December 14, 2004

Gingerbread Swamp House


This house was inspired by the beautiful ironwork on houses in New Orleans. Barbara Jo made it during her Christmas week visit to Barbara May's house.

This gingerbread house was inspired by my recent trip to New Orleans. I took a walking tour of the Garden District, which, by the way, I recommend to any of you should you happen to find yourselves with a free day in New Orleans. The stunning ironwork was what first caught my attention. Fortunately, my parents had just given me a digital camera for my birthday, so I spent the rest of the afternoon happily snapping close-up of delicate architectural details.

I'm not very good at making nice, normal, friendly gingerbread houses, so, naturally, I decided that this should be a dilapidated bayou house, complete with alligator, rowboat, and swamp water.

The basic pattern of the house was remarkably easy (Though not so easy that I didn't manage to cut the roof pieces too short, but that's a story for later on in my gingerbread saga.), consisting simply of four sides, two rectangular balconies, and four long roof pieces. It took me almost no time to draft the patterns for those, which was good because it took me hours to draft the patterns for the intricate railing and decorative grillwork I had planned for the balconies.


That was all the prep work I could do until the week before Christmas, as I was planning to spend Christmas in California with Barbara May and royal icing balcony rails can hardly be expected to survive a trip across a room, let alone a trip across the country.

Finally, my big travel day arrived and, gingerbread plans carefully packing in my carry-on bag (so I wouldn't have to do without them for even a day in the event that there was a problem with my checked luggage) I hied myself to LaGuardia and boarded my plane.

Within but a few hours of my arrival in San Francisco (where I rendezvoused with our parents, who had flown in from Michigan for the occasion) I was hard at work rolling and cutting gingerbread pieces. You see, I had to have them baked and ready, as Gingerbreadfest was the next day! Gingerbreadfest is the biggest of our annual craft parties. We have to provide all of our friends with pre-made gingerbread house pieces, all manner of candy decorations, and approximately twenty gallons of royal icing with which to stick everything together.


Actually, it turned out that it really didn't matter that I had the gingerbread pieces baked in time for Gingerbreadfest, as it took me all day just to pipe the tiny royal icing grillwork, using a #1 tip. Frankly, Gingerbreadfest isn't a great time for either Barbara May or I to get much work done on our own gingerbread houses, as we have to spend most of the time replenishing candy bowls, mixing batches of icing, and assembling everyone's houses. It's all worth it though, just to see what everyone comes up with. The undisputed triumph of Gingerbreadfest this year was the gingerbread rebel stronghold, complete with guard tower and bomb shelter entrance, which our youngest guest (age five) made out of the little leftover pieces (doors, chimneys, etc.) of other houses. I helped.

Even the day after Gingerbreadfest, the only thing I had a chance to do to the gingerbread pieces themselves was to glue the balconies to the front of the house with some thick royal icing. I then spent most of the day running Christmas related errands, so all I had time to do that evening was cut fifty sticks of peppermint chewing gum into tiny bricks, then paint them various shades of brown and red.

Once I finally started decorating the actual house, things went quite smoothly. The balconies were the first pieces I tackled. I frosted both sides of these with slightly thin, brown royal icing, and then scored the icing with a toothpick to create planking. For maximum verisimilitude, I tinted some of the boards with various shades of red and yellow food coloring.


I glued the chewing gum bricks to the side and back pieces with a thin layer of grey royal icing and covered the front of the house with slats made of thinly rolled fondant. I also made shutters for all the windows out of rolled fondant, scored with a toothpick. I then piped royal icing frames around all the windows, doors, and shutters using a wide, flat decorating tip while watching the thematically appropriate, yet woefully incomprehensible movie Eaten Alive.

Finally, the exciting moment of assembly arrived! I had cut a one-foot square base out of 3/8" foamcore, to which I glued first the back, then the sides and front of the house. It went together pretty well. I always get a certain amount of warping and curvature in the gingerbread pieces as they bake, which results in some gaps in the assembled structure. I understand that some people recut each piece after baking before the pieces is cooled for greater accuracy. I should try that next year. In this case, however, the gaps were minimal and easily covered with the careful application of a few more chewing gum bricks.

Now we come to my greatest error in judgment - the roof pieces. I'm not quite sure whether the house was more out of whack than it looked or whether I just cut the roof pieces too small, but when I went to attach the roof pieces, they were too short to sit on top of the sides of the house as they were intended to. If I had been clever I could have built up the sides with some royal icing and allowed that to dry prior to attaching the roof pieces. I'm not that clever, so I just glooped on a whole mess of royal icing to fill the gaps and held my breath until it dried, hoping that the entire roof wouldn't just sink into the body of the house. In the end, the problems with the roof turned out to be rather fortuitous, as one end of the roof sagged threateningly and greatly enhanced the dilapidated look of the house, which was, of course, what I was going for in the first place.


With roof pieces safely in place, I set about tiling the roof using little squares of fondant, about 1/2" on each side. I made two colors of tile, one a deep purple marbled with some black, the other a deep green, also marbled with black. Then I applied the two colors at random, to nice effect. I also attached the shutters at this point, some open, some closed, some on the verge of falling off entirely.

With the structure of the house in place, it was time to paint! I distressed everything, using mostly green, red, black, yellow, and brown food coloring. Prior to this point, the siding on the front of the house, the window trim, and the shutters were pristine white. By the time I was done, they looked like they had been sitting in the swamp for a century. I also ran a coat of water across the roof to give a damp sheen to the fondant tiles.

Now it was time to make the finishing touches - a little rowboat and oars, the pier for it to dock at, and the giant alligator to menace anyone who might be foolish enough to venture forth into the ominous swamp around the house. All these I sculpted from fondant, white for the alligator, marbleized brown for the rowboat and pier.


The pier was easily made by rolling out a strip of fondant and scoring it with a toothpick to make individual boards. I also distressed the ends of the boards for that all-important aged look. The legs of the pier are simply little rolled cylinders of fondant. The boat was also quite simple to make, but took a little longer, mostly because the first one I made was ridiculously out of scale so I had to make another one.

The alligator was, of course, my biggest sculptural challenge of this project, but fortunately I made gum paste frogs a few months ago for a friend's wedding cake, and the skills are quite similar. I pulled a good research picture off the internet and set to work. Once I had the basic shape of the body and head, I added textural detail to the hide with a toothpick and with a star decorating tip. I made eyeballs by gently pressing in a #8 decorating tip and nostrils with, I believe, a #3. I then propped the mouth open with a folded bit of was paper and left it to dry.

The first step in landscaping around the house was to build up a hill in back of it with a wad of fondant, so it appeared to be fronting on the swamp, while the land rose behind the house. Then I attached the pier leading to the front door. In retrospect, it might have been easier to pipe the grass under the pier before I attached the pier, but it's too late for that now.


I used a grass tip to cover the entire area around the house with two shades of slightly unhealthy green icing and one of sickly yellow icing. While I was doing this, I also attached the delicate grilles to the front of the house. To say that it was nerve wracking working with those tiny, fragile pieces would be a tremendous understatement, particularly as I had neglected to make any extras of one section of the grille. To be more accurate, I made two sets of everything, thinking I would then have extras in case anything broke, forgetting that I needed two sets of some pieces anyway. Astonishingly, nothing broke except one tiny edge, which was easily repaired. Once I was breathing normally again, I finished piping all of the grass, then added and painted a little royal icing trim around the tops of the decorative grilles.


My plan for the swamp was to use Jell-O. In order to prevent the hot, liquid Jell-O from simply pouring over the side of the house's base and onto Barbara May's new table I had to made a dam around the edge of the base. I first tried to do this with royal icing, but I didn't like the results, so I scraped it off and made a new dam out of thick fondant, cut into strips and painted deep blues, greens, and blacks.

I decided to experiment with the Jell-O before pouring it onto the front of the actual house. I'm extremely glad I did, because it turns out that Jell-O is totally incompatible both with royal icing and with fondant. My experimental bowls wound up looking like hideous biological specimens in Petri dishes. The Jell-O dissolved both the royal icing and the fondant, then failed to set up properly, resulting in a gooey, bubbling mess, made all the grosser by the fact that I had added altogether too much blue food coloring to the Jell-O.


Scrapping the Jell-O, I turned to Plan B - piping gel. I had no idea that piping gel could be made at home, having always purchased it ready made from a cake decorating store, but Mom suggested that I look for a recipe online. She was right. I found a recipe in no time, which is a very good thing, because by this time it was Christmas, so it wasn't as if I could just run out and buy piping gel. My first batch of piping gel turned out too thin. I wanted it to be thin enough to flow under the pier and around the grillwork posts, but not thin enough that it would never set up. I tried again and the second batch seemed more promising.

After the Jell-O fiasco, I was careful to experiment with the piping gel before applying it to the house. This time, all went well. The royal icing and fondant samples seemed to suffer no ill effects from the piping gel, so I called it a go. This time I only added a smidgen of blue coloring to the gel.

I wanted to place the alligator before piping the gel onto the actual house. That way it could appear to be partially submerged, as if it were in the process of emerging from the swamp. In the end, I think I chickened out a little because I was afraid the detail of the alligator would be obscured by the piping gel, so it only ended up with one foot in the swamp.


Before I could place the alligator I had to paint it. I used shades of yellow, red, brown, and green food coloring, then added tiny royal icing ridges to his back and royal icing teeth to his mouth with a #1 decorator tip. He was then ready to effectively menace the inhabitants of the swamp house! I set him in place on the edge of the swamp.

The big swamp water moment had arrived! I dumped the whole sticky mess of piping gel into a piping bag with a #8 tip, and started slowly piping the gel in front of the house. Everything was going well until I hit one of the grillwork columns with my decorating tip and smashed it! There ensued an extremely tense period in which I performed some emergency surgery to replace the broken piece with a spare column, a process which involved very carefully trimming the new piece down to size with a pair of tweezers. I'm proud to report that the operation was a complete success!


With infinitely more care, I continued piping in the gel until the entire swamp in front of the house was full, as well as little sinkhole in the back of the house. It looked great, if I do say so myself. The royal icing grass was visible beneath the surface, and I could even see reflections of the house in the surface of the piping gel! Now, two weeks later, the gel still has yet to set up completely, but I don't think that's really a big deal.


The house was almost done, but something was still missing. I thought about putting some sort of decoration along the ridge of the roof, but then Barbara May and I hit on the answer - a weather vane! After settling on the traditional rooster design, I piped a weather vane in royal icing onto some wax paper. Once dry, and painted green and black, the weather vane proved exceedingly fragile and difficult to attach to the roof, but, six or seven repairs later, I finally had it in place.

I was finished at last! And it was still Christmas day! Between the success of my gingerbread house, the awesome quilt Barbara May made for me, and my parents' gift of another trip to the fabulous Wilton School of Cake Decorating, I think it was my best Christmas yet!


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  • I can't believe that there aren't a million comments on here saying "OMG! You're amazing!!!"

    Ashamedly, I'm a bit of a lazy web surfer. If there're interesting photos to look at, I usually just skip the text. I tried to do that here, but each time I skipped to the next photo, I wanted to know what happened in between that and the previous one so would have to skip back up to read.

    I first saw your thorax cake a couple months ago, and have been telling everyone about it ever since! I'm not a cake maker, even a little bit, not even from packets. I eat it, but I don't make it. The amount of time you invest in your cakes is Very Impressive. And the works of art they become are even more so. I think you're too hard on yourself by the way... Your jellyfish and melting fish cakes were incredible!

    Anyway, I just couldn't bring myself to leave your site without saying "OMG! You're amazing!!!" :)

    By Blogger ginger, At May 19, 2009 at 6:17 AM  

  • This is absolutely unbelievable!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 2, 2010 at 8:50 PM  

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