The cutest crib on Candy Cane Lane 

Gingerbread house dough and meringue royal icing

Last year at this time, one of my childhood dreams finally came true: I made a gingerbread house. I was in deep winter country -- Chicago. The conditions were perfectly Siberian and ripe for constructing a make-believe house in winter wonderland.

The construction crew included my good pal, Nancy, and her two kids. In the name of sanity, we decided to make this a two-day project. The first task was making the actual gingerbread.

As romantic as building a gingerbread house sounds, we grown-ups had to take on the role of behind-the-scenes engineers rather than Martha-style decorators. We discovered early on that the key to good gingerbread housing is good materials. It needs to be sturdy rather than delicious, and I'll explain why.

If you use a dough more appropriate for making gingerbread people, you'll end up eating your project before it's finished. Moreover, you need a strong enough dough that resists buckling under candy-construction pressure, which the recipe below delivers. (It also won't shrink much in the oven, a problem we encountered when using another dough.)

Just as important is the quality of your "mortar," aka the royal icing, that keeps the whole shebang from collapsing. The secret ingredient is meringue powder, a mixture of egg whites, corn starch and cream of tartar, which is sold in bakery supply shops. Don't even think of making a royal icing without it.

As for choice of housing, I highly recommend something modest for your first endeavor (a small cottage versus a cathedral, for example), and I can attest to the accuracy of the templates in Great Gingerbread by Sara Perry.

While the kids were asleep, we made our walls, roof, etc. and allowed them to cool overnight. The next day, it took two intelligent adults to build the dang thing, one to brush on the icing, the other to hold the foundation together and seal the "joints."

Once the house was standing tall, we invited the kids to join us for turning it into a home. Nonpareils became roof tiles, jelly rings were holly wreaths, gumdrops transformed into shrubs, and red hots into chimney bricks. Using thin paint brushes, they applied icing to the candy and within an hour, this house was the crib on Candy Cane Lane.

From Cookies Unlimited by Nick Malgieri

5 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons ground ginger

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking soda

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

In a bowl, combine flour, spices, salt and baking soda; stir well to mix. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together butter and both sugars on medium speed, until soft and light, about 3-4 minutes.

Scrape down the bowl and beater, and add one-third of the dry ingredients. Beat in half the water, then another third of the dry ingredients. Beat in remaining water and dry ingredients. Dough will be somewhat dry and crumbly.

Scrape dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it smooth, but don't overwork so that butter melts. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rest for a few minutes at room temperature. Use dough immediately, or keep wrapped in the refrigerator.

When ready to bake, set racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Cut dough into two pieces. Rewrap one half and return to refrigerator. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to the size of the baking sheet. Transfer dough to pans and use rolling pin to smooth evenly in pan.

Bake dough for 15 minutes, until it is firm, but not completely baked through. Remove pans from oven and place on racks. Place one pattern on one pan of the dough and use a small, sharp knife to cut around the pattern and to make windows, doors, etc. This is also the time to use candy to make "glass."

Return pans of cut dough to the oven for another 15 minutes, until dough is firm and baked through. Remove from oven and place on racks until thoroughly cooled.

From Great Gingerbread by Sara Perry

3 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons meringue powder

6-8 tablespoons warm water

Food coloring or paste (optional)

Water as needed

Beat sugar, meringue powder and water with an electric mixer on low speed, until well-blended. Increase speed to high and beat until icing forms stiff peaks, 6-8 minutes. Add coloring during last few minutes of beating. Icing should hold a peak but be pliable enough to flow through the tip of a decorating bag.

If icing is too stiff, add water, 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until pliable. Use immediately or cover with a damp, clean cloth to prevent from drying out. If planning to work in stages, cover surface with a piece of plastic wrap and refrigerate. Icing can be stored up to 3 days. Makes 3 cups, enough for building a small cottage.

No pastry bag? Make one, with a Ziploc-type bag. Scoop icing into bag and smoosh it to a bottom corner. With scissors, cut an opening about 1/8-inch thick.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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