As a finishing touch to my gingerbread house this year, I pressed a tiny white mezuza made out of vanilla taffy onto the doorpost and couldn’t help but smirk. My love of the holiday season and of Jewish tradition had reached new and very sugary peaks as my fingers stuck to the royal icing.
During the month of December, I spend hours staring, jaw agape and sweet tooth poised, at beautifully decorated gingerbread homes made with candy canes, red and green M&M’s and liquorish shoestrings. The tradition of making gingerbread houses is 200 years old, and its roots come from a secular German folktale told to nearly every American child.
In 1812, the Brothers Grimm recorded the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which two children fall prisoner to an evil witch who lives in a cottage made of sweets. In the story, the cottage, with windows of clear sugar, serves as a symbol of temptation and even as a place of salvation for the children after they are exiled from their father’s home. German families made miniature versions of the house as a holiday activity and ultimately brought the custom to North America.
This year, while countless Christian families make their gingerbread houses with red and green candies for Christmas, Manischewitz is getting in on the action, with a Jewish twist: The company has put out a blue and white Chanukah House Decorating Kit. The kit comes complete with pre-cut cookie pieces, three colors of frosting and Hanukkah decorations (including a mini mezuza — yes, I borrowed the idea). Manischewitz is even holding a Chanukah House Decorating Contest, which can be entered through its Facebook page.
For those excited to incorporate the gingerbread house into their Hanukkah tradition but aren’t so sure about committing to the kit, see the easy step-by-step, no-bake directions below. This is a perfect project for kids of all ages, and a great item to admire over the course of Hanukkah’s eight long nights.
Edible Hanukkah House
4 egg whites 1 tsp cream of tartar
4 cups confectioners sugar
1 box graham crackers (14 oz.)
6 pint-sized milk cartons or orange juice cartons
Candy for decoration:
These are only suggestions. Get creative!
1) Begin by taking out all of your supplies. Separate your candy into small bowls.
2) Now, make the icing. Combine confectioners sugar, egg whites and cream of tartar in a large mixing bowl and beat on high with an electric hand mixer or the paddle fixture of a stand mixer until frosting forms stiff peaks and is very thick (about 7 minutes). Cover mixing bowl with a towel during mixing to keep from tossing sugar all over your kitchen. Once icing is done, keep the bowl covered with a damp towel at all times to ensure a moist and soft icing/glue throughout the process.
3) Prepare a solid, movable surface for your house, either a piece of cardboard covered in aluminum foil or a flat plate covered with a doily.
4) Using a rubber spatula or a pastry bag filled with icing, “glue” down two cartons next to each other by slathering the bottoms with icing. Working one side at a time, cover cartons with glue/icing, and stick a full-size graham cracker on each side. Be generous with your glue. Depending on the height of your cartons, you may need to glue on an additional half-cracker to cover the surfaces. For the pieces on the front and back of the house, you will want to chop off the top corners to fit with the slope of the roof. (Optional: If you are aiming for a lightly sloped roof, cut off the top of the milk carton.)
5) Once the cartons have been covered completely with graham crackers, let the house dry for at least 10 minutes so the pieces are secure.
6) Begin decorating piece by piece and have fun! The structures are sturdier than you think, so don’t be afraid to cover every inch.
7) Finish the scene by covering your base with icing and sprinkling shredded coconut across the surface for a snow-like effect.
This story "How-To Guide to Hanukkah Gingerbread House" was written by Liz Alpern.