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A Gingerbread House Built of Whimsy and Love

Instead of giving up when she made gingerbread men that nearly broke her teeth, Beth Donovan found another, better use for the dough: building a gingerbread house. It's been a tradition in her family ever since. <strong>Scroll down for recipes.</strong>
Beth Donovan, NPR /
Instead of giving up when she made gingerbread men that nearly broke her teeth, Beth Donovan found another, better use for the dough: building a gingerbread house. It's been a tradition in her family ever since. Scroll down for recipes.
Forget the hot-glue gun: May, 10, uses a hair-dryer to help transform frosting into concrete.
Beth Donovan, NPR /
Forget the hot-glue gun: May, 10, uses a hair-dryer to help transform frosting into concrete.
Donovan's children have different decorating styles. Isabel, 11, prefers perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy.
Beth Donovan, NPR /
Donovan's children have different decorating styles. Isabel, 11, prefers perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy.

Every self-respecting mom bakes with her children at this time of year. It's in the handbook. You really have no choice. Slice-and-bake cookies featuring unnaturally green trees will do, but let's face it, something involving a rolling pin and a cookie cutter is preferred.

When my first-born was 2 and visions of perfection still danced in my head, I decided that we'd bake gingerbread men together. We would fill the house with their lovely holiday scent, and with any luck, I'd move straight on to the bonus round in the mommy book and "create a tradition."

My Joy of Cooking made it look so easy, and things started OK. The recipe was uncomplicated, and the dough was soft enough for a toddler to roll and cut. My son's gingerbread people, with their frosting faces and red-hot cinnamon buttons, were the stuff of a Martha Stewart photo spread.

Then we tried to bite into the cookies. They were horrible, and so hard that our teeth nearly broke. They were bad men, men of granite not gingerbread.

But I am not a woman without hope.

Rather than abandon my first annual tradition on a technicality, we turned the not-cookies into ornaments. By the following Christmas, I had figured out a use for the rock-hard slabs of gingerbread: We'd build a house with them.

And not just any house. We had dreams. Like any self-respecting 3-year-old, my son wanted a big house, something suitable for Santa or maybe a professional athlete. We made the templates with legal-size scratch paper and proudly rolled and cut the dough.

As I moved the dough from the cutting board to cookie trays, a tiny doubt wandered near my high spirits. The walls were huge, and no two were of the same thickness or size. There wasn't a right angle to be found.

Let's just say the house was not plumb. It listed, twisted and collapsed. If two walls stood for a moment, they crashed with the placement of the third. Just when its four walls looked solid, the whole thing buckled when the roof was set.

I blamed the frosting. The simple confectioners'-sugar-and-water frosting Joy recommended was simply not up to the job. Few frosting recipes tout their cement-like properties, but we were on a mission and pushed ahead.

A lesser woman would have broken out the hot-glue gun. Not me. Instead, I got out the blow dryer. While the toddler was napping, I tackled the roofing. A meringue with a pound of confectioners' sugar may not be tasty, but it's stiff, it's food and it blow-dries into concrete.

When my baby woke up, the gingerbread house was standing. He covered every inch with candy, and a tradition was born after all.

Over the years, other home-building practices have become traditional. When the graham-cracker-on-milk-carton houses came home from school, they were added to the property. The yard must have a tin foil pond and an ice-cream-cone forest.

And since having heaps and gobs of candy of all colors makes for the best house, I persuaded the kids to set aside every birthday party goody bag and much of the Easter and Halloween candy for the winter project. The planning became year-round fun, and jack-o-lanterns and bunnies typically adorn the walk. This year, the kids added a chocolate eyeball from Halloween for a security camera.

Their design techniques vary widely. Chance is a friend to my whimsical younger daughter. She paints her side with frosting and randomly places the smallest and loveliest candies.

Her big sister is just the opposite, preferring perfectly symmetrical rows of carefully placed, color-coordinated candy, as in a traditional gingerbread house. Naturally, her job became to decorate the roof that faced our front door — to best show off the one conventional element of our gingerbread house.

After some years, her twin brother asked, "How come I always have to decorate the back of the house?" Why? Because he wanted to add an outhouse, trash heap and log pile to the grounds, and everyone knows they go in the backyard.

The construction process remains ugly. The roof nearly always slides off at least once, and a full implosion is not uncommon. This year, we managed to make the house stand on the first try, but there was a 2-inch gap along the top of the roof.

It wouldn't be our house without such problems. We filled the hole with a row of marshmallows crowned with mints and tiled with candy corn. It's gorgeous.

The kids are well on to my save-the-candy gambit, and it's been a few years since I could persuade our now 16-year-old eldest to decorate a side.

I get teary thinking there may be a holiday without a candy house, but then, I think about the years we set it outside for the birds around Valentine's Day or sometimes Easter. Not even a spring rain can melt this rock-hard house.

Some traditions are meant to stand.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Beth Donovan
Beth Donovan works jointly with NPR's News and Programming teams and is the executive producer of Life Kit. This is the third podcast Donovan has led for NPR. She was the co-creator and executive producer of The NPR Politics Podcast from its November 2015 launch through May 2019 and was the co-creator and senior editor of It's All Politics, NPR's first podcast to exclusively feature original content.
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