How to Make a Gingerbread House With Gingerbread Amy

Find the fun and embrace mistakes
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Is your gingerbread home far from up to code? Why not call in a construction professional — that would be Amy Knapp (right), who has a few tricks tucked in her apron (like, for instance, a glue gun). Photo by John W. Hession

Some people groove on the Christmas season. Gingerbread house expert Amy Knapp has it in her soul. 

It’s a calling she comes by naturally.

“My mom was born on Christmas day,” Knapp says from her workshop in the woods, where she crafts the seasonal structures year-round. “It’s literally in my DNA. My mom was the first person who made a gingerbread house with me. Since then I’ve always been fascinated by the charm of it.

“Also, I love candy. I can’t help myself.”

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Photo by John W. Hession

Knapp crafts countless gingerbread houses and cottages every year, continuing a love of the craft that has developed into a bit of an obsession. She remembers creating her first gingerbread house, but she doesn’t recall the details — just that it was fun, even if it was more difficult than they thought it would be. It’s not uncommon for would-be craftspeople to encounter challenges common to the art.

“We didn’t do it regularly because we fell into the traps that most people fall into,” Knapp says. “When I do a demonstration, people often say they tried it, but it was really hard, the candy fell off, and the gingerbread fell apart. I tell them the tricks to it, and then it all becomes much more fun and approachable.”

Her mother gifted her a now-treasured book about gingerbread houses, which in turn inspired the Wolfeboro resident to take up the frosting and gumdrops and once again begin construction. She settled on a gingerbread recipe designed specifically for creating houses and landscapes — there are no eggs in it, making for a stronger, crisp gingerbread — and started a new tradition.

“I did it every year with my daughters as they grew up,” she says. “It was one of my favorite things we did together when they were children.”

From there, it grew.

“A few years ago, my husband came home and every flat surface in the house had several gingerbread houses and landscapes on it,” she says. “Only the bathroom was spared, and that’s only because it’s too damp in there.”

Instead of taking her for a full diagnosis and evaluation, he coined the nickname “Gingerbread Amy,” and then set about building her a workshop where she has the freedom to indulge in her passion. Knapp now offers gingerbread demonstrations in that workshop, walking participants through the process, and the book “The Tao of Gingerbread House Design and Construction.”

“Tao is the peaceful, happy way,” she says. “Ultimately, your gingerbread house ends up looking like what it’s supposed to look like. Enjoy the process, learn some things that help you next time you do it, and really, make it about peace, love and joy.”

A couple of Knapp’s top tips:

“The first secret is to decorate your pieces as they lay flat. Most people construct the house first and then apply the candy and frosting. That’s what makes everything fall apart.” The other advantage to starting with the gingerbread flat is that it allows you to try out designs before settling, she says. “Remember decorate flat, then go vertical.

“Other well-known craftspeople will tell you not to use a glue gun, but I’ll tell you use a glue gun. Especially if you’re a beginner. I used to think using a glue gun was abhorrent and blasphemous. Then I thought, ‘Wait, when people aren’t having fun and making the houses they want to, then why not?’ Please, use a glue gun.

Carefully constructed, the life expectancy of a gingerbread house can be surprisingly long. They can be renovated and modified as the years go by.

“I’ve had some last up to three years,” she says. “I’ve had some fall apart, and I’d maybe save a door or window like an architectural salvage. Then I’ll go onto the next house and adding that piece to it makes it magnificent. You really wouldn’t be in the game if you didn’t have disasters from time to time.”

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Photo by John W. Hession

Then, when the time comes, kids can enjoy a gingerbread house-size earthquake or hurricane. After all, she says, it’s not about making the prettiest or most ornate gingerbread house, it’s about expressing yourself and enjoying the process.

While there are culinary artists who identify as gingerbread architects, Knapp doesn’t count herself among them. She is skilled and she knows all the tricks, but she prefers to take a more free-flowing approach to the art.

“My houses are not fancy,” she says. “They’re very approachable. When I work with people, I like it when they walk away with knowledge that they can create what we just created together.”

That includes children, who sometimes craft structures completely unplanned — and imminently memorable.

“The fun thing about working with children is that you can never recreate what they do because it’s so crazy and beautiful,” she says. “I love the beauty of the houses that children make. The ones I make now and the ones my daughters make now are fancier and more classically beautiful, I guess, but you can never really recreate a child’s artwork.”

And when things go wrong? Embrace it, Knapp says.

“I’ve had so many mistakes,” she says. “So many houses that literally were just wrong. I was so unhappy with them. But there is one thing you can do if you’re not pleased with the way your gingerbread house looks: Take sifter and sift powdered sugar all over it. Everything looks beautiful covered in snow.”

One final tip from New Hampshire’s foremost gingerbread scholar: Put down the fork.

“Gingerbread houses are not for eating, ever,” she says. The structures sit in the open, absorbing everything in the environment.”

“They act like air fresheners, and you wouldn’t eat an air freshener, would you? They’re for decoration.”

Step by step to gingerbread success

1 Roll, “draw” on details, cut out and bake your gingerbread pieces.

2 Clean up the edges of pieces with a shape knife.

3 Give pieces a dusting of “sugar snow.”

4 Hot glue your first wall to baker’s cardboard base.

5 Continue adding the walls, with inside edges secured with hot glue and pipe on royal icing on the outside.

6 Add the roof!

7 Pipe all remaining edges.

8 Add your details and candy embellishments.

9 Wrap it up and give (or keep).

To kit, or not to kit?

Gingerbread house kits are available in many stores this time of year. So what does a gingerbread artist think of these big-box solutions?

“Hey, they’re great — they certainly take out the baking step, and they can look cute if you follow the steps,” Knapp says. “But they pretty much end up looking like they came from a kit, and the pieces are usually broken.”

However, there are often substandard housing codes in the gingerbread world. The instructions are typically unhelpful, and the ingredients don’t always make things any easier. Knapp has formulated a prototype for her own kit — one where people would be provided the ingredients, but would still bake the pieces from scratch.

“It would have the right directions and wouldn’t end up in a pile of broken pieces,” she says. “Part of the fun would be that you made it from scratch and have a really good time doing just that.”

Categories: Holiday Guide Food, People, Recipes