Quick and Easy Cookie Houses
Simple gingerbread-style houses to make with the kids
by Stefani Leto
Photos by John Ark III
Editor's note: Stef is not responsible for the cute but fairly goofy house shown in the photos. That's the best we could do in the TNH Test Kitchen. I am, however, responsible for the cute and very goofy little girl in the photo. [12/12/05 note: This is Josie, age 2. She's now 8 and her sister's nearly 5!] --Lynn
ou could bake up a batch of gingerbread, make a house plan, and fashion a beautiful gingerbread house. But if you missed out on the Martha gene, graham crackers are a foolproof alternative. Little kids (and many big ones, too) like the process of decorating more than the assembly, anyhow, so give these petite chateaux a try.
Trims we used in the TNH Test Kitchen: Oreos (for roof tiles); peppermint leaves (make great bushes!); sour apple gummi rings (for a door wreath); Reeses Pieces (for siding); root beer barrels (for the chimney); Red Vines (for roof trim); assorted hard candies (for windows and a walkway); and little chocolate figurines.
Gold and silver dragees
M & Ms and Reeses Pieces
Nut slivers or halves
Peppermints, root beer barrels and other hard candies
Various dry cereals
Gum drops--peppermint leaves make great trees!
This recipe is for a single batch. Depending on how many houses you wish to make, you may need to make more. If you do, remember that this dries out quite fast. You do not want your icing to dry out, as it turns into very hard white stuff--like cement.
If you wish, you could use the equivalent amount of freeze-dried egg whites, reconstituted. Icing made with these (available through mail order and at some stores) can be rebeaten to a stiff peak. Icing made with regular egg whites cannot be rebeaten if it becomes soft.
3 egg whites
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
3--3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until they begin to foam. Add the cream of tartar and beat until the whites are stiff but not dry. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar, beating for about 5 minutes until it reaches spreading consistency. Keep well covered and refrigerate when you're not actually using it.
Remember to stir your icing before using it, to dissipate any dry crust on top. Apply with a knife, a pastry cone, or zippered plastic bags.
You'll need graham crackers, about six per house, a batch or two of royal icing, and various items to stick on the houses for decoration. If you're working with young children--and why not do this in a group, to increase the fun factor?--you may wish to pre-assemble the houses and focus on decorating.
Each house will need a base to sit on. A square of foil-covered cardboard, about 8x10 inches or so makes a satisfying "yard" for the house.
The walls are four square sections of cracker. A peaked roof uses two three quarter crackers and the spaces between the end walls and the roof peaks can be carved out of the quarter sections left over from the roof. Use a serrated knife when you cut crackers, unless you really want a lot of crumbs. Put the icing in a pastry bag, if you have one, or do what I do. Fill a zippered plastic bag about half full with icing. Twist the excess plastic closed and fasten with a twist-tie. Snip off a corner, so you leave an opening about half the size of the opening on your toothpaste tube. You then hold the bag and "write" with it, by putting pressure on the top of the icing and forcing it out the bottom.
To assemble a house, edge one square cracker on two sides with icing. Place it on the base. Do the same with the second cracker. Now, gently but firmly, abut the second cracker at a 90-degree angle to the first, with the icing-covered edges meeting in between, one icing edge on the base. Repeat until all four crackers are standing in a square, with plenty of icing "mortar" on the corners. For a really sturdy house, run a bead of icing on the inside of each angle also. Don't overlap the cracker edges. Make them meet at their corners. One way to strengthen the walls is to place a hard, straight item, like a candy stick or stick pretzel, into the fresh icing on the outside of each corner. At the very least, be generous with icing. It's the glue for the whole structure.
To place the roof crackers, put a lot of icing on one edge of the house--double what you used for the walls. Start with one of the triangle pieces, edging its long side with an ample bead of icing also. Once you have both triangles up, squeeze icing on the tops of the remaining walls, plus the short sides of the triangles. Place your long roof pieces. Once you've set your roof, run some more icing along the peak line. Take a look on each end. Is every gap filled with icing? Add more if needed.
At this point, you have a basic peak-roofed hut. If it's going to be transformed into a candy wonderland, it has to be able to withstand some pressure. That means at least an hour for the frosting to set and get as hard as it needs to. Remember to cover the remaining icing, so it doesn't dry out, and let the house sit.
Now for the fun part. Let your imagination run wild. Does your house want a thatched roof? Shredded wheat cereal, glued on with icing, fills the bill. Do you want to draw with colored icing? Stick candies all over? There's no limit to the decorations. A variety of candies and other food items provides space for creativity. Adults may prefer minimal, icing-only, drawn decorations.
Once the house is decorated, the "yard" made of the base can also be decorated. Paths can be made, trees fashioned out of candies or frosting-covered ice cream cones, fences of pretzels can define areas; really, the options are boundless. Spreading a thick layer of royal icing as snow can make a winter scene; tinted green, it's plants. Little cookie people or animals can be made or purchased and stood around the yard. Even animals made out of candy, such as gummi bears, add life to your scene.
Children will understandably want to eat their houses. In a few days, though, they'll be quite stale and fit only for picking on, unless you're a die-hard sugar addict. Uneaten, they'll keep as long as they stay out of dust. Royal icing dries to a near-concrete hardness. Enjoy them no matter which approach you take.
Contributing Editor Stefani Leto writes and parents in the Bay Area. Mother of an almost-five year old and an infant, she says nothing challenges her mind like parenting. Her work also appears at http://www.windowbox.com and http://www.folksonline.com/folks/ts/1998/pph.html.