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
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
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
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
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
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
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!