What better way to bring the magic of Christmas into your home than with a homemade gingerbread house? Not just for Hansel and Gretel, Cara Houchen finds out how to make this festive sweet treat
For me Christmas is all about smells. Fresh pine needles, roast chestnuts and when I arrived at House of Comben Boutique Cakery, the sweet smell of gingerbread made me want to pull out the tinsel and deck the halls.
Husband and wife team Angela and Darren Comben, from Ryhope, have set up their bakery alongside their full-time jobs and they are tapping into the current trend for gingerbread houses which are available to order.
Angela, 37, suffers from Myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME (the main symptoms are muscle pain with intense physical or mental exhaustion) so while she is the creative one with all the ideas it’s Darren who does the work as she just isn’t able to help out.
“It started with cupcakes,” explained Darren, 36. “We made some for the Jubilee and they were really popular so we decided to set up the bakery here at home.
“Now it’s the time of year where Christmas cakes and biscuits are popular so we decided to make gingerbread houses too.”
Homebaking and crafts have boomed in recent years with people ditching the ready-made option and going back to traditional recipes to help save the pennies.
The custom for building gingerbread houses is thought to have originated in Germany, but has taken off in the UK in recent years.
Lakeland, which started selling a gingerbread house kit in 2011, has seen a 38 per cent increase in sales this year, and Sainsbury’s, which launched its own version for the first time this year, has had to order in more because sales outstripped predictions.
Even the BBC Good Food Magazine has broken with its usual tradition of a pudding or a turkey and featured one on the front of its big festive issue.
During my visit I decided to get my hands dirty and make a gingerbread house myself.
Firstly and most importantly Darren showed me how to make great tasting gingerbread.
He said: “It has to look good but it has to taste good as well. We’ve done a lot of market research and there’s nothing worse than a good looking cake that tastes awful.
“This is our own recipe which we’ve adapted through trial and error of other people’s recipes. We are happy with this one now though it tastes really nice and it’s not dry once it’s cooked.”
The couple have three children who all get involved in baking and Darren says the ginger bread house is the perfect way to bring the family together.
He said: “It’s something we do as a family so hopefully other people will read this and see that it’s something you can do together.
“The ones we sell we obviously do ourselves with fancy icing and stuff but if it’s one for the family the kids can get involved. The whole family can get together before Christmas and spend a weekend making it.
“They just love being given handfuls of sweets and being told to be as creative as the like with them.”
Once the gingerbread is made it needs to be rolled out to a thickness of your choice and then the house shape needs to be cut.
Darren and Angela made a house out of cardboard initially to make their templates which they now use every time. The recipe they use means they have enough gingerbread for the house, the hearts on the roof and a gingerbread man for decoration.
It only needs 12 minutes in the oven and it’s ready you just need to let it cool before you start constructing it using icing. Darren says they recommend leaving the house for 24 hours to let the icing set before you start decorating so he had a house ready made for me to decorate.
He said: “I really enjoy it, it’s my passion and I find it very therapeutic. I work as a business executive which is a stressful job so it’s nice to be able to do this and relax.
“The gingerbread houses are pretty hard to get wrong because it’s up to you what you put on it and how you want it to look – you can be as creative as you like!
“They make a great centre piece and they are something a bit different if you don’t really like Christmas cake.” It was time for the good bit, Darren gave me a bowl full of icing and a pile of sweets and I got to work creating my own festive new build complete with candy cane street lights and chocolate button roof tiles.
I could see why they are popular with all ages and once the structure is built and set they don’t take long at all to finish. The end result can’t fail in making you feel Christmassy.
Darren recommends keeping the houses for no longer than eight weeks but if they are stored properly they can last for up to a year!
“It’s a labour of love,” said Darren. “You have to enjoy doing it or you would soon get bored of making them.”
The couples signature touch is a personalised star on the roof and then to finish a sprinkling of snow in the form of icing sugar. Darren said: “That’s the most pleasing bit adding the snow. Seeing all the ingredients as a complete gingerbread house is very satisfying.
“They are all individual and bespoke – not one is the same.”
So with all theses sweet treats around the kitchen does Darren still enjoy eating gingerbread and cupcakes?
“I love it,” said Darren. “I definitely still have a sweet tooth!”
l House of Comben Boutique Cakery gingerbread houses cost £15. You can order yours online at www.facebook.com/Of CombenBoutiqueCakery or call Darren on 076808641619
Ingredients (gingerbread – will make the house, six love hearts for the roof and a gingerbread man.)
650g self-raising flour
3tsp ground cinammon
3tsp ground ginger
175g butter (cubed)
225g brown sugar
175g black treacle
1 X 10” square cake board
Sweets of your choice but we used chocolate buttons, jelly babies, jelly beans and candy canes.
Royal icing – you can make your own and use a piping bag or you can buy it ready made in a tube.
Sugar paste to make decorative stars
Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees
Put the flour, ginger, cinnamon and cubed butter in a mixing bowl and use your hands to mix them into bread crumbs.
In a separate bowl mix the treacle, eggs and sugar then add them to the bread crumb mix to make the dough.
Start with a wooden spoon to mix the two mixtures together then once it has become a ball kneed it with your hands. Put the dough onto a floured bench and then roll it out.
The thickness is up to you but our gingerbread was roughly a quarter of an inch thick.
Place your cardboard templates onto the dough and cut around them with a sharp knife – make sure you only cut the hole for the front window in one of the sides.
Place greaseproof paper on flat baking trays, it’s important they are flat or the gingerbread will warp and it will not fit together.
Pop the gingerbread in the oven for 12 minutes. The smaller pieces such as the stars only take 9 minutes.
Once cooked take them out of the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes, then transfer the pieces to a wire cooling rack.
Draw on any windows and doors with piped royal icing before you assemble, make sure you leave the icing to set before you start putting the house together.
Use royal icing to stick the pieces of gingerbread together.
We started with the left side and the back, then the right side and then the front before finally adding the roof.
Leave the house to set over night.
Take a large bowl of royal icing and spoon it around the outside of the house to create the snow effect, if you want to add a fence using sweets make sure the icing is deep enough for the sweets to stand up in.
Using piped royal icing as the glue get creative and stick your sweets onto the house however you like! Add the gingerbreads hearts, gingerbread man and candy canes at the end and then shake over icing sugar to finish.