Judging Food Network’s Holiday Gingerbread Showdown was simply a labor of love for me. It is always gorgeous to be a player within a happy, colorful, and festive set. When I walked into the studio, I felt as if I had stepped into a winter wonderland with jolly old St. Nick ready to drop by with his gift-laden sleigh. It got me reflecting about times I spent in Germany visiting the stunning Christmas Markets (Christkindlesmarkt) during the holiday season.
I’m a huge fan of European Christmas markets, and while I lived in Den Haag, I took many picturesque day trips around the country to towns such as Aachen, Düsseldorf and Cologne. The markets are a magical kaleidoscope of colorful baked goods and miles of fairy-lit trees that shed a soft glow over happy faces. I was always prepared for a veritable feast of temptation, so with giant shopping bags in hand, I would rush like an excited child from one vendor to the next before staggering home with a marvelous array of yuletide treats.
The most dazzling market was the Nuremberg Christmas Market, which is also one of the oldest gatherings of market stallholders, dating back some 600 years. It’s claimed that traditional gingerbread made its first appearance in Nuremberg.
As I stepped onto the set of Food Network’s Holiday Gingerbread Showdown, all these fond memories flooded through my mind as I recalled town plazas brimming with stalls selling all manner of Christmas cheer: superbly decorated gingerbread cottages, Gluhwein (mulled wine), lebkuchen, soft pretzels, stacks of spiced aromatic gingerbread cookies wrapped in cellophane and colorful ribbon, as well as dazzling ornaments. Sweet or savory, edible or ornamental, there was something for everyone, in a joyously charming atmosphere.
Given my extensive interest in Christmas cookery, it wasn’t long before I began playing with my own recipes and presentations. There are so many things I learned from trial and error, beginning way back in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. All of these lessons for gingerbread perfection, I literally bought to the table as a judge on Holiday Gingerbread Showdown, and now I’m sharing them here with you.
Starting out, make sure to use the right kind of gingerbread dough for the job at hand. Those crispy-edged or soft melt-in-your-mouth formulas that eat deliciously are a disaster for construction. I remember making my first gingerbread people: delicious aromatic dough, all painstakingly iced and decorated with red ribbon threaded through the tops of their heads and tied to a skeleton tree. After all of the effort, I stood back admired my handiwork, then eventually left the room. Sometime later, I heard a plop, plop, plop and went to investigate. My sideboard surface was covered with headless gingerbread men and women. Oh woe! Why? I wondered. I was so disappointed, but it didn’t take long to figure out that I needed a different dough, something more sturdy.
Building on this lesson learned, and many others too, here’s my twelve gingerbread tips and tricks for the twelve days of Christmas. All of these helpful pointers will aid both professional pastry chefs and home bakers in building their own gingerbread dream houses.
- As I explained before, it’s very important to choose the correct gingerbread recipe for the intended job, either eating or building a decorative showpiece.
- Be like the French, practice ‘mise en place’ and set up your production line in an orderly way, tools, icings, candies, toppings et al.
- When rolling out any gingerbread dough for level uniform cookies or construction pieces, use products like rolling pin rings or spacers to achieve an even thickness.
- Resting the dough overnight and dropping the oven temperature to about 275-300ºF can eliminate surface air bubbles, just know that it’ll take longer to bake.
- Score pattern pieces deeply in your raw, rolled-out dough, and leave in place for baking. This way they will hold together in shape in the oven. After removing from the oven, simply cut them apart with a sharp knife while the dough is still warm.
- Chill all raw cut-outs to prevent the shapes from spreading during the baking process. If you don’t chill cut-out shapes before baking, you risk losing their shape!
- Use the right tools. I like to use my sugar-paste tools for decorative handwork such as embossing, scribing/writing, and freehand impression.
- I love traditional presentations but always advocate for contemporary updates. With the decoratively-challenged in mind, you can buy seasonal edible products that can be utilized as interesting decorative accents. When you see them, you’ll know they’ll work with your gingerbread house. I recommend that you buy that these edible decorations right when you see them, or risk being disappointed when you return to the shop and they’re sold out. For professionals who are not decoratively-challenged, I myself love mixing and matching disciplines, for example, integrating chocolate work with sugar-paste techniques. When it comes to decorating gingerbread, the rules are: there are no rules when it comes to design!
- Decorated gingerbread is meant to be consumed, do NOT use hot glue or inedible ingredients for construction! When showpieces are served, consumers and your guests may not know they could be eating toxic products, and often the baker is not there to guide and advise. So it’s best to always and only use edible elements in your gingerbread house.
- I love using edible luster dust and sparkle dusts to enhance sugar paste accents, just make sure to read the fine print verifying the dusts you buy are legally edible. There are products out there that contain glass, plastic and base metals such as brass and copper – all toxic!
- Humidity in the kitchen makes all the difference in the world to your icings and your final product. The weatherman is your new best friend. Do not expect your royal icing to set up quickly if humidity registers 65% or more. Ideally 45% is best, but not all have this luxury, so just do your best to pay attention to the humidity you’re working in.
- Take a look at some of my favorite sanding sugars, glitters and seeds at Peppercreek Farms, a small family company with an incredible inventory. The decorative ingredients they offer add vivid punch, so check them out and see if you are not tempted!
Check out the Food Network’s gingerbread recipe, the perfect sturdy dough for building your dream gingerbread house.
Updated from the original publication in December 2018