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Family Central: Holiday Cookie Houses

Every child is charmed by a gingerbread house. So why not make one as a family project this holiday season?

You don’t have to be a master baker, or even much of an artist, to pull this off. You can find lots of patterns and instructions for simple gingerbread houses, many of them online for free. And, if you look at it more as a family art project than a culinary one, you don’t even have to worry so much about what it tastes like. Just have fun, and worry about the mess later.

Work ahead: If you are making your own gingerbread, you can make the dough a week or two ahead, and bake the cookies up to a week before. This gives the cookies time to harden, and is especially recommended if your children are younger, and will get bored with waiting for cookies to bake and cool enough to be handled.

Concentrate on the decorations: Since decorating is the fun part, you can even assemble the house while the kids are otherwise occupied, and just let them have the fun of decorating. Make sure you have lots of candy canes, sprinkles, gum drops, sugar crystals, cut-out Christmas cookies (you can buy these from a bakery), peppermint disks, and whatever else you think you might want to use.

Take shortcuts: Use graham crackers for walls instead of baking your own cookies. Vanilla wafers, gingersnaps, or other small wafer-type cookies can be used for roof shingles. Crackers, pretzels or even sandwich cookies can be used to create doors, windows or shutters. Prepared tubes of decorator frosting and gels, in a variety of colors, can be used to add color and patterns to the house. However, do not try to use prepared, canned frosting as a substitute for royal icing, the icing “glue” that will harden and hold your house together. It won’t be strong enough.

Don’t forget the base:  Your cookie house will look more finished if you place it on a decorated base. You can take shortcuts here too.  Pretzel sticks can be pressed into a frosting base to make a picket fence. Chocolate disks can be used to make a “cobblestone” path. And you can make “Christmas trees” with cone-shaped ice cream cones; simply frost them with green frosting, place on the base, and decorate with M&Ms, sprinkles, and piped frosting “garlands.”

Consider a kit: Dancing Deer makes two different cookie house kits, taking much of the guesswork out of the project. The regular gingerbread house kit contains cookie dough mix, royal icing mix, a pastry bag for piping the icing, and gingerbread man cookie cutters.  The pre-made house contains already-baked cookies, so you just assemble and decorate. In both kits, the package cleverly serves as the form for the house – you just attach the cookies to the box with icing, and you’re ready to start decorating!