Don't use royal icing. Use melted chocolate.
We saw this tip one weekend when we were all chilling in the bedroom and Matt was flipping the channels, looking for football scores. We passed the Food Network, and there they were showing a giant gingerbread house bake-off. Two teams built plywood houses about six feet tall, but then they covered them in gingerbread and decorated them with candy and stuff.
We watched that show, riveted, for the entire hour, until, I was happy to note, the team with the less creative plan but the vastly sounder construction practices won out over the team that had lots of big plans, but also had cracked gingerbread and unsticky royal icing, and they thew a couple of tantrums, to boot.
But in this show, one team--and then the other, after they STOLE the idea from the team with sound construction tactics--used melted chocolate instead of royal icing. And it was brilliant, I say. Brilliant.
So...bag of chocolate chips thrown into a fondue pot and set to just warm. It takes a little longer to solidify, and at a couple of points in time during the house construction I actually put the houses outside on the below-freezing porch for a few minutes to completely harden, but other than that, it worked brilliantly. For the girls, I used my same kid-friendly construction tactic that worked so well with the haunted chocolate graham cracker houses, and I spooned some melted chocolate into little individual bowls for each of them, and gave them a clean popsicle stick for application. They're both used to using paste (which I HATE) at school, so this was easy for them to master.
Another tip? Don't actually have the small children in the building while you build the house itself. That way they're not driving you nuts while you don't have any hands free, and you're not tempted to go ahead and let them get started decorating before the house is ready because they're driving you nuts.
And another tip? Invite over adult friends, ideally friends without kids of their own, to help out. I invited over three dear grad student friends, and I found that the ratio of two adults per each child was actually about perfect. You have one kid to eat lots of candy and put some random stuff on the house every now and then, two adults to eat a little candy and put lots of stuff on the house, and plenty of gossip to go around.
The end result was a couple of gingerbread houses to be VERY proud of:
I have to admit that Sydney's is my favorite of the two, just because when we were at the candy store buying the candy for this project, each time it was her turn to choose she kept choosing all these weird gummy animals--sharks, millipedes, worms, etc. And so it's pretty hilarious to look at her house just above, for instance, and to notice how there's a shark on the roof, trying to eat his way inside.
And the millipedes have discovered an open window! I don't like the chances of the poor gingerbread children trapped within:I didn't get any photos of this year's gingerbread construction, being too busy gossiping and having hands too sticky with melted chocolate and gummy things, but here's Sydney, directly after hand- and face-washing and at the peak of her sugar high:Very proud of her accomplishment, don't you think?
Will, however, seems to have her eye a bit more on the prize:
After we chose their candy at the candy store in the mall, I had each child take a turn going to stand right outside the entrance to the store, where I could see her, but with her back turned. The other child then had a chance to pick out a Christmas present for her sister, which was immediately given to the clerk and wrapped in a bag in secret. It took Willow about five seconds to choose a gigantic lollipop for Sydney. When it was her turn, it took Sydney about five seconds to choose another gigantic lollipop, but she really wanted this one for herself. I told her that she was choosing a gift for Willow, NOT for herself, that there was no chance on this planet that she would be permitted to take home a lollipop for herself on this shopping trip, and so she let the clerk take the lollipop and wrap it away for Willow, but she was not happy.
Willow has always been a really generous kid by nature--of course, she's spoiled enough with material possessions that she can afford to be--and in the car, then, on the way to school, she spared nary a thought for what Sydney might have chosen for her as a gift. Sydney, of course, has been the younger sister forever, and she's always very concerned about getting her fair share out of life. So in the car, all she did was whine and whine and whine. She wanted a big lollipop. She WANTED a big lollipop. She really wanted a big lollipop.
Listening to this, Willow wasn't tempted to either spill her secret, or to tease her sister about it. She just sat there in her car seat, a huge smile on her face.
But at one point, clearly unable to hold it in any longer, she looked at her sister across the back seat and exclaimed, "Oh, Sydney, I am so excited!"
I can't freakin' WAIT for Christmas.