Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman combs Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
Each December when I was growing up, my mother’s gingerbread house made its triumphant reappearance from the basement. Although it was constructed in the late 1970s, its nonperishable ingredients of cardboard and royal icing made it immortal. Annually, its icicles dripped off its peppermint candy roof, the candy cane mailbox stood waiting for packages, and sugar crystal snow glittered in the soft light cast through wax-paper window panes. For years, I wondered: who lived inside?
The answer: a witch. Because the tradition of holiday gingerbread houses started with the edible house in the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. When the Brothers first penned the tale in Germany in 1812, they described the witch’s house as made “of bread and covered with cakes, while its windows were of clear sugar.” In artists’ visualizations of this tempting structure, the house became ever more elaborate and candy-covered, especially after the fairy tale premiered as an opera in Germany during the Christmas season of 1893. Sometime in the mid-19th century, families began creating their own miniature replicas of the witch’s house at Christmastime. By 1881, the idea had traveled to England — a British story described a holiday window featuring “…Hansel and little Gretel in a meadow full of flowers and long grass and mushrooms all cleverly made out of sugar and chocolate…a wicked old witch peeped out of her hut… it was all built of gingerbread and cake.”
The fairy tale always had an association with Christmas in the 19th century — as did gingerbread (or lebkuchen), another German creation. Traditionally, it’s made with spices and honey; slightly pliable when warm but indestructible when cool, it’s the ideal edible building material. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the houses began popping up in America, where they were often advertised for purchase at neighborhood bakeries. In the 1960s, the popularity of gingerbread houses exploded, and by 1971, even First Lady Nixon had added one to the White House Christmas display. Most of the recipes and ephemera you can find on Etsy today come from the mid-20th century, and all of it shows the gingerbread houses as charming wintery wonderlands, notably free of witches and German children.
Having never made a gingerbread house before, I decided this year was going to be the year. I dug up a vintage lebkuchen recipe from 1969’s Time Life Foods of the World: The Cooking of Germany, made with lemon zest, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg — but no ginger. You won’t need any holiday-scented candles while you’re baking these cookies: your house will smell amazing.
If you want to build your own gingerbread house this holiday season, here are a few tips to put you on the path to success:
Buy a gingerbread house mold. You can find two types of them on Etsy: a three-dimensional mold, designed for soft gingerbread cake; and a flat pan mold with impressions of the sides and roof of a gingerbread house. I used the latter, but rather than baking the dough right in the pan, I greased the pan, rolled the dense dough into the molds, and then used the tip of a sharp knife to gently lift the dough back out. (This allows you to bake more than one set of impressions at once; doing them singly takes forever.) After trimming the excess dough from the edges, I baked the cookies on a greased cookie sheet in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes. The cookies emerged beautifully imprinted with roof shingles and log cabin sides, and — once fully cooled — were ready to be assembled on a flat base, using royal icing for the seams.
Spring for some accessories. When it’s time to decorate, you can make the whole house look a lot more profesh by purchasing some pre-made accessories from Etsy. I bought a set from Alinomnoms Chocolates that included a red door, white picket fences and a decorated Christmas tree. Or, you could go with a magical, deep-woods theme and order the extraordinary edible ferns and mushrooms from Andie’s Specialty Sweets. Touches like these made my project come together in minutes.
Call a craftier friend. I’m a great cook, but a crafter I am not, so I texted my friend Sarah and she was at my apartment in minutes with a spectacular collection of edible glitter. (The craftier friend can also advise you on the finer points of candy placement.)
If your gingerbread house still comes out a tragedy, Etsy can help you with that, too. There are kits available — even for those seeking vegan or organic versions. Or, you can just go ahead and order a gingerbread house fully assembled and decorated by a professional baker, like the ones from The Gingerbread Factory.
I love my little homemade house. It doesn’t sit exactly straight and maybe the candies aren’t perfectly symmetrical, but it’s a darling part of my Christmas display. I think any fairy tale witch would be proud to call it her home.