A cardboard model is essential for cookie-pattern pieces.
PHOTO: KATHY KELLOGG
There's something special about those seven days before Christmas. Maybe it's the holiday magic in the air or just having the children home on vacation. At any rate, we always get the urge to undertake some memorable family project during that pre-Yule week. And this past year, it involved constructing a gingerbread house . . . but not your run-of-the mill, four-walls-and-a-roof variety. Oh, no! It had to be very, very special . . . a dome — a miniature replica of our dream home — made of cookies, candy, and lots of love!
Building this dream, however, wasn't as easy as we had first imagined. Before we could even whip up a batch of gingerbread, it was necessary to research dome construction, make patterns and models, and prepare a step-by-step building plan.
I soon found myself with every dome building book our local library had to offer, boggled down in terms such as trapezoidal icositetrahedron, hexakis octahedron, and triakis icosahedion. Angles, strut lengths, and complicated mathematical computations added to the confusion.
Fortunately, I soon discovered that dome-home basics aren't nearly so mystifying as some books would lead you to believe. Geodesic structures are simply strong, light, convexly curved buildings approximating spheres or half-spheres. (Geodesic is a mathematician's term for the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere.) The dome's surfaces are strong, because — like a set of interlocking arches — each supports the others. When the basic units triangles attached in five-part (pentagonal) or six-part (hexagonal) sections — are hooked together, the result is a simple, symmetric shape that needs little in the way of additional supports such as beams or columns. And because this type of dome is made of many identical parts (of which the majority are triangular), it's very well suited W for mass construction . . . and for ginger' bread houses.
The version we chose was a modified dome structure — adapted from plans in a library book — with hexagonal sections, top spacers, bottom risers and spacers, and rectangular doorway and window pieces (see the illustration). I estimated that the gingerbread version would be about one-tenth the size of the house in the plans, so I developed a pattern by dividing by ten all the measurements given in the book.
Next, I cut pattern pieces from lightweight cardboard (old file folders), and taped them together to make a model. This was an invaluable aid in visualizing the actual angles, shapes, and three-dimensional relationships.
After the model met with my family's approval (and I took a bow for my architectural talent), we decided to make a cardboard frame . . . which would function like the struts of a full-sized dome, add durability, and greatly simplify the construction.
For this project, we employed heavier material (the back of a paper tablet) and used the pattern to mark out the pieces . . . except that this time we trimmed out and discarded the center of each one (leaving a 1/2" to 1" border). Since strength and security were very important, we used plenty of masking tape to put the frame together.
The next step was to find a "plot" to put the house on. Ideally, its yard would extend at least 6 inches beyond the structure on all sides. Corrugated cardboard, polystyrene foam, a breadboard, a large baking pan, or some similar item that had been covered with taped-down aluminum foil would serve well for the base.
Because we wanted our little house to light up, we ran a small night-light fixture through a hole in the base, secured it with electrical tape, and peeled the foil back to prevent shocks. (Bulbs larger than a five watt Christmas tree lamp could burn or melt the house's interior, and candles not only would be dangerous — especially with a cardboard frame — but also would be very difficult to light in the completed dome.) We then used masking tape to secure the frame over the light.
Now, we needed to find a site for the finished project. That display area, we reasoned, would have to be close to an electrical outlet . . . out of the reach of small hands and pets . . . and fitting for an elaborate Christmas decoration. Finally, we decided on the dining room table, although this limited our eating space somewhat.
Gingerbread House Basics
You could feel the excitement in the air as the first batch of gingerbread was being mixed. First, in a saucepan, we put together 3/4 cup of brown sugar, 3/4 cup of molasses, and 3/4 cup of butter (margarine could be used instead) . . . and heated the mixture over a low flame until it began to bubble. At that point, we took it off the stove, and when it was just barely warm, added 1 large egg, stirring until it disappeared.
Next, in a big bowl we mixed 4 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour . . . 1 teaspoon each of salt, baking powder, and cinnamon . . . 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda . . . 1/4 teaspoon of cloves . . . and 1 tablespoon of ginger. Then in went the molasses mixture, to be stirred until a thick dough was formed. This was put on a floured breadboard (a piece of waxed paper would have done as well), and was pressed and kneaded — just like bread dough — for 5 to 10 minutes until it was the consistency of clay. Finally, we patted it out into a rectangle and left it in a sealed plastic bag to" rest" overnight.
The next day, we set the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and, on a floured board, rolled out the dough until it was about 1/8" thick. After strategically arranging the cardboard pattern pieces on it, I used a sharp knife to cut the shapes out. (We saved the scraps in a plastic bag and rerolled them to cut more pieces.) Then I cut out the windows and doors with the knife and a floured cookie cutter. All in all, it took three batches of dough to make the necessary gingerbread "plywood" for our house . . . along with a few gingerbread men and women, for fun.
(If some of the cookies got dark too fast, we took them out and finished cooking the rest.) "STAINED GLASS" WINDOWS Since we wanted our gingerbread dome to be very special, we filled in all the window and door spaces with brightly colored "glass" made from melted Lifesaver candies. (The clear fruit-flavored ones seemed to work best.)
After separating the candies by color, we placed each batch between layers of waxed paper. Then we crushed each mound of sweets with a mallet. The tiny bats were spooned into the windows and doors that were cut into the cookie pieces. If you try making windows, however, keep in mind that the pan must be lined with aluminum foil before you put the unbaked cookie pieces on it. Then, when the gingerbread is about half cooked — with 6 to 8 minutes more to go — add the crushed candy, which will melt together to form a smooth pane. Sometimes the proper timing is hard to estimate, and the windows burn and turn brown before the cookies are done. But if you cook the solid pieces first, you'll be better able to judge just how much baking time is generally required.
Once the gingerbread was cooled enough to touch, we put the pattern pieces on top and trimmed off any excess cookie with a sharp knife. Otherwise, the house would have been difficult, if not impossible, to put together. If you break or burn a piece, make a new one . . . though small cracks can be repaired later with frosting. (Any leftover dough can be used to populate your gingerbread world with cookie people, animals, trees, and vehicles.)
We let the edible boards dry overnight before putting the dome together, but made sure they were out of the reach of hungry pets and little (and big!) fingers.
With the dome home ready for construction, the next step involved making some frosting "glue". We blended 3 cups of powdered sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar in a small bowl, added this to two egg whites — a little at a time — and then mixed it with an electric beater on low speed. (You can also whip it with a spoon.) That done, we put in 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. (For a flavor variation, use 1 tablespoon of vanilla and I tablespoon of water.) We wanted the icing to be about as thick as mashed potatoes. When it wasn't just right, we added sugar to thicken it, or put in lemon juice (or water) to thin it. We found that paste food coloring produced dark, dramatic effects, and liquid colors gave pleasing pastel shades.
Since interruptions could occur when the dome was being built, we kept the icing from drying out by covering the bowl with plastic wrap when we weren't working on our creation. In fact, when tightly covered, the frosting could be stored overnight, if necessary. We also discovered that it was best, when using the topping, to keep the bowl covered at least halfway with a damp cloth, a paper towel, or some plastic wrap to keep it from hardening too fast.
Now the fun began! First, we brushed the crumbs from each piece. Since we had a cardboard frame, it really didn't matter where we starred, but it made sense to work from the ground level up. Our frosting glue was put on the back edges of each piece (where it met the frame) and along the seams (where they met other cookies) . . . and applied so that it was about the thickness of the gingerbread itself. (You can use a butter knife, a small spatula, or a cake decorator with a medium tip to apply this "cement".)
As we put each cookie in place, we held it a minute or two until it stuck on firmly. Frosting would sometimes ooze out between the pieces, but we thought that simply added to the dome's charm. However, you can smooth these seams, if desired, with a damp cloth. Once the basic structure was complete, we let it dry overnight before continuing the project.
Adding the home's finishing touches turned out to be the most fascinating part of this project. Gingerbread porches, woodsheds, overhanging roofs, balconies, and decks can be attached with icing, while candy-cane pillars and columns will give such creations added stability and strength.
As it happened, detailing the gingerbread dome also proved to be the most time consuming part of the operation. For example, my assigned task of adding the wafer-cookie shingles ("sawed" into small pieces with a steak knife) one by one with frosting glue took a full two days. Once that was accomplished, the whole family joined in to decorate the house with gumdrops, small colored candy "lights", licorice whips, and frosting icicles.
The yard, though, still sparkled with aluminum foil, so — with icing snow — we added the "outside" atmosphere, building drifts around the house and beside the carob-chip walkways. (You can, by the way, use cotton and/or coconut if you don't want to use that much sugar!) Real trees (cuttings from shrubs outside) sprang up on the snow-covered lawn, anchored with icing and toothpicks through holes in the base. Marshmallow trees were planted by the house's front door. Large pretzels became firewood and split-rail fences, and a cardboard mailbox on a pretzel pole was placed near the fence, complete with tiny letters and Christmas cards.
Finally, we added a dog figurine by the mailbox, a small ceramic cat sat on the front porch roof, and a wax snowman smiled in the yard. It was complete! We stepped back and admired our magnificent gingerbread dome home. With light shining through its colored windows and a sifting of powdered sugar snow over everything, the little confectionary dwelling seemed to come alive, and we caught ourselves peering into the windows, as if we expected to see miniature people busy inside. "I wish I lived there," was our common sentiment.
. . . As the days passed, one by one the carob chips disappeared from the walkway. And then the shingles were missing from one corner of the porch overhang. Christmas was over. Little "mice" began nibbling away at the beautiful structure. One day the fence was gone, then one piece of the house, and another, and another . . . until all that was left was a cardboard frame, an aluminum base, and some unforgettable memories of a home made of gingerbread shaped like a dome.