Special equipment: 3 sheets of stiff paper or 2 manila folders (split at the seam), scissors, a ruler and a pencil; a base for the house (you can find these at crafts stores or make one with stiff pieces of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil); 3 small cans (for propping up the walls); 2 piping bags, one fitted with a small plain tip and the other fitted with a large plain tip; a silicone brush
For the gingerbread: Sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, nutmeg, salt and cloves into a large bowl. Set aside.
Combine the butter, shortening, brown sugar and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the molasses, vanilla and egg and beat on medium until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the sifted flour mixture and mix on low speed until combined into a smooth dough, about 1 minute. Form the dough into a flat square, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until just firm, at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Meanwhile, make templates for the gingerbread house. Gather 3 sheets of stiff paper or 2 manila folders (split at the seam), scissors, a ruler and a pencil. For the side panels, draw and cut out a rectangle that measures 4 by 7 inches. For the front and back panels of a house with a peaked roof, draw and cut out a template that is 6 inches wide at the base, 4 inches to the roofline and 4 1/2 inches slanted to a peak. The template for the roof panels should measure 4 1/2 by 8 inches.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Unwrap the dough and cut into 3 equal pieces (a pizza wheel is handy for this). Working with 1 piece of dough at a time and keeping the other pieces refrigerated, roll the dough into a rectangle 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Using the template, cut out the side panels and remove the scraps around the cutouts. Repeat with the remaining 2 pieces of dough, cutting out the front and back panels and 2 roof panels. If the dough gets too soft while rolling, return it to the refrigerator for 15 minutes before proceeding. (Discard the dough scraps or reroll to make cookies.) Chill the dough pieces on the prepared baking sheets for 15 minutes.
Bake the dough pieces until crisp almost all the way through (the very center will still be a little soft), 30 to 35 minutes. Cool in the pans 10 minutes on a rack, then remove the house pieces to the rack to cool completely.
For the royal icing: Combine the confectioners' sugar and meringue powder in a large bowl. Add the vanilla and 5 tablespoons water and beat on medium-high speed with an electric mixer, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the icing forms thick and glossy peaks, about 2 minutes, adding up to 1 tablespoon more water if needed. Divide the icing between the 2 prepared piping bags (one fitted with a small plain tip and the other fitted with a large plain tip).
Decorate the side panels: Using the piping bag fitted with a small tip, pipe a pea-size dot of icing onto the back of 1 of the peppermint hard candies and attach it to the top center of 1 of the side panels. Pipe icing onto the backs of 4 of the fig bar pieces and attach them to the panels as evenly spaced windows shutters. Pipe icing to draw 2 windows between the shutters. Line the frames with pretzel sticks, breaking them to fit. Pipe a pea-size dot of icing onto the backs of 9 of the butterscotch candies and press them along the bottom of the panel. Repeat this process on the remaining side panel. Let the panels rest until set, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Decorate the front panel: Using the piping bag fitted with a small tip, pipe a double line of icing across the front panel where the roof starts to incline; press on about 11 French toast cereal pieces. Pipe a small dot of icing onto the back of 1 of the red sprinkle-coated gummy candies and attach it to the front panel just above the line of cereal. To make a flower, pipe a small dot of icing on the cut sides of 8 of the toasted-marshmallow jelly bean pieces and attach them in a ring around the red gummy. Pipe icing to draw a door; attach the caramel jelly bean with a dot of icing to make a doorknob. Pipe icing onto the backs of the gummy gingerbread people and place 1 on either side of the door. Pipe icing to draw 2 windows; line the frames with pretzel sticks, breaking them to fit. Let the panel rest until set, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Decorate the back panel: Using the piping bag fitted with a small tip, pipe a double line of icing across the back panel where the roof starts to incline; press on the remaining French toast cereal as needed. Pipe a small dot of icing onto the back of the remaining red sprinkle-coated gummy candy and attach it just above the line of cereal. To make a flower, pipe a small dot of icing on the cut sides of the remaining 8 toasted-marshmallow jelly bean pieces and attach them in a ring around the red gummy. Create a decorative trim by piping a pea-size dot of icing onto the backs of the caramel-coated pretzels and pressing them along the bottom of the panel. Pipe icing to form 2 windows; line the frames with pretzel sticks, breaking them to fit. Let the panel rest until set, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Decorate the roof panels: Using the piping bag fitted with a large tip, pipe short lines of icing onto the backs of a few pieces of the frosted shredded wheat cereal and attach them to 1 of the roof panels in a row. Repeat until both roof panels are completely covered. Let the panels rest until set, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
For the caramel: Spread the sugar in a medium skillet (see Cook's Note). Sprinkle with the lemon juice and 1/4 cup water. Set the skillet over medium-low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar melts, about 2 to 3 minutes. Once the sugar has melted, stop stirring and cook, swirling the contents occasionally, until the sugar syrup is a deep amber color, about 12 to 15 minutes.
Assemble the walls: Carefully place the skillet of hot caramel by your work surface (you will use it like glue to attach the panels to the base and to one another). Dip the bottom of the front panel in the caramel and place it on the foil-wrapped base. Use a silicone brush to brush a line of caramel along the inside of the panel at the base to reinforce it. Prop up the panel with a can. Brush more caramel up 1 edge of the front panel so you can attach the side of the house. Dip 1 side of a side panel in the caramel and place it perpendicular to the front panel, forming a corner. Brush the inside of the panel along the base with more caramel to reinforce it. Prop up the side piece with a can. Repeat with the second side panel and the back panel. Sprinkle the seams of the house with sea salt.
Attach the roof: Once the walls are set enough to hold the roof panels and while the caramel in the skillet is still warm, remove the cans. Then brush the warm caramel onto the back of a roof panel along the edges (where the roof will attach to the walls); press the panel onto the house and hold it in place until the caramel sets, about 30 seconds. Repeat with the other roof panel. Use the piping bag fitted with a large tip to pipe icing along the seams of the roof to reinforce it.
Landscape the yard: Using the piping bag fitted with a large tip, pipe a rectangular walkway in front of the house; line the edges with pecan halves and pave the middle with crushed sesame candy. Pipe icing snowdrifts around the walkway and the base of the house; sprinkle with popcorn, pressing it gently into the icing so it sticks.
Using the piping bag fitted with a large tip, pipe more icing along the top seam of the roof; line with a row of the fluted gummy caramels. Let the house rest until dry.
When measuring flour, we spoon it into a dry measuring cup and level off the excess. (Scooping directly from the bag compacts the flour, resulting in dry baked goods.) Wait to make the caramel until you are ready to assemble the walls and roof and have all your supplies close at hand. Once the caramel is cooked, you'll need to work quickly before it hardens.
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