"If you mess up," says professional gingerbread house decorator Jacqui Niosi, "cover it with candy!"
Using a frosting bag to paint holly leaves on a gingerbread house, she confides: "If I messed up this roof, I would cover it with white frosting and make it 'snow.' The important thing is, don't get frustrated. And have fun!"
Ms. Niosi is the manager of Ginger Betty's Bakery, a neighborhood business not far from Boston Harbor in Quincy, Mass. Outside the store, a cold wind swoops off the ocean. But inside, everything is warm and sugary. Shelves bulge with fat, purple-sugar-coated cookies, jars of brightly colored gumballs and gumdrops, and gingerbread in every shape and size: turkeys, Pilgrims, the Red Sox, baby footprints, and more. And on shelf after shelf, rack after rack, sit the houses Betty's is known for - golden brown gingerbread houses dripping white frosting icicles.
"Lots of bakeries don't do houses," says Niosi, who estimates she decorates "thousands" each holiday season, "but I'm so used to it, it seems easy to me."
As a child, Niosi remembers baking with her Italian grandmother. They both stayed up until 3 a.m. Easter morning making pizzelles, a traditional holiday cookie. Niosi glances over at her colleagues in the kitchen busily rolling gingerbread dough, decorating cupcakes, and cutting shapes. "This all reminds me of her," she says.
After high school, Niosi went to work at Ginger Betty's. Owner Beth Veneto Jeannetti - the "Betty" of Ginger Betty's - took the teenager under her wing. "I'd make cakes at home," remembers Niosi, "and when I brought in pictures, Beth taught me better techniques."
Ms. Jeannetti is clearly delighted with the colorful confections that pack her store: "I mean, gingerbread and gumdrops. How cool is this?" She had always wanted to own a business. She made her first house for a caterer friend who needed a three-story gingerbread brownstone to decorate a law firm's Christmas party. "I had the whole dining room table tied up with Necco wafers, frosting, and gumdrops," she recalls. "I was saying to myself, 'I'm never going to do one of these again.' "
But the law firm loved her gingerbread brownstone so much they asked her to do a second. One house led to another, and she opened Ginger Betty's in 1995. "People would ask, 'What else can you do? You can't just do gingerbread.' But I had this vision. And now you see it everywhere, in all the magazines."
"I think it might be 'Gingy' from 'Shrek' who's made it so popular," muses Niosi. (For anyone who doesn't know, Gingy is a gingerbread-man character in the animated film. He's back for "Shrek 2" as well.)
The biggest house Ginger Betty's has built was a four-foot-tall Harry Potter castle. The most exotic, perhaps, was an Italian cityscape in gingerbread set on a canal of frosting.
Then there are the eccentric requests. One wedding couple wanted themselves done up as cookies for their wedding reception. "They got a [gingerbread] bride and groom ... and when they left their seats at the reception they put their gingerbread cookies there instead," Niosi recalls with a smile.
She puts the finishing touches on a house, writing "Merry Christmas" in perfect white-icing cursive.
"I'm not artistic with pencil and paper," she says, "but I can do it with frosting. Painting? Forget it. Frosting, no problem."
How an opera launched a confection
Clutching each other's hands and dropping breadcrumbs behind them to mark their path, Hansel and Gretel wander deep into the woods. But the crumbs are eaten by birds and the woods grow dark and menacing. Then suddenly, as if by magic, there it is: A house made of cake, with clear-sugar windows and gingerbread trim!
The Brothers Grimm published 'Hansel and Gretel' in their 1812 collection of folktales titled 'Children's and Household Tales.' In 1893, German composer Engelbert Humperdinck and his sister, Adelheid Wette, set the tale to music. 'Hansel and Gretel' opened in Weimar, Germany, two days before Christmas. Both the show and its 'hexenhaus' (witch's house) were an instant hit. People began to clamor for houses of gingerbread.
Ginger - as well as other spices, nuts, and citrus fruits - were probably brought to Europe by medieval crusaders returning from the Middle East. Ginger-flavored cake, bread, and cookies were first made in monasteries, where monks had access to honey from the beehives they kept (primarily to make beeswax candles).
The oldest written recipe for gingerbread ('Lebkuchen,' in German) is from the 16th century. It's on display in the National Germanic Museum in Nuremberg, a city known as the 'gingerbread capital of the world' since the Middle Ages. According to a Nuremberg law of 1645, only bakers who owned their own 'smoke' (oven) could bake gingerbread. Gingerbread was popular throughout Europe. It was almost always baked into shapes like stars, animals, hearts, or people. It was used to mark occasions from saints days to solstices.
What does it take to make a gingerbread house? Let's take a look in Ginger Betty's kitchen and see. (Note: Give yourself plenty of time for this project. You may want to consider making the gingerbread one day and assembling and decorating the house the next.)
1. Make the gingerbread dough. You can find many recipes in cookbooks and magazines. Roll out the dough until it's about 1/4 inch thick.
2. Cut out the shapes. Draw the shapes you'll need on cardboard and use them as outlines to cut out the dough. (Betty's bakers use special, large cookie cutters.) You can find ready-to-copy templates in magazines or library books. You'll need a front, back, two sides, and two roof pieces. Cut out a cardboard base for your house, too.
3. Bake the gingerbread at 375 degrees F. for 15 to 20 minutes. To tell if it's done, says baker Jacqui Niosi, 'push the middle with your finger. If it pops back up, it's ready. If it stays down and leaves an impression of your finger, it's too soft - you need to cook it longer.' Let the pieces cool.
4. Make the icing. This is the 'glue' that holds the house together. Here's our editor's favorite frosting recipe: Put one pound of confectioners' sugar and 5 tablespoons of meringue powder in a mixing bowl. Beat at low speed. Add up to 2 tablespoons of water, a drop at a time. Add food coloring if you like. Yield: six cups. Put the icing in a pastry bag. Or put it in a plastic bag and snip off part of one corner to make an opening through which you can squeeze the icing. 'The right consistency icing will make or break you,' says Beth Veneto Jeannetti, the 'Betty' of Ginger Betty's. 'Too soupy, nothing sticks. Too thick, and it's too hard to squeeze out of the bag.'
5. Apply the frosting to the bottom of the front of the house and stick it to the base. You'll need to brace the front (or have someone hold it upright) while you 'glue' the two sides to the front and to the base, one at a time. Glue the back to the sides and base. Let sit 30 mins.
6. Glue the roof pieces to the sides. Run a thick line of frosting down the middle of the roof where the two pieces join. Let sit another 30 minutes.
7. Decorate! Use icing to outline windows, trim, and designs. 'Glue' candies to the house: foil-wrapped chocolate balls, Necco wafers (they make good 'shingles'), gumdrops, and candy canes. Line the base and doorways with candies. And don't forget the 'yard': How about a garden with candy corn and red-hot 'peppers'? Unwrapped Tootsie Rolls make a plausible log pile, and you can make delicious bushes out of icing and M&Ms. Use your imagination!