Every year I try to make a gingerbread house and every year I abandon construction halfway through and eat the candy canes for dinner. Making a gingerbread house from scratch is hard yakka. Before you can begin decorating, there's a tedious process of designing templates, rolling dough and forgetting that gingerbread changes shape in the oven and your little chimney no longer fits its gable.
I stuff up the dough by adding too much golden syrup or not enough brown sugar and the house collapses and I throw in the icing-covered towel. By the time next Christmas rolls around I've forgotten any lessons learned and the process starts again.
This December I decided to protect my sanity and invest in a DIY gingerbread house kit. Amateur bakers may scoff but I'm not an amateur baker. I'm a bloke who would prefer to see the new Rocky film than deal with three hours of stencils and muscovado.
It was difficult to know what kit to buy, however, as there are many on the market and very little independent research on the quality of each. Is Coles' ginger shack better value than Woolworths'? Is Aldi's house more delicious than IKEA's harbargera? These were questions that needed to be answered and so Good Food's Gingerbread House Battle Royale was born.
Eight houses were constructed according to packet instructions over a 24-hour period and judged for taste, ease of assembly, design, structural integrity and, where applicable, decorations and icing. Here they are in order of best to blurst.
Phillippa's Gingerbread House Kit
BEST IN SHOW
This elegant A-frame from Melbourne-based baker and cookbook author Phillippa Grogan really puts the ginger in gingerbread. Maybe too much ginger if you don't enjoy a thwack of heat from the ground root on the back of your throat, but I find it's perfect with a Highland whisky and The Great British Bake Off. As much as this is a gingerbread house for grown-ups, it's also beaut for kids, thanks to dead easy construction (there are only four panels) and a broad canvas to decorate with clinkers and jubes.
Icing: Included with piping bag.
Base: Sturdy foil cake board.
Extras: An iced Christmas tree that was most delicious thing tasted over the course of this quest; a little gingerbread boy and gingerbread girl.
Price: $45, phillippas.com.au
IKEA's gingerbread house. Photo: Supplied
Sweden's No. 1 meatball and homewares shop has created this cute little vintersaga to provide "serene shelter from the winter cold". The compact size makes construction a cinch (no need for an Allen key here) and big windows mean you can fix leaf gelatine to the inside for a stained glass effect. The hollow chimney is cute but it takes the patience of Saint Nick to hold together while the icing sets. A biscuity texture is welcome and the taste is on the sweeter side of the gingerbread spectrum.
Icing: Not included. Don't be tempted to buy the IKEA "baking glue" at the time of purchase either. I found it to be difficult to squeeze and apply, even after massaging the tube under warm water for a lengthy period.
Base: Not included.
Extras: None, but IKEA stocks many lollies and gingerbread folk to pimp your yuletide pad. Its gummy horses are a favourite of the Good Food office.
Price: $7.95, ikea.com
Cakers Warehouse Gingerbread House Kit
Cakers online store will send you a tasty gingerbread house kit baked fresh at Delaney's Cakes in Wollongong. I like how tall and slim this is, providing loads of room to go to town on lollies and icing. Note the height also makes it more delicate than smaller houses and you'll need to wait 24 hours to ensure the icing has set properly before decorating. A nice balanced taste – not too spicy, not too sweet – and the removable door is a nifty touch.
Icing: Packet of dry royal icing you'll need to beat with 75ml of water. No need to visit the shops for eggs.
Base: Large foil cake board with ample space to create a winter wonderland mise-en-scene.
Price: $24.95, cakerswarehouse.com.au
Gingerbread Folk's vegan-friendly gingerbread house. Photo: Supplied
Gingerbread Folk Gingerbread House Kit
BEST FOR VEGANS
Most gingerbread house kits contain egg in the icing or dough or both but not this little brown hut, which is available at Myer and online. Lovingly made in the Blue Mountains, Gingerbread Folk's kits are vegan-friendly and nut-free to boot. The lack of eggs or butter isn't noticeable in the taste or texture and this is delicious, fragrant and lightly spiced. The smaller size lends itself to restraint in decorating – a modest centrepiece at Christmas lunch rather than something to be covered in sprinkles and sat in the kids' corner. Gluten-free and chocolate varieties are also available.
Icing: Egg-free dry royal icing – just add water and whisk. Takes longer to harden than a batch made from scratch but tastes perfectly fine. Bonus points for the inclusion of a piping bag.
Base: Small foil cake board.
Price: $39.99, gingerbreadfolk.com.au
Cobblestone Kitchens' gingerbread house. Photo: Supplied
Cobblestone Kitchens Cottage Kit
BEST FOR KIDS
Gee whiz, this is some gaudy stuff. I kind of dig it though. A "product of Canada, Mexico and the USA" and sold through the Gingerbread House Kits website in Australia, this gingerbread McMansion comes with more lollies than you'll find at some swimming pool kiosks. A more restrained "Cottage Kit" is also available. Perhaps due to the high sugar level, I found this house to be the most addictive for snacking. A jigsaw-like "link and lock" design means kids can probably be left to their own devices to make it provided they know enough to keep icing out of their hair.
Icing: Two pouches of ready-to-roll royal icing and a piping bag. It is very sweet and enough of it makes the house taste like one of those milk arrowroot biscuits with a jelly bean face sold at school fetes across the country.
Base: Not included, however Gingerbread House Kits will sling you a free cake board if requested at the time of order.
Extras: Large gumballs! Smaller gumballs! Jawbreakers! Gumdrops! Sprinkles! Tabbylets, whatever they are! (Square-shaped gum, it turns out.)
Price: $38, gingerbreadhousekit.com.au
Create A Treat Gingerbread House Kit
There's a reason why supermarket gingerbread kits are so cheap: they're not very good. This DIY shack is available from Coles and is the best of the supermarket bunch thanks to pleasant spice levels that let the ginger shine through. Shame that it's also overly crumbly and prone to collapsing under the weight of its own decorations.
Icing: Pre-made icing that's ready to go and slow to harden.
Base: A plastic tray that's flimsier that it should be, although kudos for the grooves to secure the house walls.
Extras: Three gingerbread cookie figures; jelly hearts; pinwheels; multi-coloured sugar beads; some round things called "pucker ups" that look like Smarties and taste like old sherbert.
Price: $12, shop.coles.com.au
Woolworths Build Your Own Gingerbread House
Props to Woolies for putting the Health Rating on so many of its home brand products these days, especially when they only cop one star like this kit does. That should be enough to ward you off. Easy to assemble and difficult to eat thanks to a bland taste and hard texture.
Icing: A tube of the pre-made made stuff that does its job holding the house together but a grainy texture makes it difficult to spread over a large surface.
Base: Plastic and not very sturdy.
Extras: Sugar penguins and icing gumdrops, which list pork gelatine as an ingredient.
Price: $10, woolworths.com.au
Aldi's A-frame gingerbread house. Photo: Supplied
Pertzborn Gingerbread House Kit
Oh, Aldi. So many of your Christmas products are fair-dink quality so why drop the ball on this house? And why is the gingerbread so bendy? And what's the go with the weird pretzel decorations? And even weirder legless cat (pig?) I'm supposed to stick on the roof? The gingerbread tastes like molasses on the turn but this actually isn't a bad one for young children to have a crack at as the bendable bread won't crumble under stress. Just have a nice treat to feed them afterwards like one of Aldi's Christmas puddings and use this as a display home only.
Icing: Not included.
Base: Not included.
Extras: Hansel and Gretel figurines; sugar pretzels; eight different shaped ginger biscuits that actually aren't bad; weird sugary pig cat thing.
Price: $7.99, aldi.com.au
Tips for the home builder
■ Decorate your walls before construction begins. It is much easier to fix lollies to a flat surface than a vertical one.
■ Ready-made royal icing is super convenient if you don't feel like whisking, but the fresh stuff sticks and tastes so much better. For one house whisk two egg whites and gradually stir in 400 grams of icing sugar with a tablespoon of lemon juice to help the mixture harden.
■ It's worth investing in a small piping nozzle for decorating and a larger one for construction as one size does not suit all purposes. A cheese knife works a treat for spreading icing along structural joints too. A baking palette knife is even better if you have one.
■ Royal icing has a habit of finding its way on to everything within a two-metre radius so consider covering your workbench with newspaper and don't let that piping bag anywhere near carpet.
■ A few cans from the pantry will help buttress walls while the icing hardens. Large books also work so if there's an Encyclopaedia Britannica set in the house it might actually come in useful.