The Alternative Gingerbread House – Gingerbread Cave and Christmas Tree (or how not to make a gingerbread igloo)

The gingerbread Christmas Tree and Cave with the Bear and the Hare

The gingerbread Christmas Tree and Cave with the Bear and the Hare

I had a grand plan to bake a Gingerbread Igloo for this year’s Gingerbread House Challenge to raise money for The Sick Children’s Trust. In my mind this would be wonderfully easy. Simply slap a circle of gingerbread dough on a greased upside down pyrex bowl and bake. Easy?

Melted ingerbread mess

Melted gingerbread mess

Perhaps if I had given myself enough time to chill the dough before baking it or used ribbons of greaseproof paper to line the outside of the bowl I might have managed to salvage the igloo. But as it happens I did none of these helpful things and ended up with a lot of gingerbread on the floor of my oven instead.

Taking my sharpest knife I hacked away the excess gingerbread leaving a rather rugged (and uneven edge). Returning it to the oven for a second bake ‘to crisp it up’ was an equally bad idea as the gingerbread then firmly welded itself onto the bowl. Once cooled it then had to be chipped off the bowl. Leaving behind a cave-like gingerbread construction instead.

The first gingerbread igloo/cave

The first gingerbread igloo/cave

‘Who lives in a cave?’ I asked Chris. ‘What can I make this this gingerbread mess?!’ ‘How about the Bear and the Hare from that John Lewis Christmas advert?’ He suggested. I took the idea and ran with it. Whipping up thick white royal icing to cement my cave onto my cake board and adding extra for support. But this gingerbread was far too thin to hold it’s own weight, even with internal gingerbread scaffolding it self destructed over night.

Collapsed gingerbread cave - yet another gingerbread mess

Collapsed gingerbread cave – yet another gingerbread mess

I had now really committed to the idea and already fashioned some fondant animals so I had to construct another cave. A new and improved cave.

Using a half sphere cake tin I layered up gingerbread bricks (or rectangles of rolled out dough) about 3mm thick on the inside of the tin after greasing it heavily. I also included 2 ribbons of greaseproof paper laid (like a hot cross bun cross) inside the tin to act as lever and help me remove it later on. I decided to use a pastry technique and ‘blind bake’ the dough by filling it with a layer of greaseproof paper and kidney beans to hold it in place and avoid disastrous meltage. It worked!! I put it all in the freezer to chill it before baking and help it hold it’s shape. Then 15 minutes in the oven with the beans and 5 minutes baking without the beans led to a good solid cave!

Almost finished Gingerbread Cave

Almost finished Gingerbread Cave

I also experimented with a cave baked on the outside of the half sphere tin, but this spread and looked more like a tortoise shell… Perhaps another alternative gingerbread house for the future!

With the leftover bits of gingerbread dough I thought I best bake some emergency-if-it-all-goes-wrong gingerbread houses. Making it up as I went along (as who has time to make precise templates and measure things?!) armed with a palette knife and a pizza cutter I cut out 3 large (similar size and shape) triangles to make the walls of my wigwam.

This wigwam was then magically transformed into my Christmas tree. It didn’t really look substantial enough to be a house in it’s own right, after I had joined the triangles together to make a 3d wigwam shape. (Using just a line of royal icing on the inside join of each triangle). Inspired I added food colouring to my royal icing and zig zagged the pine needles in place using a  piping bag with the end trimmed off. (Not too large a hole or too much icing gushes out!) Returning with red and yellow coloured icing to dot on baubles. With a generous sprinkle of glitter a rather festive gingerbread Christmas tree had arrived. Once the icing had set I carefully prised the tree from it’s resting place (on a baking tray lined with cling film) with a cocktail stick and plopped it onto even more royal icing on the cake board.

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree how lovely are your baubles

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree how lovely are your baubles

To decorate the cave I whipped up a batch of royal icing, using merriwhite (pasteurised egg white powder that you can buy from cake shops, so you don’t have to use raw egg whites if children or pregnant women might eat your baking). I smeared a good rough layer of royal icing all over the board to cover the silver foil and give a snowy effect. This is then the perfect base for glueing the gingerbread cave in place. I then piped more ‘snow’ around the the edges of the cave, all along the join between the cave and the board to hold it in place, but also to suggest a snow build up. I let the icing flow freely and smoothly to give as natural an effect as possible.

Piles of icicles

Piles of icicles

I wanted to create icicles to dangling from the cave mouth. Once the initial layer of snow had dried I could then use this icing to ‘hook’ the icicles on to. I piped a blob of icing behing the inside lip of the cave attatching it as far in to the roof (and joining on to the snow trim) as possible. Simple strings of icing didn’t hold and didn’t look right. I found it easier to squeezed the piping bag gently letting the icing build up and then stretch the icing with the nozzle of the piping bag before you stop piping. THis means you can then shape it as you wish. You can then even add more layers to your icicles if you want to build them up further. A good sprinkle of edible glitter (white hologram glitter is my preferred choice with a hint of blue) gives it a frosty twinkle.

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As I added my Gingerbread Cave to the amazing array of Gingerbread Houses I breathed a huge sigh of relief that I had successfully managed to get it there in one piece! Here’s some of the beautiful gingerbread creations from the day. There were over 20 houses to gaze and wonder at. What a wonderful start to the festive season!

Things that I used to bake my Gingerbread Cave and Christmas Tree

  • 675g plain flour (plus extra for dusting)
  • 1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground all spice
  • 175g unsalted butter
  • 225g soft light brown sugar
  • 1 large, free range egg
  • 3 tbsp golden syrup
  • 3 tbsp black treacle
  1. Beat all the ingredients together and chill.
  2. Roll out to 5mm thickness
  3. Grease and line tin. Place dough in a spherical tin (lined with paper inside and baking beans) and chill for 1 hour in freezer. You can bake it from frozen, no need to defrost
  4. Bake for 10 mins with beans at 180 degrees c.
  5. Remove beans and bake for 5 more minutes
  6. Allow to set in the tin but remove it whilst still warm

For the Royal Icing

  • 16g merriwhite
  • 500g icing sugar
  • 6 -10 tbsp cold water (enough to create a really thick pipeable paste with a smooth shiny finish)
  • Red, green and yellow gel food colourings (if you want to colour some of the icing too)

Beat the ingredients together adding the water gradually until you get the right consistency for you. It should be shiny and thick. It might take 5- 10  minutes of beating. Keep it in an airtight container to stop it drying out.

Put a little in a separate bowl and add colourings if you wish to colour some icing. I used 3 bowls for my 3 colours and kept the white icing in the mixing bowl to fill up my piping bags as needed.

To Decorate

  • edible glitter!
  • silver lustre spray (I sprayed the bear silver)
  • gold lustre powder (I painted the hare gold)
  • fondant icing to model animals and clock
  • a fork/cocktail sticks (to add details to the animals… eg. claws, eyes, mouth, whiskers, textured fur)
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58. Spectacular Speculoos

Spectacular Speculoos recipe

Who hasn’t tried Speculoos biscuits?? Anyone?? These little beauties are often found sitting on the edge of your saucer in coffee shops and are a Dutch favourite. They’re crisp, carmelly, sweet and spicy.  Perfect for festive celebrations.  I’ve looked high and lo for the perfect Speculoos recipe and then decided to create my own. It’s very quick to make too!

Beat everything together

Beat everything together – very spicy!

All that’s required is a vigorous beating together of the butter, sugar, an egg, treacle, water, flour and copious amounts of spices (I’m always liberal with my spices) then it’s good to go. Speculoos spread is legendary in foodie circles too. I’ve even managed to incorporate it into my lazy Crack Pie too…

I finally get to try out my biscuit gun

I finally get to try out my biscuit gun

Traditional Dutch Speculoos are usually rolled out and imprinted with pretty patterns and designs. I don’t own anything pretty to imprint them with so I finally got to try out my biscuit gun! Which promises over 100 different designs… considering I bought it for £2 I was’t convinced it was going to work. Oh ye of little faith.

It needs to be a rather liquid batter to get it in the gun...

It needs to be a rather liquid batter to get it in the gun…

I knew that the traditional Speculoos recipe wouldn’t be suitable for use with a biscuit gun as the dough would be to thick to pipe through the patterned nozzles. I did what I always do and modified my recipe to my heart’s content. Adding treacle until I got the shiny, thick, gloopy texture I was hoping for.

Piped speculoos biscuits

Piped speculoos biscuits

The tricky bit is working out how to force the dough/batter into the biscuit gun. I squashed it in with a spoon and had to refill regularly as there isn’t much space in the barrel, but this gave me the opportunity to try out a few different nozzles. I quite liked the star and flowers shapes. Once the dough is in the barrel you just press down on the level and force the dough out the end onto a greased and lined baking sheet. As the dough is a bit sticky it can be a tad awkward to cut off the dough so you can pipe a new biscuit… hence some of the more ‘interesting’ shapes I produced. Occasionally I resorted to chopping the dough from the nozzle with a knife, pushing the gun into the dough and pulling it away again quickly or twisting the  gun until the dough broke naturally.

Refrigerate your piped biscuits

Refrigerate your piped biscuits

Once you’ve experimented with a variety of patterns and piped the entire contents of your dough onto baking sheets, pop them in the fridge to harden for about 15 minutes. This means that the biscuits will hold their shape whilst baking, as the butter will be less likely to melt and spread.

The baked speculoos biscuits

The baked speculoos biscuits

Don’t worry if you don’t have a biscuit gun, I also experimented with using a normal piping bag and star shaped nozzle which also worked rather well to make pretty swirls (even if I do say so myself). Or if you can’t be bothered with messing around making them look pretty and simply want to fill your mouth with speculoos goodness you could just use a spoon and whack a dollop of the mixture on the tray. Alternatively you could chill the dough/batter in the fridge so it’s much firmer (maybe overnight if needs be) and roll it out like you would normally with biscuits and cut them out with your favourite cutter. OR if that’s not enough options roll the chilled batter into a sausage, chill it in the fridge wrapped in cling film and then simply chop it into discs. Simple round biscuits with very little fuss or tidying up afterwards!

Teeny tiny speculoos

Teeny tiny speculoos

This recipe was enough to make at least 12-16 large biscuits and a multitude of mini speculoos biscuits too. (Sorry I shovelled them into my face so fast I didn’t get a chance to count how many I actually produced!)

Speculoos selection

Speculoos selection

I absolutely love these speculoos biscuits. The thicker the biscuit the more chewy they are. The blend of spices is full and comforting, which the added sweetness of the treacle makes it my perfect winter bake.  In my haste to create Speculoos, I seem to have almost stumbled onto my own lebkuchen hybrid. The biscuits have a crispy sugar coating (without the need for any icing) and a chewy rich centre. Even the mini speculoos have a great snap and chew to them.  Speculoos biscuits freeze extremely well too so you can reveal wonderfully festive biscuits at any time of the day or night when friends or family call round.

Spectacular Speculoos

Tme for tea – Spectacular Speculoos

I plan on making my spectacular speculoos again very soon. Maybe for bonfire night and also when I perfect the recipe for rolling, I’m going to make speculoos baubles to adorn my Christmas tree with!

One speculoos or two?

One speculoos or two?

Things I used to make Spectacular Speculoos Biscuits

Prep: less than 10 minutes (if you have ground spices to hand , it will take a bit longer if you’re grinding them yourself)

Chill time: 15 -30 minutes

Bake time: 10-12 minutes

Makes: lots of spectular speculoos! (Approx 20 biscuits- more if you make mini ones too)

  • 110g margarine (is you want to use a biscuit gun marg will help!) or butter (if you want to roll them out)
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 2 tbs cinnamon
  • 1tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp ground cassis bark (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp ground star anise
  • 1/4 tsp rock salt
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Beat it all together until fluffy then beat it

  • 1 egg
  • 1 dessertspoon black treacle (molasses)
  • 1and a half tsp vanilla paste/extract
  • 300g plain flour

Pipe biscuits and refrigerate for 15 -30 minutes or chill dough then roll and cut biscuits out

Place on greased and lined tray and bake at 190 degrees c for 10- 12 minutes until firm to touch

Let them cool (if you can!) and eat with a proper cup of tea.

They will keep in the freezer for a good month or so too if you want to save some for a rainy day,

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