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How to Make the Perfect Gingerbread House According to a Master Baker

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Photo courtesy of the Beverly Hilton Hotel
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Chef Thomas Henzi is the executive pastry chef at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, but what you might not know about this Swiss-born sweets fiend is a master of making gingerbread house. He shares his story as well as some baking tips in this interview.

Tell me about the craziest gingerbread house you ever created.

We made a large replica of the Matterhorn out of chocolate and sugar and created an entire gingerbread village with Santa, reindeer, elves, and a small train circling around the village. The problem was that I failed to measure the entrance into the service elevator and the mountain was about 2 feet too tall.

We had to put the mountain on wheels and had to go out the back of the hotel and circle all the way to the front of the hotel to get into the lobby. It was funny going down the street, people honking and enjoying such a ridiculous sight. We left a sugary mess as our trail, so property maintenance was not too happy with me. Once we got the mountain in the lobby, we had plenty to repair, but looked good at the end. I learned the hard way that proper planning and design is pretty important.

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Who are some of the celeb clientele you've made gingerbread houses for?

I used to prepare desserts for President Ronald Reagan on a weekly basis when he had his office at the Fox Tower. Every December I would create a gingerbread house for Nancy and President Reagan’s holiday party at their home. They always wanted me to create with log cabin theme since they both enjoyed the outdoors. This was a lot of work, but fun to do. I always had to find a way to incorporate jelly beans, which were President Reagan’s favorite candy. They made for good Christmas lights going around the roof.

Are there any rules to abide by when creating a gingerbread house?

Yes, proper planning of the design are incredibly important. It would be best to sketch the walls and the roof of the house onto a cake board. These shapes would then be cut out with an exacto knife. The gingerbread dough is then rolled out into a rectangular piece. The stencils can then be placed on top of the sheeted dough and then a knife is used to cut out the desired shapes.

What do you find Angelinos are looking for in a gingerbread house these days?

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Gluten-free desserts have become more popular recently and we have developed several recipes to accommodate these requests. I have yet to try a gluten-free gingerbread, which would be challenging.

How important is the actual recipe of the gingerbread itself? Is there a basic recipe that folks at home could use?

This all depends if the house is for display, or if one actually want to eat it. For display the dough could be over baked and dried out before assembling. You could also use a hot glue gun to put everything together, and then cover this up with a royal sugar icing.

We actually do make ours with an edible dough, which is cooked softer. For smaller houses, we brush the inside of the walls with a white coating chocolate before we assemble. This will help to hold up the house once it is put together, and is also good to eat. For larger houses, we will actually build the frame of the house out of cut out cake boards and glue this together with the hot glue gun. We then place on the gingerbread with the royal icing. The cardboard structure will help to hold up the softer gingerbread and this way it can still be enjoyable to consume, not too hard on your teeth.

What are the no-no’s of gingerbread baking?

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You can't rush the project. You have to set aside a good afternoon to put together a nice house. Before starting, have all of your decorations planned, candy canes, dots, gum drops, et cetera. Proper utensils include a rolling pin, straight sheet pan, sifter for powder Sugar, piping bag and tips needed to assemble with the royal icing.

Here are some other tricks of the trade Henzi suggests for the perfect gingerbread house this season:

-- Always cover the ginger bread with plastic wrap or keep in an air tight container.

-- After rolling out and cutting the shapes of the gingerbread, we brush with a little milk. This helps to keep the dough from gaining a crust before you actually bake the shapes.

-- Be sure to lightly dust the pans with flour before placing the gingerbread cutouts on top. This helps to avoid any bubbles during the baking process.

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-- Be sure to sift the powdered sugar for the royal icing. Nothing as frustrating as having sugar lumps in the tip when trying to pipe decorations.

-- The icing should be kept in a bowl and covered with a damp rag so no crust builds on the top of the Icing.

-- Whip the egg whites well and slowly add the powdered sugar in stages to assure you have a good fluffy mix. Use approximately 1 pound of sifted powdered sugar to 3 egg whites. Place your finger on the of the icing an pull up to form a peak. If the Peak holds the shape, you have enough sugar. If not, add a little more at a time until it does.

-- Be sure to add a tea spoon of cream of tartar, or a few drops of citric acid to the Icing during the mixing process. This will speed up the drying of the sugar and will keep the house together.

-- As mentioned above, before assembling the gingerbread house, I would brush the interior walls with white chocolate coating or build the house around a cardboard frame. Houses can collapse when the weather is humid or the icing sugar was not prepared properly.