So you want to make a gingerbread house, but you don’t want to spend hours searching for ingredients, whipping up batches of royal icing and clumsily juggling slabs of gingerbread roof.

A gingerbread kit seems the obvious solution. But before you are seduced by that sweet, smiling gingerbread face staring back at you from the mass-produced box of ready-made cookies and candy, I suggest you read the fine print.

“This gingerbread house is not complete, and will require one egg white and lemon juice or white vinegar to complete,” read the back of a gingerbread kit I bought at Trader Joe’s.

The Wilton kit from Walmart told me I would need to use some of my own granulated sugar and corn starch, and included a long list of “recommended tools.”

Were there other surprises lurking in those innocent-looking packages? I bought four gingerbread house kits to find out.

Then four of my colleagues judged the houses on appearance and taste: Rod Harmon, deputy managing editor for features; Karen Beaudoin, deputy features editor; Shannon Bryan, features writer; and John Willhoite from the features copy desk.

Consider me your personal gingerbread CSI. My in-depth investigation will show you which kits were hits, and which were dead on arrival.

The gingerbread man ratings for each kit are based on a scale of 1 to 4.

GINGERBREAD HOUSE KIT BY CREATE A TREAT

APPEARANCE: **1/2

TASTE: **1/2

WHERE TO BUY: Bed Bath & Beyond

COST: $9.99

TIME TO ASSEMBLE: About an hour.

BEST FEATURE: Lots of colorful candies, and three extra cookies to decorate.

WORST FEATURE: Icing is unmanageable because it doesn’t come with a pastry tip.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

John: “The rainbow of colors in the details was very cheerful. That colorfulness and its larger size might give it the edge if there are young workers involved in the construction.”

Shannon: “This is the gingerbread house of my childhood — the gently oozing frosting, the crooked gumdrops, the bulging-eyed gingerbread men. The variety of candy would be a boon to kids, and gives the house a ‘we mean gingerbread business’ feeling over the others. It’s not perfect, but it still screams ‘made with love.’“

Gingerbread houses are the “beyond” in Bed Bath & Beyond.

The store carries not only a traditional house, but a gingerbread train, a gingerbread village and a chocolate house, all for $9.99 each.

The traditional house comes with a tray the gingerbread pieces fit in, and the best variety of candy, including gumballs, peppermints and something called “pucker ups” that look like little button cell batteries (just the kind of thing you want your kid to eat).

While this house got kudos for its colorful, kid-friendly appearance, it is probably best used for decoration. The gingerbread stayed fairly fresh, but it was also fairly tasteless.

The biggest drawback of this product was the royal icing. The icing comes pre-mixed in a makeshift pastry bag: You clip off about a quarter-inch of the bag with some scissors and squeeze the icing out. But without a pastry tip to control the flow, the icing came out in thick gobs and ended up running down the windows. At one point I left the room for a moment, and when I came back, the roof had slid halfway down the house.

Gumdrops sagged. Peppermints plummeted.

The icing problem made it difficult to create finer details. The little gingerbread man and snowman that were supposed to have bright eyes and sweet smiles instead looked like Jack Nicholson peering through the cracked door in “The Shining.”

I ran out of icing so early, I couldn’t finish the back of the house. This was an issue with all four kits — there was never enough icing. How much would it cost these big corporations to provide an extra bag of icing (basically powdered sugar and egg whites) in each kit? Pennies?

Bah, humbug.

WILTON GINGERBREAD HOUSE KIT

APPEARANCE: ****

TASTE: ***1/2

WHERE TO BUY: Walmart and Hannaford

COST: $9

TIME TO ASSEMBLE: About two hours.

BEST FEATURE: This house had the best icing, by far.

WORST FEATURE: Not enough icing.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Shannon: “This house is the classy gingerbread abode my mother and I always tried to make — and never got.”

John: “The overall winner, in my opinion. Pretty house. I liked the lattice-y look of the frosting.”

Rod: “This has a cute, classic style. Gumdrops for windows are a nice touch, as are the small candies that look like Christmas lights on the roof. I especially liked the frosting dripping off the roof, giving the appearance of icicles. The candy was easy to pick off, and tasty as well — you can’t go wrong with gumdrops. The gingerbread tasted like it had just come out of the box — not too stale, not too chewy. This house was my favorite in both appearance and taste.”

Karen: “Icing looks great, and lattice work reminds me of a Swiss chalet. Lots of intricate detail, but it doesn’t seem as though it would take a ridiculously long time to do.”

At first I thought I would hate this gingerbread house.

This was the kit that said in fine print that I would need cornstarch and granulated sugar, and suggested I have on hand a rolling pin, a small angled spatula or butter knife, scissors or paring knife, and parchment paper. If I’m going to need all of that, I may as well bake the thing from scratch.

The house itself comes pre-assembled, which feels like cheating. Half the fun of building a gingerbread house is holding the pieces together while the icing hardens, praying that the walls won’t fall down. On top of that, there were only three varieties of candy in the box, all in red and green. And the icing wasn’t promising — it came in a “pastry bag” similar to the one in the Create a Treat kit.

I was fully prepared to go all Charlie Brown on it. But life is full of surprises, especially during the holidays. This kit turned out to be the overwhelming favorite of the judges, and one of my favorites, too.

Sure, it took twice as long to make as the Create a Treat house, but it was a lot more fun. Why?

This kit had the best icing of the bunch, and it came with a pastry tip. That made all the difference. I even got to make some awesome icicles.

And that rolling pin?

Turns out it was there to roll out gumdrop windows in a bed of sugar. Cool.

TRADER JOE’S AUTHENTIC GERMAN “HEXEN HOUSE”

APPEARANCE: ***

TASTE: *1/2

WHERE TO BUY: Trader Joe’s

COST: $7.99

TIME TO ASSEMBLE: 45 minutes

BEST FEATURE: Non-traditional look, extra figures to decorate your house.

WORST FEATURE: Icing hardens too quickly to use the sprinkles that come with the house.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Karen: “Adorable! Love the little people out front and the Christmas tree. Gives a happy holiday feel. The gingerbread has a nice, rich color.”

John: “The (candy) colors were rather dull compared to the other two, and the frosting was concrete-esque. And personally, I favored the sort of “classic” look of (the other houses). But if you have a ski condo or spend a lot of time en route to Sunday River or Sugarloaf, the A-frame might be the house for you.”

Rod: “I had been thinking about the goodies on this house for more than a day, so it was the first one I tried in the taste test. Unfortunately, the candies stuck to gingerbread like cement. I could not pry them off with my fingers, so it turned into an unsatisfying, frustrating experience. I took it out on the little people by biting the dad’s sugary head off. It was delicious.”

The first thing you notice when you open the Trader Joe’s box is the terrific smell. Too bad the gingerbread was as hard as a rock when we tried to eat it a day later.

Still, as far as appearance goes, this house ran neck-and-neck with the Wilton house. Folks who wandered in from the newsroom loved its A-frame style. And they were charmed by the little people who came with the house, who were so carefully packaged that not one of them broke. (Are you listening, Whole Foods?)

This house requires that you make your own royal icing with an egg white, some lemon juice or white vinegar, and a box of (try not to giggle) Puder Zucker. That’s German for powdered sugar, and a little box of it is tucked away in the Trader Joe’s kit.

The kit did not include a pastry bag or tip. I bought some disposable ones at the grocery store, which worked fine until one of the flimsy bags broke while I was piping icing onto the roof.

The biggest drawback with this kit was, again, the icing. It hardened so fast that I was unable to use the included colorful sprinkles. They just wouldn’t stick. And the judges had a hard time prying away any of the candies.

Maybe the problem was the Puder Zucker. Probably not; I just like saying that.

GINGERHAUS CHALET ALL NATURAL BAKING KIT

APPEARANCE: *

 

TASTE: The box notes that the gingerbread, icing and candies are edible, then goes on to lawyer up: “Please do not consume paper baking panels, house frame/armature and/or other non-edible items provided in this kit.” The instructions say this kit is “intended for decorative use only.”

WHERE TO BUY: Whole Foods Market

COST: $22.99

TIME TO ASSEMBLE: At least two hours. At least.

BEST FEATURE: The concept. And maybe the vellum windows.

WORST FEATURE: The icing, which is so unmanageable you’ll want to hire a gingerbread arsonist to burn the whole thing down.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Shannon: “The gingerbread house will haunt me in my dreams. I swear, if I lean in close enough, I can make out the small orange notice on the front door: Condemned.”

Rod: “There was literally nothing appealing about it. No accessories except for a couple of peppermint sticks that looked like they were the only things keeping this thing from collapsing. Even the icing looked unappealing, like somebody blew their nose all over the top and let it drip down the sides. And what’s with the cardboard? What’s the use of a gingerbread house that you can’t eat?”

Karen: “Yikes! The candy cane pillars are all broken, the icing looks runny and you can see the cardboard through the roof. This house would be a huge disappointment for kids. Plus, you can’t eat it. What fun is that?”

I really, really, really wanted to like this gingerbread house.

It is, after all, not just any old gingerbread shack. It is a gingerbread chalet, from a company called Gingerhaus. Pah-don me.

The photo on the box is dreamy. Dark gingerbread panels, baked fresh and supported by sturdy candy-cane pillars, are lovingly decorated in creamy white icing in the shape of hearts and swirls. I can almost taste the hot chocolate the little gingerbread men must surely be making inside. The house even comes with a steeple in case you want to turn it into a church.

I really wanted this one to kick some major gingerbread butt.

Instead, I ended up with what looks like a gingerbread halfway house. One of the sides refuses to stay put, the trim over the door falls out easily, and the royal icing? Well, it’s more like marshmallow goo.

The concept behind the gingerbread chalet is genius. You roll out the gingerbread pieces over corrugated cardboard forms so the dough sticks to the paper. Then you bake the pieces on the cardboard for 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven. After decorating the pieces, you insert their cardboard tabs into a house frame, and voila — you’ve got a gingerbread house that’s the envy of the block.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

The baking went fine, although I noticed my gingerbread was much lighter than the gingerbread on the box. Yes, I needed some extra flour to keep the dough from sticking, but not enough to lighten it several shades. (I am not a gingerbread house novice, by the way. I have made them from scratch.)

The major problem was the icing, which I prepared as instructed. I beat the icing for what seemed like hours until it formed peaks, nearly burning out my mixer in the process, but it still didn’t seem stiff enough. Hoping I was being paranoid and the icing would dry well after I applied it, I began decorating.

Uh-oh. The icing was so thin it ran out of my pastry tip all on its own. If I set the pastry bag down to keep the icing from spilling all over the table, the icing poured out of the other end of the pastry bag in big rivers of white. After a while, I was covered in the stuff, and this project was beginning to look like “Lucy Ricardo Makes a Gingerbread House.”

Remember those cute little hearts? Impossible to make.

And did I mention that all four candy-cane pillars were broken when I opened the box? And that the sweet little red heart decorations shown in the instructions were nowhere to be found in the box?

I decided to assemble as much of the house as I could, but it was pretty much a fruitless endeavor. Once I got one side of a wall in place, the other side would pop out again. Halfway through, I wanted to just throw the whole thing away.

The good news is there are other options: Whole Foods also sells a Dancing Deer gingerbread house kit for $17.99 that might bring you more luck, and they also have a ready-made house for $13.99.

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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