New Orleans Gingerbread House
by Barbara Jo
My plan for the swamp was to use Jell-O. In order to prevent the hot, liquid Jell-O from simply pouring over the side of the house's base and onto Barbara May's new table I had to made a dam around the edge of the base. I first tried to do this with royal icing, but I didn't like the results, so I scraped it off and made a new dam out of thick fondant, cut into strips and painted deep blues, greens, and blacks.
I decided to experiment with the Jell-O before pouring it onto the front of the actual house. I'm extremely glad I did, because it turns out that Jell-O is totally incompatible both with royal icing and with fondant. My experimental bowls wound up looking like hideous biological specimens in Petri dishes. The Jell-O dissolved both the royal icing and the fondant, then failed to set up properly, resulting in a gooey, bubbling mess, made all the grosser by the fact that I had added altogether too much blue food coloring to the Jell-O.
Scrapping the Jell-O, I turned to Plan B - piping gel. I had no idea that piping gel could be made at home, having always purchased it ready made from a cake decorating store, but Mom suggested that I look for a recipe online. She was right. I found a recipe in no time, which is a very good thing, because by this time it was Christmas, so it wasn't as if I could just run out and buy piping gel. My first batch of piping gel turned out too thin. I wanted it to be thin enough to flow under the pier and around the grillwork posts, but not thin enough that it would never set up. I tried again and the second batch seemed more promising.
After the Jell-O fiasco, I was careful to experiment with the piping gel before applying it to the house. This time, all went well. The royal icing and fondant samples seemed to suffer no ill effects from the piping gel, so I called it a go. This time I only added a smidgen of blue coloring to the gel.
I wanted to place the alligator before piping the gel onto the actual house. That way it could appear to be partially submerged, as if it were in the process of emerging from the swamp. In the end, I think I chickened out a little because I was afraid the detail of the alligator would be obscured by the piping gel, so it only ended up with one foot in the swamp.
Before I could place the alligator I had to paint it. I used shades of yellow, red, brown, and green food coloring, then added tiny royal icing ridges to his back and royal icing teeth to his mouth with a #1 decorator tip. He was then ready to effectively menace the inhabitants of the swamp house! I set him in place on the edge of the swamp.
The big swamp water moment had arrived! I dumped the whole sticky mess of piping gel into a piping bag with a #8 tip, and started slowly piping the gel in front of the house. Everything was going well until I hit one of the grillwork columns with my decorating tip and smashed it! There ensued an extremely tense period in which I performed some emergency surgery to replace the broken piece with a spare column, a process which involved very carefully trimming the new piece down to size with a pair of tweezers. I'm proud to report that the operation was a complete success!
With infinitely more care, I continued piping in the gel until the entire swamp in front of the house was full, as well as little sinkhole in the back of the house. It looked great, if I do say so myself. The royal icing grass was visible beneath the surface, and I could even see reflections of the house in the surface of the piping gel! Now, two weeks later, the gel still has yet to set up completely, but I don't think that's really a big deal.
The house was almost done, but something was still missing. I thought about putting some sort of decoration along the ridge of the roof, but then Barbara May and I hit on the answer - a weather vane! After settling on the traditional rooster design, I piped a weather vane in royal icing onto some wax paper. Once dry, and painted green and black, the weather vane proved exceedingly fragile and difficult to attach to the roof, but, six or seven repairs later, I finally had it in place.
I was finished at last! And it was still Christmas day! Between the success of my gingerbread house, the awesome quilt Barbara May made for me, and my parents' gift of another trip to the fabulous Wilton School of Cake Decorating, I think it was my best Christmas yet!