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Recipe: A gingerbread home for the holidays

Hansel and Gretel weren't the only suckers to fall hard for gingerbread. This is the season when professional bakers and newbie cooks, the young, the old and the in-between start to tackle gingerbread houses as the one big holiday project.

"First of all, everything that is miniature is appealing, and everything covered with candy is appealing. It's so much fun to see a house re-created in gingerbread," said Lauren Chattman, a pastry chef and co-author with architect Susan Matheson of "The Gingerbread Architect."

For Jennifer Lindner McGlinn, author of the newly released "Gingerbread" cookbook, the joy comes in piping decorative patterns of royal icing on the house, creating translucent windows from melted candies and seeing the whole thing on display. "It's a big project, but it's fun if done in small segments," McGlinn said.

"It's especially fun to make houses with children, as they can assist you in decorating, or even hold the pieces in place as they dry."

The challenges, though, can't be minimized.

Christina Banner, the 2005 winner of the Food Network's Gingerbread Challenge and author of "How to Build a Gingerbread House," has encountered plenty of mishaps. "Everyone says, 'My house fell down after I built it.' They're not baking a cookie, they're baking a structure," Banner said. "You have to bake the pieces low and slow so when they come out and cool, they will be rock-hard."

Having plenty of time to bake and construct the house is crucial. "If the recipe says to wait two hours to put the roof on, wait," Chattman said.

In working out a gingerbread house design, Chattman recommends focusing on one or two architectural features that will give the structure personality. Don't get too fussy.

Do be creative with the candy decorations. A Victorian farmhouse might be decorated with Necco wafers, licorice-flavored gum and peppermint-striped candy balls. An antebellum mansion can have pillars of stacked peppermint candy, while a Cape Cod cottage could have a fence made of yogurt pretzels, Chattman said.

- Bill Daley,

Chicago Tribune

MORE IDEAS

Books:

- "Gingerbread," by Jennifer Lindner McGlinn (Chronicle, $19.95)

- "The Gingerbread Architect," by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman (Clarkson Potter, $22.50)

- "How to Build a Gingerbread House," by Christina Banner (Penny Publishing, $19.95)

Web sites:

- Elise Bauer's "Simply Recipes" blog, http://simplyrecipes.com

- http://Allrecipes.com

- Celebrating Christmas' Gingerbread 101, http://celebrating-christmas.com

GINGERBREAD RECIPES

These recipes for gingerbread dough and royal icing come from "The Gingerbread Architect: Recipes and Blueprints for Twelve Classic American Homes." The book not only offers detailed instructions on the hows of gingerbread house construction but also features templates for each featured house.

Gingerbread dough

Makes 3 1/2 pounds

1 cup each: shortening, sugar

2 teaspoons each: baking powder, ground ginger

1 teaspoon each: baking soda, salt, ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 cup dark (not light or blackstrap) molasses

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons white vinegar

5 cups flour

- Combine shortening and sugar in the bowl of electric mixer; beat on medium high speed until fluffy. Add baking powder, ginger, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves. Beat until incorporated.

- Add molasses, eggs and vinegar; beat until smooth. Add flour, 1 cup at a time; mix on low until smooth. Scrape dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap; press into a rough square. Wrap tightly; refrigerate at least 3 hours and up to 3 days.

- When you're ready to shape and bake the gingerbread, follow the directions given for the particular house you are making.

Note: This dough is perfect for gingerbread houses; it is too tough, though, for cookies. A large stand mixer will accommodate one batch of dough. If your mixer is smaller and less powerful, you may have to make two half recipes.

Royal icing

Makes 6 1/2 cups

3 tablespoons meringue powder

1/2 cup warm water

1 package (16 ounces) confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

- Combine the meringue powder and water in a mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form.

- Add the confectioners' sugar and vanilla. Beat until shiny, smooth and increased in volume, 6 to 8 minutes. If too stiff to pipe or spread, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water; beat until the proper consistency is achieved. Use immediately or cover surface of icing with plastic wrap. Refrigerate up to 1 day.

Notes:

- Do not double this recipe unless you want a mess in the kitchen, warn co-authors Susan Matheson and Lauren Chattman. Make the recipe twice, transfer the first batch to another bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap while you make the second batch.

- Leftover icing should be refrigerated, the surface covered with plastic wrap.

- Meringue powder is available at some supermarkets, specialty food stores and bakery supply houses.

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