When considering a question like, “Can I build a gingerbread house big enough that my dog can fit inside?” it’s important to first resolve that the answer must be yes.
You can’t begin construction on a gingerbread house big enough for your dog — a challenge you’ve given yourself simply because the idea occurred to you, and then you couldn’t not do it
— if you accept that failure might be an option. Once your mind is primed to accept failure, it will more easily bend toward it when, for example, you find out how much math is involved. Or when the frosting glue is all over your clothes and in your hair. Or when you consider the fact that, even if you do complete the house, there is no way your dog is going to enter it without being tricked, as he is afraid of everything including wind.
No, you must know: You can build a gingerbread house big enough that your dog can fit inside. And you will.
(The “you” is me.)
Step 1: Research
My family didn’t build gingerbread houses frequently throughout my childhood, and I’ve never built one in adulthood (even though I’m quite whimsical). So, before beginning construction on one that would fit my 30-pound black-lab-chihuahua-mix I thought it would be best to reach out to some experts.
Bill Horton is the general manager at the Traditions Club in Bryan, Texas, and holder of the Guinness World Record for “World’s Largest Gingerbread House.” In 2016, Horton and his team built a 39,201.8-cubic-foot gingerbread house. In doing so they trounced the Mall of America, which previously held the record at a measly 36,660 cubic feet — humiliating. Horton’s house was 60 feet by 42 feet, and 20.11 feet tall at its highest point; it took 1,800 pounds of butter, 7,200 eggs, 7,200 pounds of flour, and 3,000 pounds of brown sugar.
(Maybe you’re not as cynical as I am, but this could potentially read as a spectacularly large waste of brown sugar et al. But the final structure was used to raise money for a nearby hospital. This knowledge might ease you. Please keep Christmas spirit in mind regardless, thank-you.)
Per Guinness rules, the structure of the house, which was built outdoors on the club’s golf course, had to be built like a house-house, with lumber and electricity. (The lumber was later donated to Habitat for Humanity.) The exterior was fully edible, however, which caused some problems.
“We had two or three days of warm weather that brought bees,” Horton told me. Oh no. “The Discovery Channel, actually, was there while we were going through the bee … deal. We literally had just, like, millions of bees covering this gingerbread house.” Oh my God. They had to call in a beekeeper, who promptly evacuated the bees. He told me to keep this in mind while building and, bee-lieve me, I will.
For advice that did not concern bees, I hoped, I reached out to Ann Bailey, winner of the 2017 National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina. She said the biggest mistake I could make was not having structural support on the inside of my house. She suggested that if it doesn’t need to be entirely edible (gingerbread houses only have to be 75 percent edible in the competition), “styrofoam usually works.” Interesting, interesting.
Otherwise, her advice was as follows: “Take your time, strategize your plan and execute properly. Let things dry completely before moving on. Measure, measure, measure to insure a perfect fit and level house. Precision is key.”
Ugggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. But I haaaate measuringggggggggggggggggggggggggggguuuhhhhhhhhh.
Step 2: Bake the Gingerbread Parts
Taking a cue from my sources, my plan was to bake small gingerbread bricks and use icing to fasten them to a house-shaped frame. This is because my oven isn’t large enough to make one-piece gingerbread sheets for the sides of the house, and because once I knew that building a frame was an option, building without a frame seemed ridiculous. I’m not trying to be a hero; I’m simply trying to build my dog a semi-edible house.
The first sub-step in this step was finding a gingerbread recipe that would both stand up to the demands of a large-format house and stand up to the demands of not poisoning my dog and making me have to explain that my dog died because of a big gingerbread house I made for no reason other than that I thought it’d be funny.
Luckily, this recipe for construction gingerbread from Serious Eats was easily modifiable for maximum non-poisonousness. This construction-grade gingerbread leaves out the leavening agents and the egg, which keeps the gingerbread solid and flat. And I left out the nutmeg and cloves, because nutmeg is poisonous for dogs and, since nutmeg is poisonous, the cloves made me nervous.
When I started baking, I tried to be precise. I really did. I measured my dog’s crate and attempted to figure out how many gingerbread blocks I would need to re-create its dimensions, and I made a little paper stencil square that was five inches long and six inches high. I figured I’d need, like, forty-five of them?
Well, I made these little blocks for hours — mixing and rolling and cutting and baking and mixing and rolling and cutting and baking — and then looked at my stack of little blocks and it was only ten little blocks high. Untenable.
At this point I just decided to make bigger blocks (eyeballed for size) — as many as felt appropriate, using the spirit of Christmas as my guide. I’d figure out their houselike configuration whenever the time came. Similarly, I just built a frame out of cardboard, without measuring it:
Ahh, that felt better. I think building a gingerbread house should be about whatever the house’s dimensions feel like they should be. Then it’s like — will it look good? Or will it look terrible? You don’t know, and that’s the Christmas surprise.
Step 3: Assemble and Otherwise Decorate the House
After letting my gingerbread squares hang out for two days to ensure they were cool and to ensure I was emotionally removed enough from the baking experience to take on the next experience, I prepared to fasten them to my structure. I used this “Royal Icing” recipe, which is also from Serious Eats. It’s a combination of egg white and powdered sugar, and it’s remarkably gluelike. It also was remarkably difficult to squeeze out of my little Ziplock piping bag without breaking the bag and getting all over my hands and clothes and floor.
I’ll have you know, my plan to use only the spirit of Christmas as my guide worked out reasonably well. I figured out a way to get all the pieces on there without many gaps, and I filled in the gaps that did form with either broken gingerbread pieces or just the sugar glue. As you can see, it looked flawless:
Now it was time to decorate the roof (the “ruff,” if you’re a dog, ha-ha). Here, I used peanut butter as glue, so my dog, Peter, could lick it. For the shingles, I used these disgusting enormous meat treats that I’ve had since a year ago when I gave one to Peter and he threw it up (on my bed). I will dispose of them immediately upon removing them from the house. I also used other little treats that Peter actually enjoys, which I will save in a baggie for when he’s a good boy.
Peanut butter, as you can imagine, is not a very good adhesive — particularly compared to the sugar glue, which is so good it seems immoral. So I cheated with the meat things and put some sugar glue on those, too. He’s not gonna eat them anyway, who cares. I’m including this next photo partly because it shows the roof, but mostly because it shows that by the time I got to the back of the house my gingerbread-applying skills had vastly improved. I should have started with the back of the house.
Then I just needed to add the finishing touches. Of course, I added the words “Peter’s House” written clearly in brilliant red icing. Of course, I added an obvious heart shape. Of course, I added candy cane doorknobs and a gingerbread doormat.
Step 4: Trick My Dog Into Entering the House
A looming fear I had while creating this gingerbread house for my dog is that he would be afraid of it. Really, it was more of a looming thing that I was sure would happen without question. Peter is always a little nervous, and he can tell when you’re trying to get him to do something weird, like put on his coat or brush his teeth. As soon as he senses it, he retreats to his crate, ears plastered to his head, tail fluttering in fear. Oh, my poor sweetie. But what good is a gingerbread house big enough that your dog can fit inside if your dog does not go and fit himself inside?
To soothe his fear, during the construction of the house I’d leave little treats inside, so he might go in and acclimate himself. He did not. In fact, as soon as he saw me attempting to put a treat into the house he would run into his crate. My friend, I am merely trying to give you a treat in, okay, yes, a traplike situation.
One day, though, I noticed the treat was missing. I put another in and noticed that eventually this treat, too, disappeared. It seemed he was only comfortable going inside the house when he knew I wasn’t watching. Tricky. Sadly, unlike Santa, I can’t watch him at all times. But luckily for me, Retail Santa (Amazon) can watch him at all times, via my Amazon Cloud Cam.
At first, I captured only his fear.
As you can see, not even a tiny piece of sausage and a piece of gingerbread coated with a bunch of peanut butter could tempt him. He remained suspicious, both of the house and of the camera. The story changed once I decided to take a shower. When I was out of the picture completely, he felt more confident. He knew this was his chance. It was time to face his fear.
Incredible. My brave boy.
After his feat of derring-do, I must admit I just picked him up and put him in again so I could get a photo. As you can see, he loved it.
And as you can see, I can build a gingerbread house big enough that my dog can fit inside. Sort of.