Choosing your dough
The first step in building a great gingerbread house is choosing your dough. It sounds simple enough. You can just google a recipe, right? Not exactly. You have to decide one really important thing first: Do you want it to be edible? Almost all gingerbread house recipes are technically edible, but some just don't taste that great.
A really great-tasting gingerbread recipe is going to be a little harder to work with. Special gingerbread house doughs, on the other hand, while they don't taste as great, are studier and make a more stable construction. You can actually buy the dough pre-made (or from a special mix) from companies like Betty Crocker.
We recommend going with the specialized dough, especially on your first attempt, and just whipping up some little gingerbread men for eating. Kids (and some adults) will quickly lose interest in building if they keep having to stop to remake walls.
Before you start, decide what type of house you want to build. You can sketch it out on a piece of paper or even download patterns online. If you sketch your own, use graph paper to make sure you sketch it to scale so you'll know how much dough you need and what exact lengths and shapes to cut. If you're really serious, you can even sketch out the candy detailing so you know what supplies you'll need and where they go, instead of winging it later.
When you're done, draw your pattern pieces out in the exact size you want them. Cut them out and make sure the pieces will fit together the way you want them to.
Rolling and shaping
When you've decided on your design, it's time to roll the dough. Roll it out on parchment paper to about 1/4-inch thick. Try to roll it out as large as you can so you can get the most pieces from a single roll.
Grab your precut pattern pieces and sprinkle them with a little flour, placing them floured-side down on the dough, leaving about an inch between them. Rearrange them as many times as you need to get as many pieces as possible on the dough (so you don't have to re-roll it as many times).
Once your pattern pieces are placed, use a small non-serrated pizza cutter to cut your shapes. A smaller pizza cutter makes it easier to cut more complex shapes, but a big one works just as well in a pinch. A knife may pinch or stretch the dough, so if you use one, make sure it's sharp and use the tip.
Carefully remove the dough scraps (not the pieces) and cover them with plastic wrap until you're ready to use them. Re-roll the dough and repeat the process if necessary.
Pick up the parchment paper from opposite corners (do not pick up the individual pieces or you'll stretch them) and bake them on a cookie sheet according to your recipe's directions until the edges are browned. Allow them to cool completely.
Assembling your gingerbread house
To assemble your gingerbread house, you'll need royal icing. White is a good color, as it can simulate snow, but you can make other colors, too. You'll also need a variety of candies and cookies to decorate your house. You can use gum drops, candy canes, small decorative cookies or pirouettes. Really, anything you can imagine.
You should build your house on a base, like a 12- or 14-inch cardboard or Styrofoam round. You can purchase craft foam at any craft supply store, which works well, too.
First, you'll build the basic house according to your pattern. Put the royal icing in a pastry bag (we recommend a number 10 plain, round pastry tip, and a number 2 plain pastry tip, each in a 12-inch bag so you can switch back and forth as needed). You should also have a damp paper towel on hand to cover the bag that's not in use so the icing doesn't harden.
Use the number 10 tip to draw an L-shaped line of icing on the platform. This will form the foundation to putting up your first two walls. Place the first two walls on each line of the L-shape and use the icing to glue them together on what will be the inside of the house.
Tip: Make sure your hands stay free of icing at all times so it doesn't smear all over your house before you're ready.
Repeat the process with the second two walls, making sure the stabilizing icing stays on the inside. Sometimes, you may have to hold the pieces in place for a minute while the icing dries a bit.
Line the top edges of the walls with icing and put each side of your roof on (one at a time), making sure it lines up well with the peak. This is where it's really important that you made that royal icing correctly. If it's too thin, your roof may not stay. Run a line of icing down the peak of the roof when you're done and let it dry for about an hour before decorating.
There will be flaws, as gingerbread walls aren't going to bake as exactly as you'd like. Royal icing and some pretty candies will cover any flaws up.
Decorating your gingerbread house
When the house has set a bit, decorate it by using your royal icing to affix the candies. You can leave some candies that are foil-wrapped in their wrapper for a little pizzazz. Use candies that are the right shapes and colors to create the elements you need. For example, Andes Mints make cute shutters.
When you're done, it's a good idea to use a sifter to sprinkle the roof and around the craft board with confectioners' sugar. Not only will it simulate snow, it will help cover any flaws in your design.