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Gingerbread Houses

Building a sweet tradition

Annie
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Ellen Conaway and Maddie Plummer

THE BEST PART Sisters Ellen Conaway and Maddie Plummer (from left) decorate gingerbread houses with old-fashioned Christmas candy, gumdrops and candy canes. They get help from siblings William and Margaret. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Elizabeth Plummer stands in her kitchen. A sweet-spicy aroma seeps out of her oven. She has cookie cutters and a rolling pin on the table, along with bowls of old-fashioned Christmas candy, candy canes and gumdrops. Christmas music is playing in the background. Her family’s gingerbread recipe is displayed on a note card, and around it are butter, sugar and eggs.

She is carrying on a holiday family tradition that her mother, Nancy Dodd, started when she was a young child: making a gingerbread house from scratch.

The 38-year-old mother-of-four has made these homemade gingerbread houses almost all of her life. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom and creative, so she was always thinking of ways to keep [me and my sister Margaret] busy.” 

Her mom, Nancy, or “Cece,” as her grandkids call her, got her inspiration from do-it-yourself queen Martha Stewart. “I loved all of her books,” Nancy says. “I started out making cardboard patterns, and then I found a large cookie cutter to use.”

Elizabeth Plummer, Nancy Dodd

WITH MOM Elizabeth Plummer and her mother, Nancy Dodd, have made homemade gingerbread houses and cookies together since Elizabeth was a child. (Photo: lawellphoto.com

Nancy was skilled at keeping her two girls occupied. They’d have tea parties with their cats and help out with household chores. “If we were driving her crazy, she would give us doll clothes and doll-sized clothing line pins and tell us to go outside and wash our doll’s clothes,” says Elizabeth, now associate director of Rice University Counseling Center.

Elizabeth is carrying on the holiday tradition with her own children, starting with older daughter Ellen on her very first Christmas. The self-proclaimed “former perfectionist” says the tradition is not about the end product – a “perfect house.” The kids make a huge mess and rarely place the candy where she thinks it belongs on the house. But the memories are perfect.

Elizabeth’s daughters, Ellen, 7, and Margaret, 4, have made the houses every year with their mother, grandmother and their aunt, Margaret Dodd. Elizabeth remarried in 2016 to her husband Gill Plummer, CEO of Global Parking Operations, and now Gill’s two children, Maddie, 9, and William, 6, are in on the fun.

The blended Plummer family is taking the tradition and making it their own. “When Gill and I got together, he was a single dad raising these kids,” says Elizabeth. “He said he didn’t feel like he had enough traditions. He always calls me Martha Stewart.”

These days, you can buy a gingerbread kit at the craft or grocery store. Everything that is needed is inside; you don’t even need to turn on the oven. Their homemade houses take time, about 2-3 hours, and start with designing the house. There are templates to print out from the Internet, or the designs can be hand drawn.

After they have made their design, they make the homemade gingerbread dough. They roll it out and cut the pieces of the template using utility scissors or a knife. To build the house, they cut out two long-side walls (with windows cut out in them), two gable end walls with a point on top, and two roof panels. They bake the pieces for about 10-12 minutes at 375 degrees.

Ellen Conaway

TRADITION Now-7-year-old Ellen Conaway (here, at age 2) makes homemade gingerbread houses with her family every Christmas.

Then it becomes time to make the homemade royal icing, of egg whites, cream, confectioners’ sugar and a hint of vanilla, with optional food coloring. To assemble the house, they use cardboard as a foundation and a pastry bag to pipe the royal icing and connect the pieces. Elizabeth says if something goes wrong, like overbaking or cracking, they just improvise with more icing. And then it’s time to decorate with candy.

The family also makes homemade cookies with Elizabeth and Nancy’s extensive cookie-cutter collection. “The Christmas cookies for Santa has been a tradition we did as little girls with my mother as well. We would make sugar cookies with tons of great vintage cookie cutters – well, they weren’t vintage back then. There would be sprinkles and flour everywhere.” 

The family leaves their homemade cookies and carrots out for Santa and his reindeer. “Christmas morning, [it’s] always fun to check the carrots and cookies to see if they have been eaten, proof that Santa was there,” Elizabeth says.

This year, the Plummer family will spend their second Christmas all together. “It’s a lot busier and messier with four kids, but it’s also a lot more fun,” Elizabeth says. “Once the houses are finished, they typically become either mantle decorations or dining room table centerpieces.”

 This way, the kids – and adult kids – can’t sneak and eat the candy off of them.

Click here for the family’s gingerbread recipe.

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