One of our favorite, family Christmas traditions is to build and decorate gingerbread houses. Every year, each of the kids make their own gingerbread house. That leaves me with a gingerbread village for the centerpiece of my dining room table! It can be quite an undertaking with ten kids and a medium size kitchen, but it is worth all the effort. The memories of spending more than half a day together, gathered around the kitchen table, decorating, are priceless - jokes, stories, songs, arguments (yes, arguments over whose turn it is with the frosting bowl), and companionship.
This is how we do this with ten kids.
1. Ahead of time gather all the necessary supplies: graham crackers, powdered sugar, meringue powder, boards covered in foil to place the houses on, cake decoraters (If possible, have multiple cake decoraters if you have a lot of kids decorating. I like this one from Pampered Chef the best.), candies and other goodies for the decorations.
* I used to use cardboard covered in foil for the platform of each house. After a few years, I found the cardboard to not be strong enough for the more elaborate houses some of my children were creating as they got older. Instead I purchased cake boards at my local cake decorating store and covered them in foil. I save them from year to year, so the purchase has been quite worth it. A cheaper way is to purchase the wood at Home Depot and cut it at home.
* The candies can get expensive. Watch for sales at drug stores, dollar stores, etc. I usually start collecting the decorations as early as October or whenever I see something that I think would be great for the gingerbread houses. We have made some great finds at Cracker Barrell and JoAnn's Fabrics.
* Think out of the box and be creative. Frosted mini-wheats make great shingles for roofs. Tootsie rolls serve as a wonderful stack of logs! Marshmallows serve as snowballs. Coconut sprinkled on the platform after the house is decorated can serve as snow. Ice cream cones turned upside down and frosted with green icing make great evergreen trees. Green Lifesavers can serve as a wreath on the front door. Besides the kids' wonderful imaginations, we have also collected ideas from Family Fun magazine, the newspaper, and other sources.
* When the kids were all younger, I constructed the houses out of graham crackers. When my engineer son reached the age of twelve, he wanted to make a bigger gingerbread house. We made homemade gingerbread and cut the pieces out according to the design he had drawn. This was a lot of work, but the houses were beautiful. One particular year, we gave Billy's architectural masterpiece to my mom. She has kept it over the years (yes, it still is intact!) and displays it every Christmas.
Last year I found these gingerbread house pieces at our local grocery store. They were reasonably priced and ended up working perfectly for us. If you don't have the time or the patience to make your own gingerbread house pieces, these are a great alternative. So this year, the older kids will decorate big gingerbread houses and the little ones will stick with the graham cracker houses.
2. Construct the houses the day before you actually decorate them. This allows the icing a good amount of time to set and dry. This is a must. Otherwise, you will have your gingerbread houses collapsing under the weight of the decorations. I construct the houses after the little ones go to bed with the help of my older kids. This way the tedious part of gingerbread house decorating is done without little ones at my feet wanting to help! When constructing the houses don't worry about the icing being perfect. After all, it looks like snow, so a few mess-ups here or there will go unnoticed! For a complete tutorial on building a gingerbread house check this out. You can also use graham crackers.
3. Get the kids in the "gingerbread mood" by reading The Gingerbread Baby and Gingerbread Friends, both by Jan Brett. You can even go to Jan Brett's website and make your own gingerbread baby or gingerbread house. What fun!
3. The next day, clear off the kitchen table and be prepared for a mess! Allow the whole day for decorating. This does, of course, depend on your kids. Most of mine take this very seriously and decorate the whole day. We do take a break for lunch!
4. Collect Christmas CDs and have the music ready to roll.
6. Make a big bowl of royal icing and fill up the cake decorators. I have found this to be the best recipe for icing. Once it sets, it is like cement and can hold the heaviest of decorations. One note, I always need to add a bit of extra water. Be careful. Don't add too much! The icing should be very think and almost like a very soft clay. I fill several cake decorators with the icing, as well, and put them on the table. The kids pass them around as needed.
7. Each child should sit at the table with their house in front of them, ready to start. We always have started with the roof for some reason. I walk around the table and frost the roofs with a thicker layer of icing and the decorating begins.
8. This is the fun part! Without any prompting the kids all begin to create their gingerbread house. Watching their creative minds word and seeing their gingerbread houses takeon a character of their own is a delight for me. Their ideas are incredible.
Even two year olds can join in the fun. The older ones help the younger ones.
There is always room for snacking too!
What is mom's job during this time?! I am busy monitoring the intake of candy by the little ones, making more and more icing, refilling the cake decorators, keeping the dog out of the kitchen, and offering my suggestions.
In the end, the results are beautiful. My dining room is transformed into a gingerbread village of Christmas merriment, delight and color. Amazing!
Next year, I think I am going to decorate my own gingerbread house. It's just too much fun to pass up!