It’s December, which means it’s the time of year we build homes with slabs of gingerbread and deck their halls with candy morsels. Ahead of the construction boom, we asked pastry chefs and candy connoisseurs for their best tips and tricks for making better gingerbread homes. Not only will their intel help you build a sturdier gingerbread house that would pass an inspection with flying colors, but their design savvy could help you win an award for “best gingerbread house ever.”

Tips for Constructing a Gingerbread House

Of key importance for any gingerbread house is a sturdy foundation to hold up all the candy decor. Here’s how to make sure your gingerbread is structurally sound.

The Dough

  • Whichever gingerbread recipe you use, add 1/3 cup flour to make a stiffer dough, says pastry chef Pam Nash of Cook Street School of Culinary Arts in the Golden Triangle. “This will ensure the house will be strong enough to hold all of the decorations, but the dough will also spread less and you will get sharp edges that will make assembling the house easier,” she says. Then roll out the dough to a quarter-inch thickness. Thicker sides will also make for a stronger house, according to Nash.
  • Make the dough and bake the house pieces a day in advance. Store the dough (covered) at room temperature, then cut out the house shapes before baking them, Nash recommends. It’s too hard to cut the pieces while the cookie is hot, and you’ll waste too much cookie.
  • Before putting your gingerbread house in the oven, cut out the windows and fill them with crushed Life Savers candy and bake for a stained glass effect, says Nathan Potter, the pastry chef at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. This year, the resort used 958 pounds of powdered sugar and 20 pounds of candy canes to construct its 10-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide gingerbread chateau in its main building mezzanine.

The Icing

  • If using royal icing (i.e. the kind that’s made with confectioners’ sugar and hardens like candy versus a more light and fluffy frosting), you can make that a day ahead as well. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator (the icing will need to be re-whipped before using). Make sure the icing consistency is thick like peanut butter. If using a store-bought frosting, do not use a sugar-free variety, Nash says, because the additional ingredients in the frosting will eat away at the gingerbread. Avoid the shiny or glossy icing because it’s not great for construction, says Michelle Rasul, owner and pastry chef at Gateaux Bakery off Speer Boulevard. Whip your royal icing until it’s fluffy for the best outcome.
  • Keep a damp towel over your icing so it doesn’t dry out as you’re using it, says Sophie Palladino, the pastry kitchen supervisor at Hilton Denver Inverness in Englewood, which builds a life-size gingerbread house for its lobby during the holidays. Add frosting to the inside of the gingerbread pieces, too, for extra strength.

Tips for Decorating a Gingerbread House

Now for the fun part: It’s time to get decorating. Beyond gumdrops and candy canes, here are some fun ways to make your gingerbread house shine brighter than Clark Griswold’s home.

  • Your gingerbread home needs some curb appeal. Marshmallows are great for building snowmen in the front yard and you can flip sugar cones upside down and pipe green icing onto them for trees, says Linda Sudowkski, the owner of My Make Studio at Edgewater Public Market, which sells cupcake and cake baking and decorating kits. For the holiday season, the studio sells a gingerbread kit ($49.99) that comes with pre-baked house pieces, a variety of icing colors, and loads of candy. Attaching pretzel sticks is a great way to make your house look like a log cabin, Sudowkski says.
  • Use sliced almonds to replicate shingles on your gingerbread house’s roof, recommends Rich Beyers, executive chef of St. Julien Hotel & Spa. The Boulder hotel spends 100 hours making its three-foot-by-six-foot gingerbread house.
  • Beyond candy, Frosted Mini Wheats Cereal make great roof tiles because they are already frosted like snow, Nash says. She recommends using square pretzels to make windows.
  • Want to create the illusion of Christmas lights? Try Nerds ropes. You could also use Pez candies to create roof shingles, says Stacey Kleinman, co-owner at the Inventing Room, a Willy Wonka-inspired food and drink entertainment spot in West Highland.
  • Now, it’s time to proudly display your gingerbread home. But don’t forget to first pop in a battery-operated tea light to give it a nice and cozy glow.