Written by Mary Welch Wednesday, December 01 2010
Snapshot: Christina Banner
Christina Banner has been creating gingerbread houses competitively since 1999. She was the grand prize winner of the National Gingerbread House Competition at the Grove Park Inn Resort in Asheville, N.C., in 2004 and winner of the Food Network's Gingerbread Challenge in 2005. Her journey to stardom began much earlier in her mother’s kitchen. In high school, she worked in the kitchen of a restaurant and banquet facility. After graduation, she attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., graduating in 1993. How to Build a Gingerbread House is her first cookbook. To learn more, visit her website, www.GingerBreadBuilding.com.
Womenetics: Why build a gingerbread house?
Christina Banner: Building a gingerbread house is a wonderful holiday project that families can do together. Children will delight in the entire process from planning the design and grocery list to adding a final sprinkling of sugar "snow" to the finished house. It is a fun, memory-building activity that also encourages creativity and teamwork.
Womenetics: How much work is it?
Banner: Space out the work. For example, if you are baking your house from scratch, mix the dough one day, and roll it out and bake it the next. Assemble the walls and roof of the house early on the day you plan to decorate it. With a little planning, a gingerbread house can be completed in two or three days, making it a perfect weekend activity. You could also choose to use a prebaked or preassembled gingerbread house kit, which would eliminate all mixing and baking, allowing you to simply enjoy the decorating.
Womenetics: Do you need special baking tools?
Banner: You may be surprised to learn that most of the tools needed to build a gingerbread house are probably already in your own kitchen. Basic kitchen equipment and grocery store ingredients are all you need to complete the project. For piping icing, I like to use disposable plastic zip-top freezer bags rather than pastry bags. They are easy to find, you can seal the top to prevent the icing from oozing out as you squeeze (great for beginners), and they can be snipped with scissors at one corner to create any size opening you need.
Womenetics: What are the secrets to a successful gingerbread house?
Banner: Remember that you must bake gingerbread for houses much longer than you would bake gingerbread cookies. It must be very dry throughout and have a rich brown color. A low oven temperature (300 or 325 degrees) will help to keep the browning even. If your gingerbread looks like it is browning too quickly, especially around the edges, then lower the oven temperature a little more.
Womenetics: Are they just for the Christmas holidays?
Banner: Definitely not. Sometimes a gingerbread project is even more enjoyable at unexpected (and often less hectic) holidays. A St. Patrick's Day gingerbread house, decorated with as many green candies as you can find, is fun to make. Or you could make a colorful gingerbread home for the Easter Bunny, complete with a carrot garden made with little orange candies for carrots and chocolate cookie crumb "dirt." A summertime gingerbread sandcastle is easy to create by coating your gingerbread with graham cracker crumb "sand."
Womenetics: Where did gingerbread houses start?
Banner: Some food historians believe that gingerbread house baking began in Germany, after the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was published in the early 1800s. It is said that German bakers began creating gingerbread houses, inspired by the house made of cake and candy that the children in the tale discover in the woods.
Womenetics: If something goes wrong, do you have to start all over again?
Banner: Part of the beauty of a gingerbread house is its imperfection. The clutter of mismatched candy and crooked windows all add to the charm. Remember that a little extra icing "snow" can always cover up anything you don't like, such as cracks in the walls or a place where a piece of candy fell off. The only reason you would need to start over would be if the gingerbread walls or roof are not baked enough and are too soft to hold up.
Womenetics: Can you give us a recipe for a gingerbread house?
Banner: The two recipes you will need to make a gingerbread house are gingerbread dough and royal icing. Look for gingerbread dough that is specifically for gingerbread houses, not a recipe that is intended to be gingerbread men or cookies.
A gingerbread cookie recipe is going to remain soft, as it is intended to be eaten, while gingerbread houses need to be strong and sturdy. Royal icing is the "glue" that will not only hold your house together, but will be used to apply all of your decorations as well. Royal icing will dry strong and very hard and therefore should not contain any fat at all. You will find recipes that contain either fresh egg whites or dried egg whites (also called meringue powder) and water. A gingerbread house kit will usually contain prebaked gingerbread pieces and either ready-made royal icing or a mix.
Womenetics: What is your favorite memory of making gingerbread houses?
Banner: As a child, I was always in the kitchen with my mother and grandmothers. I would stand on a chair at the kitchen counter so I could see what was going on, and I got involved in everything.
As Christmas neared, my mother would play Christmas records and we would bake together. One year we made our first gingerbread house, which we worked on for a few days, and I insisted on playing the same record over and over the entire time (it was John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album). To this day, when I hear a song from that album, I think of that gingerbread house. That music even became the inspiration for the winning house I made for a Food Network challenge. We were asked to create a gingerbread house that reflected our favorite holiday memory. I made a gingerbread and sugar record player and built my music-themed house on top of it.
Womenetics: How can you convince kids today to spend time in the kitchen cooking a gingerbread house?
Banner: Allow each family member to have a say in the planning and design of the house, and remember to keep the activity fun. Challenge your family to use what you already have in your cabinets or pantry for decorating the house. (This is also a great way to keep costs down). Trim your windows or shingle your roof with breakfast cereal, or create a snow-covered fence with a row of pretzels sprinkled with a little granulated sugar. Let your children use their imaginations and see what they come up with.
Womenetics: What advice would you give to someone making her first gingerbread house?
Banner: Remember to allow yourself plenty of time so that it does not become stressful. If you do a little bit each day to get ready (mixing dough, baking pieces, putting the house together), then you can enjoy decorating and embellishing your house in a more relaxed way.
Womenetics: Is every part of the house made from gingerbread?
Banner: Other than the gingerbread walls and roof, the only other necessity is the royal icing. You might find that, after baking, you have some gingerbread dough left over. You can use this to bake window shutters, chimneys, doors, or even a gingerbread doghouse to add to your design. If you want to build more parts to your house, but do not have any gingerbread dough left over, you can cut graham crackers into the shapes you need.
Womenetics: Tell us how to make greenery.
Banner: Adding trees and greenery to your house is an easy way to give it a festive feel. Think of upside-down ice cream cones covered with green icing for evergreen trees. Shrubs can be made from large green gumdrops or candy "spearmint leaves." Coconut tinted with green food color also works very well (put some sweetened flaked coconut in a zip-top bag, add a few drops of green food color, seal the bag, and knead well to evenly distribute the color). My favorite way to create greenery is my Tree and Greenery Mix.
Tree and Greenery Mix
This easy mixture is a great way to make evergreen trees of any size to add to your gingerbread house landscaping. It is also perfect to shape into wreaths, garland, bushes, or shrubbery.
4 tablespoons butter
10 ounces large marshmallows
2 teaspoons green liquid food color
1 teaspoon water
5 cups cornflakes
Lightly grease a medium glass bowl; set aside.
In a heavy bottomed, medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat.
Add the marshmallows and stir constantly until completely melted and smooth. Remove from heat.
Whisk or stir in the liquid food color and the water until combined.
Add the cornflakes and gently stir until they are completely coated with the melted marshmallow mixture. Be patient and keep stirring gently; this could take up to three or four minutes. A few uncovered pieces are OK as they will fill in as the mixture rests, but be sure to get the cornflakes as covered as possible.
Scrape the mixture out into the greased bowl and allow the mixture to rest at room temperature until it is firm enough to hold its shape (15 to 30 minutes).
Lightly grease your hands and shape the mixture as desired. Place your greenery pieces on waxed or parchment paper and allow them to firm up overnight. Once set, they can be attached to your gingerbread house or landscape.
Recipe from How to Build a Gingerbread House: A Step-by-Step Guide to Sweet Results by Christina Banner, Penny Publishing, Second Printing 2010.
Mary Welch is a freelance writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Dawson Times, Plan Your Meeting magazine, and Atlanta Business magazine. Previously, she held many positions with Leader Publishing, including editor-in-chief of Atlanta Woman, editor of Business to Business magazine, and editor of Catalyst magazine. As editor of Business to Business, she assigned, edited, and conceptualized a series that was awarded Silver in the 2005 GAMMA Awards for Best Series. Welch was a reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle for eight years and freelanced for publications including Glamour, Advertising Age, South, Georgia Trend, and Oz. From 2000 to 2003, she served as vice president of media relations for Bank of America, during which time she authored Forever Green: A History and Hope of the American Forest with Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.