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Decorating Essentials

Royal Icing with Egg Whites

  • 4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 2 egg whites, strained
  • Couple of drops of lemon juice
  1. Place confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.
  2. Slowly add egg whites and mix to a smooth consistency.
  3. Add lemon juice and mix on medium speed for 10 minutes.

Royal Icing with Meringue Powder

  • 4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 5 tablespoons meringue powder
  • 1/2 cup water
  1. Place confectioners’ sugar and meringue powder in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.
  2. Add water and mix on medium speed for 10 minutes.

Couverture Chocolate

Couverture chocolate contains a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, which gives it a richer flavor, and makes it easy to melt and work with.Most important, the cocoa butter crystallizes, allowing the chocolate to harden and remain hard. Although some couverture chocolate can be purchased in stores, it is more practical to order larger quantities through the mail.

Rolled Fondant & Marzipan

Windows, doors, and other architectural details for your house may be perfectly fashioned from rolled fondant. Decorations such as bows, figures, and greenery may be beautifully made with marzipan. Because of the complexity of making fondant and marzipan at home, we advise you to buy these products ready-made in pastry supply shops or by mail. Check online for sources.

Ready-made marzipan might require preparation before molding. It should be pliable but stiff enough to keep its shape. If it is too dry, add a little heavy syrup 1 teaspoon at a time. If it is too soft, knead in confectioners’ sugar. Take care not to over knead your marzipan or it will release almond oil and it will not be good for modeling; it should feel smooth but not greasy. Food coloring may be kneaded into the marzipan. Marzipan dries quickly so keep it covered with plastic wrap to keep it moist.

Preparing to Build

Before any of the gingerbread sheets were marked or cut, we always strengthened each sheet with tempered couverture chocolate. This critical step was unique to the way I built gingerbread structures at the White House. Gingerbread contains a high percentage of sugar, which is hydroscopic (inclined to absorb moisture). On particularly humid days, a finished gingerbread house may absorb enough moisture to become soft, bend, and even collapse. Humidity is possible in December, especially in Washington, D.C., and the South. We learned that if the gingerbread is supported with a layer of couverture chocolate on its back, the risk of softening and collapse can be almost totally eliminated. When hardened, the chocolate will continue to support the gingerbread walls and structure even if the gingerbread absorbs moisture and becomes soft.

This step is easy. You just have to melt and temper a substantial amount of couverture chocolate. It does not need to be expensive chocolate, but must be couverture and be in temper. Tempering chocolate may seem daunting at first, but once you understand how the process works it will become more fun.

  1. The initial melting of chocolate results in fat crystals that separate from the cocoa butter and make the chocolate mix look unattractive. In order to reduce this separation, the chocolate should be melted to a temperature between 100 and 105 degrees for 5 minutes then cooled to 75 to 80 degrees.
  2. Slowly increase the temperature to about 88 degrees for semisweet chocolate or 86 degrees for milk and white chocolate. The chocolate should be fluid enough to pipe or spread, but not too hot or it will crystallize. You will need to rewarm the chocolate throughout the process.
  3. Whisk briefly for two or three seconds. Make sure the temperature does not rise above 89 degrees. If it does, you will need to start over. It might be best to begin with chocolate that is already in temper (when it does not show gray spots or streaks). When you think the chocolate you are working with is in temper, a good way to test it is to dip a knife into the melted chocolate. If it becomes shiny and hard within a couple of minutes then the chocolate is in temper.
  4. When the chocolate is ready, flip a sheet of baked, but cooled, gingerbread onto a flat surface and remove the parchment paper from the bottom. Next ladle enough tempered chocolate to make a layer about 1/8 inch thick. Use an offset spatula to spread the chocolate smoothly over the surface. Cover every inch of the gingerbread so that all of it will be ready to be used when you begin putting together the structure.
  5. Watch the chocolate closely. As it starts to harden it will change from a shiny, liquid appearance to an opaque, solid appearance. Flip the gingerbread sheet back over onto a piece of parchment paper with the chocolate side down. As tempered chocolate dries and hardens, it also shrinks. By turning the sheet with the chocolate side down, the gingerbread will stay flat instead of curling up as the chocolate shrinks.

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