Ultimate Pro Tips for Building an Epic Gingerbread House
Matthew Lodes, the executive chef at the stylish Rose Bakery in New York City, does not mess around when it comes to gingerbread. Lodes, who is also a classically trained pastry chef, spends each Christmas season building towering gingerbread houses that take months of sketching, test runs and long hours in the kitchen. These are not the cardboard-like gingerbread houses that you find in your local supermarket: Most of the candy is made from scratch, the gingerbread is fresh and aromatic, and the houses are incredibly sturdy. Here, the gingerbread master himself tells Food & Wine how it’s done and shares his essential tips to help you make your most impressive, centerpiece-worthy house yet.
When it comes to the gingerbread: to buy or not to buy?
It's absolutely important to make your own gingerbread. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but it gives your house a unique, personalized touch. Unless, of course, you want to buy one from me!*
How do you prevent your homemade gingerbread from baking into a giant blob?
When you roll out your gingerbread, let it rest for a few hours—ideally, overnight. Then bake it at a low temperature, say 300°. This way your gingerbread won’t rise and will keep its shape. If the gingerbread does become misshapen, you can pull it out of the oven halfway through baking to trim the edges with a serrated knife. Then return it to the oven to finish baking.
The day after decorating, my gingerbread house is always a big, naked cookie surrounded by a pile of candy. Tips for making it stick?
Absolutely. I always add a bit of distilled white vinegar to the royal icing—it aids in hardening. A lot of people skip this step.
What about candy—any favorite decorations?
In the past, I’ve made a lot of the candy myself, but in all honesty, it’s a pain. Candy-making is dangerous; coming into contact with cooked sugar is painful and the pain can last for hours. Not to mention, the scar it will leave!
My suggestion? Just buy it. The key to picking your candy is in the size. I like small candy so that you can fit more details onto the house, such as Skittles and Tic-tacs. They adhere nicely to the icing and the small size shows how much work you put into it. I also enjoy sticking with the traditional seasonal colors for candy and I’ll occasionally dye my royal icing, as well. Another favorite ingredient: nuts. Whole hazelnuts, almonds and pecans add nice texture and walnut halves make for great mini-wreaths!
What is the most extreme gingerbread house you’ve ever made?
The biggest one I've ever made was four feet wide and three feet tall; however, it had to go in a narrow space, so it was only nine inches deep. It was tricky because I had to carry it up two flights of stairs. My only tip for transporting a gingerbread house is to hold tight!
So we all want to know: Any gingerbread house epic fails?
Luckily, I’ve never had a major disaster, but one time I was doing an all-day demo at Williams-Sonoma and my tempered chocolate roof didn't want to cooperate—chocolate and hot lights do not mix well. To make matters worse, a chocolatier friend of mine from Spain, Ruben Alvarez, was there to watch me. He understood the situation, but that didn’t stop my roof from almost collapsing in front of the whole audience!
*There’s no shame in having a pro do it for you. If you’re in the New York area, you can buy a fully decorated gingerbread house from Rose Bakery. $65/each; call 646-837-7754 to order.