Advice needed: gingerbread house building (graham crackers)

Ok here is the deal:
Our karate studio’s holiday party is on Thursday and they are having a gingerbread house building contest with a $250 prize. YEAH. Cash. So I’m going hardcore here wanting it to be good.

I’m going to do it sort of Asian to keep with the Tae Kwon Do theme. Something along the lines of this and this (Yes I know those aren’t specifically Korean, but it’s a frikken gingerbread house, so I’m not gonna bog myself down with total cultural accuracy here.)
I’ll post a diagram in a moment of what I’m planning… but I have some questions.

I am going to do this in cardboard first at home to make sure I know how to assemble it, but I’m not sure the exact dimensions of graham crackers. Are they 2"x8"?

Now for the actual building… they are supplying graham crackers and icing, but we are allowed to bring our own supplies as well. I am not sure what is the best tool to cut graham crackers. A serrated knife? a coping saw? A needle file? I will need to make some decorative edges that have a bit of detail so I need something that isn’t just hack and slash.

Also I may want to bring some of my own icing and applicators. I have these requirements:

  • I need an icing that is good for gluing and dries fast. This would be for assembling the structural parts. What icing is best for this? I don’t mind making it from scratch. Also, how best to apply?

  • I need an icing that can make very thin lines that will adhere well even to the underside of something, so it can’t be too dry. I know that there are pre-loaded decorative tubes of icing… would they be good for this? I mostly need to make thin, straight lines.

  • any other advice? Pitfalls I may not be anticipating, etc? I’ve never done one of these before, believe it or not.

But geez, $250 is a lot of money, and I could really use that!

I think they may be 3" x 6" actually… am I right?

Gosh. I’ve never measured a graham cracker before. :smiley:

However, I would definitely recommend royal icing. It’s very sturdy and if it’s too thick you can just add a bit more water. Also, you should be able to find the meringue powder in any grocery store in the baking aisle. It’s basically just dried egg whites.

I don’t know what to tell you about cutting them, perhaps an exacto knife or razor blade would be the best. Is there anyway that you can moisten them slightly first? I’m afraid that they might have a tendency to shatter. Perhaps just laying them on damp paper towels might be enough.

The ‘preloaded icing’ is just something like buttercream so it is better for decorating that gluing.

If there’s a local cake decorating place, perhaps you could stop in there and buy both your meringue powder and a couple of disposable decorating bags and decorating tips. Heck, you might just even mention to them what you are doing and see what recommendations that they have. I’d recommend decorating tips 1 through 4 for your straight lines. And perhaps a star tip or two (17 or something like that) for thicker lines with ‘extra grip.’

These tips could potentially come in handy later, too, as you could decorate a birthday cake or something like that with just these two styles.

I can’t believe I’m measuring graham crackers at 6 in the morning… :smiley:

I just happen to have some graham crackers (Honey Maid) in the cupboard. They seem to be 5 1/8" x 2 1/4". I was going to suggest you try to use them in the size they break down into, but the lines don’t seem to be quite as deep as they used to be and they don’t necessarily break cleanly. The edges don’t seem as true as they used to be either. I have a couple that have little bumps or indents at the edge, so I wouldn’t try anything too fine with the crackers themselves. I’m thinking you want to use different thicknesses of frosting to get some of the angles and decorative edges that you need.

I tried cutting with a serrated knife and it broke pretty easily. Don’t have an xacto handy, maybe someone else will. If not, I’ll look for one later today…

Good luck!

GT

I’m thinking something serrated and just going very slowly. They’ve very crumbly so it seems like it might sort of grind away a cut rather than putting any pressure down on it, which could crack it…?

Another vote for royal icing. And I think the “pre-loaded” stuff is going to be too goopy for your purposes.

If all you need to do is make thin lines, you can load the icing in a ziplock bag and snip a teeny little bit off the corner. The hole needs to be a lot smaller than you think to get thin lines.

Be sure you take pictures!!!

Here is my very, very sloppy posterboard mock-up of the general shape. There will be a lot more embellishment with frosting, but this should be the general shape. I think I will buy some graham crackers and attempt to build it at home this week, for practice. I know it sounds goofy, but $250 is on the line!

http://pics.livejournal.com/opalcat/pic/000a4785

Do you think it would be going too far to bring my Dremel?

That looks completely awesome, if you can build a real gingerbread house that looks like that.

CuteyPie AKA AlwaysBringPie offers good advice as always. We need to summons another doper who I happen to know is the queen of gingerbread house making.

Baker, paging Baker. Please pick up the white courtesy phone located in the lobby.

Now let’s see if she does a vanity search. :smiley:

Ok I’ve printed off the royal icing recipe (thanks!) and am going to get some of those decorating bags/tips (used to have one that was a gun, a long time ago, for cakes…)

I’m thinking of mostly red and yellow for the icing…?

[woman who once organized an entire kindergarten class into making individual graham cracker “gingerbread” houses :eek: ]

OMG, they said royal icing! :eek:

Wait, wait, don’t start yet! :eek:

If you’re going to do multiple batches of royal icing, you will burn out a handheld mixer. Notice the part of the recipe where it says “10-12 minutes at high speed with a hand-held mixer”. After a few rounds of that kind of treatment, your average handheld mixer motor goes flooey, just like that.

Get a stand mixer. You will also save your forearm muscles, because gingerbread houses with graham crackers use a LOT of icing (the three cups in the recipe will not go very far, not if you’re going to want to frost the roof), and you’re going to be standing there beating egg whites for a LONGGG time.

If I’d known back in 1990 what I know now about making 30 gingerbread houses with royal icing, I’d have walked barefoot over broken glass to obtain a stand mixer, from someone, somewhere.

The upside is that royal icing dries rock hard and keeps for a long time post-construction, so you can make your gingerbread house sequentially over the course of several days, if it’s not a “build a gingerbread house in 30 minutes” contest.

Also, remember that it’s made from raw egg whites if you’re not using meringue powder but are using the classic recipe, so no tasting. This was an incredible challenge with the kindergartners, which we solved by allowing them to snack on the gumdrops, M & Ms, etc. ad lib. By the time we were done, they were all pretty much in a sugar coma, which the teacher didn’t seem to feel was a Bad Thing. :smiley:

My friends and I have been building graham cracker gingerbread houses going on 12 years now (we just had our yearly get-together this weekend)…

Royal icing is key, yes. It’s always a pain to get it right, for me at least. This week my first batch was solid, like marzipan (no clue why!) and the 2nd and 3rd batches were sort of tough. I think maybe it was because my meringue powder was old. I buy it every year, and also use some of last year’s. Anyway, with a fresh can of powder, the rest of my batches were just fine. Unfortunately, other than “use fresh meringue powder” i can’t give you any good tips on making the icing!

We use Wilton’s #21 or #22 tips but that’s because we don’t care how “clean” our houses look. The size of the tip you can use depends on how tough your icing is. The tougher the icing, the bigger the tip has to be. Ours are pretty big. There’s no real reason we use a “flower” tip…although it might help keep the icing from dripping out of the bag.

You’ll probably want a bag with a big tip for doing the inside/gluing parts and then a bag with a smaller tip for doing decorating.

Filling the bags kind of sucks with the royal icing. We use 18" bags, which are huge, to avoid having to refill all the time. If you have a bowl of icing sitting around, not yet in a bag, cover it with a wet dishtowel. Otherwise, it will harden before you can use it.

As for cutting the crackers, we use serrated knives (steak knives) dipped in water. When you go to saw the piece, make sure there’s no crumbs on your sawing surface. If the surface isn’t flat, the cracker might snap.

When coloring your icing, note that the smallest drop of extra liquid makes the icing more fluid. So I would suggest coloring as you make the icing, adjusting the water and coloring as you go. Don’t forget that you can always ADD more water, you can’t remove it.

A note on graham crackers: Honey Maid, and maybe other cracker brands, have begun “fortifying” their crackers with real whole wheat. Wholesome crackers do not make for a good gingerbread house, as they are WAY too soft. We found this out the hard way last year. If you are buying your own crackers, my advice would be to buy something that is NOT advertising its whole-grainness. We used Nabisco this year, in the red box. Worked fine.

One last thing…it can cost some $$ to make all of this stuff. $8 for meringue powder, $7-8 for icing bags if you don’t buy disposable, 89 cents per tip, 89 cents per lb of powdered sugar, $3 per box of crackers. Double or triple everything if you plan on doing some “trial and error.” So if you’re really short on cash, keep that in mind.

And do post a picture of your completed structure!! I’m very interested to see how your intricate design turns out!

DDG posted while I was posting so let me chime in on the “mixer issue” -

I’ve never used egg whites, always meringue powder. Much more expensive, but easier on the ol’ arms. I use the recipe Always Brings Pie linked to, and Wilton powder.

Yes, it will kill your handheld if you have a shitty handheld. For many years, I used someone else’s handheld and when making the icing 1 batch at a time, there was no problem. This year, I used my own $10 handheld and I could smell it burning. I switched to using my old Oster and, apart from the “marzipan” i made at the beginning, it was all good.

So, cheapy handhelds = bad. Well-made handhelds = ok, but tiring. Stand mixers = best.

Argh…one other thing (sorry! I am in gingerbread house mode this week!)

When you make your structure, be sure to use inside supports. Don’t try to do it with the least amount of crackers possible. Since crackers are only one shape and size, you’ll drive yourself mad trying to glue everything together “in space” with nothing holding it up.

For example, on the inside of your base make sure it’s not hollow, put pieces going across and up and down. Same for the middle part - make something for the higher levels to stand on and then lay crackers flat on that.

Trying to make hollow boxes out of graham crackers and icing will only make you want to cry. Been there, done that :smiley:

Hmm. Ok here is the thing, it isn’t a “who can bring the best gingerbread house” contest, it’s a “we are having the party from 6-8pm, and you can make a gingerbread house here, and at 8pm we are judging them” contest. They are supplying everything but you can also bring your own stuff, as long as it qualifies as edible. Not sure if you can bring your own graham crackers or not.

The place is about a 30 minute drive from our house–is this icing going to hold up? I mean if I make it at home and then drive over there, will I have a nice big brick?

Also I don’t own a stand mixer (see the “what do you want for Christmas” thread) and my hand mixer cost, I think $6. I am also new to Ohio and don’t know people yet–the only person I know with a stand mixer is my mom in Arizona.

If I end up having to buy icing, is there one that will work best?

(oh and my design has supports built into the structure, but it’s also a very small house, so I don’t think it will be a problem.)

I’m not sure if you can buy pre-made royal icing. If you make it at your house and then drive to the party, it will be fine as long as you keep it tightly covered.

I’m in Akron. If you think it’s worth the drive, you can borrow a mixer from me, or even make your icing here in my commercial kitchen.

I appreciate the offer, but that is probably a bit much of a drive to borrow (and then return!) a mixer. Thanks, though. So if I seal it up it will stay ok on the drive?

May I suggest a microplane for making your curves? It may take a little while to get the desired curviness, but you will have less risk of breakage and get a cleaner curve. You will have to use Royal Icing, but you may be able to get some from a local baker. Just store it in an airtight container.