Right away you're going to notice something suspicious about these "gingerbread" houses, so called. Namely, they are not made of gingerbread. They're made of graham crackers. The reason isn't that I hate gingerbread. And it's only partly that I am lazy. The biggest reason is that I LOVE gingerbread and it's so heartbreaking to me to have to overbake it to hardness and then to let it sit for weeks (or perhaps just days depending on your family) and then be just pure nastiness when/if you go to eat it. So I save my gingerbread for cookies that are both fun to make and perfectly edible.
(The other thing you may notice about these houses is that they are stacked full with candy on the inside. My kids are no dummies. They know an efficient way to get the most bang for their buck.)
But this post isn't about gingerbread. It's about the stuff you use to stick the houses together. Traditionally you use a type of frosting called royal frosting that uses powdered sugar, cream of tartar, egg whites, and water. This must be whipped up for a painful 8 minutes or so. And then it hardens up right quick so you can stick the houses together. But it never is quite quick enough for kids who are eager to get their candy on the houses. The result for us is that our houses tend to be a bit, um, crooked. Or perhaps caved in. Also, royal frosting tastes gross and it's pesky to work with since it tends to get globbed over your fingers, your table, your kids' hair and clothes.
So this year my sister, Katie, sent me a tip she found online. Instead of royal frosting, you melt sugar and then glue the houses together with it. It hardens as it cools, which is very fast. It makes for non-globby, quickly assembled houses. (Just be careful with your fingertips because melted sugar is VERY hot.) Also, it tastes really good. I didn't think I'd like it that much, but--especially when stuck to a cookie-like cracker--browned sugar is something else.
Now, I always burn my sugar when I try to melt it but I figured it'd still glue and that burned sugar wouldn't taste any worse than royal frosting, so we decided to give it a go.
If you've never melted sugar before, your world is about to open up to many possibilities (candied nuts, caramel, butterscotch, lollipops). Here's how you do it.
First, throw some sugar in a pan and turn the heat to medium. I wasn't too concerned about burning and was in a hurry so I turned it a little higher than medium.
Then stir it around with a spatula that will not melt (wood, silicone, metal if your pan won't get scratched). Don't mix it like crazy. Just give it stir every 20 seconds or so until you start to notice the sugar crystals on the bottom becoming liquid-y. Start to stir it more frequently and it will begin to clump together like so:
Keep stirring and it will turn brown and clumpy. Turn the heat down a bit to medium low or so.
Don't freak out. Just keep stirring. Remember if it burns, you don't have much to lose. This isn't caramel; it's just gingerbread house, which will is mostly about looks (and being filled to the brim with extra candy of course). It'll start to get melty and golden.
It will be melted and ready to have the sides of your houses dipped in. This has a few lumps left, which wouldn't have worked for caramel sauce, but didn't matter here. By the way, even if you're using real gingerbread, this will work great.
Take it off the heat.
Dip the edges in.
And stick the sides together. Remember, watch your fingers. This stuff is hot. Also, have a plate or whatever you're going to set it on nearby so you don't put it on the counter and have to pry it off.
You'll need to work a little quickly, but don't stress out because if the sugar in the pan starts to harden, you can just heat it again and it will liquidify again. As a bonus, while you work, it will make lovely strings of candy that you can eat. Or feed to your kids if you're nice. See that drop in the picture above. It was hardened and so pretty I wished I could have hung it on the tree. Instead I gave it to my 3-year-old. Because I'm nice.
Here are the houses. After the sugar was melted (which took only about 5 minutes), they took a mere 5 minutes to assemble. And then another 3 minutes to cool. (I did do this part while my kids watched a movie. That made life a little easier.)
Now for the candy, you'll probably want to use a pretty white frosting. Because it looks like snow. I was about to whip up a batch or royal frosting. But Kip hates it so he told me to just make some regular frosting really thick. I didn't think it'd work, but sure enough it did.
I used about 1 T butter, with about 2 C powdered sugar and then added milk by the 1/2 tsp until it was good and thick. Ours was thick enough to roll into balls.
I think you could get away with it a little thinner that that too, but it can't be normal frosting consistency or the candy will just drip off the houses. We globbed ours on with our fingers and it worked fine.
Then we let the kids have at it and decorate them. (For printable instructions, go here.)
I went to the stove to clean up and there was some melted sugar, miraculously unburned (probably because I didn't care if it burned this time). Perfectly browned sugar. That's the start of good caramel and it called to me.
I warmed it up a bit so it was runny again. Then I threw in a tablespoon of butter, which I mixed till it was smooth. Then I tossed on a glug of cream, which I mixed till it was smooth. I'm sorry I don't have actual measurements here, but I wasn't planning to make caramel and didn't measure the original sugar we poured in. Even if we had I wouldn't have known how much was left after our gingerbread gluing.
I let the caramel cool for a minute or so and then poured it on some parchment paper to cool more.
And after it had cooled again, I formed it into little balls, which I plan to use in this chocolate caramel cookie recipe from Two Peas in a Pod. Because I am an overachiever. Not really. But I hated to waste it and the kids were still working on their houses, so I had a few minutes. And I'd had my eye on that recipe for a few weeks. Serendipity.
You could form it into candies to give away or add a bit more cream and make it a caramel sauce.
Or, heck, don't add the butter or cream and just slather the browned sugar on some extra graham crackers or gingerbread or sugar cookies.
Or throw some of your favorite nuts in the browned sugar and roll them around for candied nuts. (Put on parchment paper to cool.)
Or let it the sugar harden on parchment paper and cover it with a layer of melted chocolate, then break it into bark.
Or--if you really are an overachiever--dye it red or green and make lollipops (this is with just the melted sugar, not the caramel substance I made). Or cut "windows" out of your gingerbread houses and pour this sugar in them to make a glass windowpane.
The possibilities--they are limitless.
But if you think that's crazy talk, just put the pan with the stuck on sugar in the sink and soak it over night. That hard sugar will come right off. Promise.
P.S. I'm not sure where my sister got this tip. If she knows, I'll be sure to link it here and give credit where credit is due.