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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Where to start when icing a 5 Tier Wedding Cake?

Me and my pride an joy - The 5 Tier iced wedding cake with ribbon in Kate's wonderful kitchen

Me and my pride and joy – The 5 Tier iced wedding cake with ribbon in Kate’s wonderful kitchen

If you’ve ever visited my tiny flat you will quickly realise that there is very little room to turn around never mind ice, stack and store 5 tiers of fruit cake. Thankfully I have a wonderful friend called Cake Poppins who kindly offered to spend the day with me in her amazing kitchen complete with all of her expertise and wonderful non stick cake decorating equipment. I cannot thank Kate enough for her help and guidance. If you haven’t checked out Kate’s blog I thoroughly recommend it !

Cath Kidston Jamaican Black Cake

Cath Kidston Jamaican Black Cake –  one of my previous attempts at cake icing

Never before have I attempted any sort of technical cake assemblage that requires dowling. I have attempted rather slap dash icing of cakes with layers of marzipan and fondant icing. My results have been passable, but on my wedding cake passable would not suffice. It needed to be perfect. No pressure there then.

One of the 5 Tiers of Fruit Cake

One of the 5 Tiers of Fruit Cake

Before the cakes could even go near any icing a great deal of planning and shopping was required. I packed up a car full of cake and sugar based goods and headed round to Kate’s. The fumes eminating from the cakes made for a very happy journey.

To start with you need to purchase drum style cake boards (the ones that are half an inch thick to add extra height to the cakes). Each board needs to be exactly the same size as the cake. I purchased a 4, 6, 8 10, and 12 inch round boards. The 4 inch was pretty difficult to find but you can definitely buy them online.

I have absolutely no idea how much marzipan and fondant icing we went through and so engrossed was I in mastering the kneading, rolling and enveloping the cakes in icing I forgot to take any photos along the way. (sorry!) My guess is that about 6 packets of marzipan disappeared in the process, which would be around 6 x 500g = 3 kg of marzipan. As a rough guess the same amount of fondant ivory icing was used to cover the 5 cakes.

A slosh of vodka was required (not for me) but to sterilise the cake boards.

3 jars of apricot jam were used to coat the cakes and the boards prior to the application of the marzipan. This helps to stick the marzipan to the cake and the cake to the board.

There was a lot of tea, cake and rolling going on that Sunday afternoon. Gaps in the cake need to be filled with marzipan, a bit like smoothing putty into cracks in a wall before you paint it. You can even add a sausage of marzipan around the edge of the cake to fit it neatly to the board, if there’s a gap. I learnt so many brillliant tips.

Kate introduced me to cake spacers. A truly wonderful invention. They consist of 2 equally thick pieces of wood (rather ruler shaped) which you place on either side of your marzipan or fondant. You then place the rolling pin onto the rulers and roll away from you (preferably on a non stick board). Turning the fondant at regular intervals so it doesn’t stick. This means you get evenly flattened fondant, giving a smooth and much less holey finish than I often achieve. You have to press with all your weight rolling from your hands all the way up to your elbows evenly. If like me your a rolling novice you then get equally spaced bruises up your arms too. Kate’s an absolute pro!

Once the marzipan layer is on the cake, it’s best to get the layer of fondant on whilst it’s still tacky so it all sticks together. The less you touch the final fondant layer the better finish you get. Only touch the fondant covered cake with the backs of your hands to avoid leaving any fingers prints please. Smoothing the edges down with a plastic cake smoother, pushing the excess fondant down and squeezing it out in to the bottom of the skirt of the cake. Which can then be trimmed away with a lovely sharp palette knife, being careful not to cut into the cake (!)

Once all 5 cakes have a double coat of icing you carefully wrap a thin ribbon around the bottom of each cake. Double sided sticky tape is useful to stick the ribbon together. This gives a really professional looking image. I chose ivory ribbon to blend into the fondant and give a really sleek finish.

The Iced Wedding Cake

The Iced Wedding Cake – you can see the ribbon edging neating up each cake tier

Icing the 5 cakes took around about 5 hours. Then Kate showed me how to make sure the cakes are level, how to cut the dowels to size, where to insert dowels (plastic rods) to hold the weight of the cake above and how to stack the 5 tiers together.

Using a spirit level, a hack saw, a dowling guide template and a marker pen we forced the plastic dowels strategically into all 4 iced cakes, all in the right places so you can’t see any plastic dowels on the finished cake! The top tier didn’t need any dowels to as there was no other cake to support above it.

One Tier - complete with a full round of dowls - how to ice a wedding cake

One Boxed Tier – complete with a full round of dowls – ignore the flowers these were added later on…

The final result was very impressive! Seeing all 5 tiers stacked up in their smooth white finish was worth all of the effort! Then all we had to do was carefully take it apart again, box the cake and manouvere it all back into my car. Then the task of finding a suitable storaged place in my tiny flat to rest the cakes whilst the fondant set.

Almost there but not quite yet...

Almost there but not quite yet…

There was still a month to spare before the wedding and I still had to glue all of the hydrangea flowers to the cake, box it back up again, transport it to Jesmond Dene House AND stack the entire cake, glueing each tier together. And then to eat it! So close and yet still so far to go…

This is part 3 of the 4 stages of wedding cake baking! You can read more about my epic wedding cake adventures here…

Part 1 – My 5 tiers of fruit wedding cake – My biggest booziest cake yet 

Part 2 – How many sugar flowers does it take to make a wedding cake?

Part 3 – Where to start icing a 5 tier wedding cake?

Part 4 -The Final Frontier – Decorating & assembling my 5 Tier wedding cake