Gingerbread homebuilding for dummies: 2 experts share some tips

(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Malkovstock)
It’s not easy building with gingerbread, explained former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier. It’s a “funny medium” that’s at the mercy of the weather. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Malkovstock)

During his 26 years at the White House, Mesnier (shown here with former first lady Hillary Clinton) worked on such projects as an epic collection of D.C. landmarks.

Mesnier’s 1999 project featured gingerbread versions of the White House, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and Mount Vernon, as well as the Potomac River.

In 1995, Mesnier made a reproduction of the first lady’s childhood home in Park Ridge, Illinois. Its exposed rooms featured scenes from the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which inspired the “Twas the Night before Christmas” theme for that year. In another year, Mesnier made a reproduction of President Clinton’s boyhood home in Arkansas.

In 2001, Mesnier’s creation was modeled after the south view of the White House in 1800, as President John Adams would have known it. It was joined by miniature replicas of other presidential homes.

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(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Malkovstock)

WASHINGTON — PVC has its place in new home construction, but don’t even think about using that stuff to prop up a gingerbread house.

So says Roland Mesnier, who worked as White House pastry chef for 26 years. He’s built his fair share of gingerbread houses — nay, mansions (see the gallery above) — under five presidents.

He’s the Chip and Jojo, the Tarek and Christina, the $%#-ing Bob Vila of gingerbread homebuilding. So when Chef Mesnier speaks, you best pay heed.

And as far as he’s concerned, a gingerbread house is made of, well, gingerbread.

“I know some of the stuff … on television is full of PVC pipe and who-knows-what,” he said. “No, that’s not the gingerbread house for me.”

Mesnier, along with another local expert — DBGB executive pastry chef Kelsey Burack — recently offered up some do’s and don’ts for novice gingerbread homebuilders as Christmas approaches.

Just use gingerbread, man

First of all, it bears repeating: Keep it edible.

Mesnier recalls an instance in the White House when a person who is “sometimes on television” pointed at a spot on one year’s project and asked, “Why, don’t you put a metal pin in here?”

Suffice it to say, he didn’t appreciate the suggestion.

“I looked at her, and I said in my mind: ‘I think you better go. … I think you better take the first door beside you, because you came to this house through the door — you may go out through the window.'”

That decidedly snippy reaction to unsolicited advice was warranted: It’s not easy building with this stuff. It’s a “funny medium” that’s at the mercy of the weather, he explained.

Dry is good

This brings us to the second piece of advice: Keep it dry. Leaving the oven door slightly open can help.

“If you have a rainy day, the gingerbread will suck up humidity like a sponge and then get very soft, so if you have to build a house with that — good luck,” said Mesnier, whose projects during his time at the White House ranged from re-creations of President Clinton’s boyhood home to an epic collection of D.C. landmarks.

[They’re all featured in the book “The White House in Gingerbread: Memories & Recipes,” which  includes fold-out templates for gingerbread projects both simple (cottage) and complex (the White House), as well as step-by-step instructions and other recipes.]

Another piece of advice: Use a “non-spread” gingerbread recipe that isn’t too heavy on the sugar.

“It keeps your lines and the sides of the house very straight,” said Burack, who’s posted her non-spread recipe on DBGB’s Instagram account. She recommends aiming for a density of about an eighth to a quarter of an inch.

“Make sure to keep it nice and thick, so that it tastes good and it’s still chewy, but it also will hold its shape,” Burack said. “If it’s too thin, it gets a bit fragile, and it has a higher tendency to snap and break.”

Your glue: Chocolate or icing

This brings us to the bonding agent, where there are two schools of thought.

Mesnier relies on a quarter-inch layer of chocolate to reinforce the gingerbread so it can withstand changes in humidity. Burack, on the other hand, relies more on royal icing. (Her recipe: one part pasteurized egg whites to three parts confectioners sugar.)

“Having a nice stiff royal icing to use as an edible glue is always a good main important ingredient for building a solid foundation for a gingerbread house,” said Burack, who’s built at least a dozen gingerbread houses in her homebuilding career.

As for the finishing touches, that really depends on how much time you have and how crafty you are. Mesnier, who would spend hundreds of hours on his creations, used marzipan to create little snowmen or even a likeness of Socks the Cat.

But you don’t have to get that intricate. Burack suggests gumdrops, holiday-colored M&Ms or candy canes. Confectioners sugar makes great snow, as does more icing.

“I personally love to just kind of go crazy with the royal icing and make it look beautiful and smelly and white,” Burack said.

Keep it simple

Finally: If you’re a first-timer, keep it simple. As inspirational as Mesnier’s creations may be, it’s best to keep those ambitions modest. “Don’t try to build a mansion, OK?” Mesnier said. “Just build a little country home. A little condominium or something. A tiny house.”

If that proves to be too difficult, you can still have fun with the finished product before you eat it.

“You can even just put a little T-rex dinosaur on there and say that it was being destroyed or something like that,” Burack suggested.

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