgusting house: as a tribute to hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans earlier that year, a team made a house in Southern USA style, put it into a large box and flooded it with 4 liters of jelly pudding! In 2006, the Korean pagoda made by my friend Doro and me could not compete with the amazing circus of Jonas and Steffi!
In 2007, I made a gingerbread version of the cathedral of my hometown Münster. I counted 436 pieces of candy on it.
2008 saw the model of the Tuckesburg, a famous building in Münster that once was the home of zoologist Prof. Landois, founder of the first zoo of Münster.
In 2009, I was in Japan for a research project and introduced the candy house tradition to my friends and fellows there. For the sake of simplicity, I chose the most original witch house design.
In 2010, I made the castle of Münster (known as the administrative building of the university).
By the way, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat are still the same that my father used. You can find them in almost all the photos posted here.
Among all the houses I made so far, 2011 is definitely the building with the biggest number of parts (more than 120). Does it look like Castle Neuschwanstein?
After staying in a Buddhist temple in Korea in 2012, I tried to build such a temple. However, that turned out to be too challenging because the roof of Korean-style temples is much larger than the construction underneath. This is impossible to resemble even with the best cookie recipe.
As usual, this house was consumed during a party with many friends. Not much later, in February 2013, I made another house for my family (parents and siblings, nephews and nieces). It is another small one that looks like my childhood home in the countryside near Hoetmar.
Later that year I left Germany for Asia. After moving to Taiwan around Christmas, I introduced myself to my new housemates and their friends with a gingerbread version of the Taipei101, until 2008 the highest building of the world. My gingerbread101 with a height of 118 cm was at that time the highest I had ever made.
In 2014, Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Therefore, I built the most famous landmark and symbol of the separation of East and West Germany, the Brandenburg gate. The Kimbab (Korean sushi) indicates that the party preparation was already proceeding…
A cineastic highlight of 2015 for many people was the release of a new Star Wars movie. For an old fan like me, it was an inspiration to construct one of its most iconic spaceships, the Millennium Falcon (70cm diameter). Unfortunately, due to high air humidity and some construction difficulties (Don’t try to make flat disk-like structures with gingerbread!), the Gingerbread Falcon broke on the day of its construction. But I could get good photos, at least!
How can this be topped? It probably can’t. In 2016 – still in Taiwan – our gingerbread house party was scheduled on December 24th, Christmas Eve. In Germany, this would be impossible, because this evening is an important family event, so that nobody would go to a party. Taking the opportunity of having such a party on Christmas, I decided to make a Christmas tree, combining the gingerbread tradition with a Christmas custom. With a height of 125cm, it also broke the record of 2013’s Gingerbread101.
This year, 2017, we decided not to make a candy house. It would be too much of a hassle to keep a very curious and uncontrollable Kid away from it (and chocolate coated cookies with candy on it are really not the stuff that 22-months-olds should eat…)! Instead, we will make Spekulatius cookies from the same dough with you (Tsolmo) and share them with visitors! When the time is right, there will be more candy houses, that’s for sure!