Build a house for the holidays. An edible house. But make it so ridiculously charming and sweet (literally as well as figuratively), that you won't want to mess it up by eating it. Even better, invite some friends, family, or kids over and host a gingerbread house-building party to get everyone in the Christmas mood. But be warned: Your home will be a construction site, so you need some drawings, specifications, and well, a plan.
First, is this a party for children, adults, or a mix? The planning is pretty much the same, although the latter two could include libations and higher-quality ingredients that require more nimble fingers.
While this whole building-gingery-candy-dotted-homes-thing is pretty classic, it will feel brand new to little kids and can make adults feel nostalgic and warm-fuzzy. Really. It's a great activity for a holiday party for 2.5-year-olds, teens, and adults — back in the day or today.
Second, if small children are included, dress them in smocks or aprons to protect their clothes. Those sticky, icing-covered fingers will know no bounds.
To help you get more excited about this idea, here's a heartwarming little gingerbread house movie we created a few years ago.
Awwww. OK, so follow these guidelines to keep your home and the party from turning into a disaster:
1. Limit your invitation list to four to eight guests. Don't invite more people than you have room for. Each house needs some space to spread out on a table.
2. Consider using a gingerbread house kit.
It's kinda cheating, but whatever. You can add all sorts of your own candies and personality flourishes to the house to make it your own. If you have fun, that's all that matters. They often come with a building tray, pre-baked gingerbread pieces for the walls and roof, pre-made icing that acts as glue, and assorted small, colorful candies for decorating.
3. Make the houses ahead of time, and use graham crackers, especially if your party is for children.*
No, it's not technically a gingerbread house, more like a graham cracker house, but come on. It's cool. One box of graham crackers can make four houses. Building the houses the day before allows the icing and walls to harden together, so it'll be less likely to collapse. (Also, make sure your home isn't too humid because that can encourage collapse as well.) To make the homes more stable, you can build the houses around a box, like a graham cracker box or a small cream carton with any round plastic spouts removed. *Or uncoordinated, impatient, or buzzed adults.
4. Don't forget the actual gingerbread.
If you're doing this thing all the way, with no shortcuts, try this gingerbread recipe, the top pick at Gingerbread House Heaven. Find and print out a pattern, like this simple one. Obviously you'd do this step at least the day before the party.
5. About the icing: Go royal.
Use royal icing, not cream cheese frosting. Royal icing doesn't necessarily taste great, but it works. "It is both decoration and also the 'glue' which helps hold the gingerbread house pieces together," according to Gingerbread House Heaven. Royal icing is the go-to kind of frosting that bakers and pastry chefs use for decorating cakes and cookies. The original version uses egg whites and confectioner's sugar. But if you don't want to use eggs because it will be sitting out for hours, there are alternatives, such as this recipe from Love to Know:
Eggless Vanilla Royal Icing
- 1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
- 4 teaspoons milk
- 2 to 3 teaspoons light corn syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Measure the sugar and pour it into a clean glass bowl.
- Add the milk, and stir it until there are no lumps of sugar.
- Stir in 2 teaspoons of the corn syrup; if you want a thinner consistency, add another teaspoon of syrup.
- Stir in the vanilla extract.
Put your icing into a Ziploc-type plastic sealable bag and squeeze it into one bottom corner, tying it off and snipping a tiny hole at the corner to make your own icing piping bag.
6. Set up a candy bar.
Whether or not you use a kit, provide additional fun small candies, such as mini marshmallows, pretzels, candy canes, and gummy bears. Place the candies in dishes and line them up as if on a buffet, or place them in the center of your table if everyone can fit at one table.
7. Provide food and drinks. Little nibbles are best. Some people advise finger foods, but we say if your hands are mixed up in icing, bite-sized fork food is best. Make a holiday-themed cocktail or spiked punch for adults and hot chocolate for kids.
8. Make your event as festive as possible.
Play holiday music. Have your Christmas tree up and decorated. Tell everyone to wear holiday clothes. Get little figurines to stick on or around your houses. And whatever you do, make sure you take photos of it all.
So go ahead and start building. In no time, you'll be making something like this:
Well … maybe not. It was the winning work in the teen category at the 2013 National Gingerbread House Competition in Apex, North Carolina.
We can aspire to this one, created by an adult in the 2012 competition:
And this one is just pretty.
Look, even hipster-millennials are into this game.
For holiday dishes with more function (as in taste, nutrition) than form, check out our Christmas recipe page.
Amy Sowder is a NYC-based food and fitness writer as well as the assistant editor for Chowhound. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her never-ending ice cream pursuits. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.