The "atelier"

The “atelier”

Every year, we get together with our friends Lena, Camille, and Johanna to build a gingerbread Christmas house.  They are Swedish/French, and building a gingerbread house is a Swedish tradition.

When the kids were smaller, we actually baked the dough for the house, carefully cutting it, adapting the pieces for oven-shrinkage, struggling over making houses that actually stood up and looked something like a real house.  It was great.

Attention spans began to change, and we discovered the pre-fab houses at Ikea.  For the past three years we’ve used these.  I miss our old ones of course, which looked a bit like my house  – “biscornue” as the French would say, all tippy and winding.  Our new houses are the modern, suburbian style.

But we love them anyway.  And they smell good.  And the kids can put them together more quickly.

Lena and I gather candies to decorate the houses, collecting bits and pieces all year if we think of it, sometimes doing panic buying when we realize our only afternoon or morning together before Christmas is upon us, like this year.

Caramel construction

Caramel construction

We make a big pot of caramel, and the mom’s do the heavy lifting with it because even though we’re now dealing with adolescents (who drop their coolness and dive into the joy of making gingerbread houses), caramel is still an adult affair.

Once the houses are stuck together with the caramel, the chimneys safely on top of the roof, Lena and I sit down with tea and watch.

House decor including Virgin's breasts

House decor including Virgin’s breasts

The kids each have a bag of frosting and they squeeze it into patterns and drizzle it everywhere. They work with a host of colorful candies, eating a fair amount along the way. The scenario is usually the same – Johanna’s house is geometrically perfect; Fiona’s is freely creative, Camille’s is assembled.

Girl house

Girl house

This year Fiona took her time with each line of gluey frosting, each little bon-bon, each cloud of sparkly dust, while Johanna was looser, less disciplined than usual. Our girls are changing and growing up.

Camille, hipper than hip and in the flush of his sixteen years, got caught by the camera, tongue slightly stuck out of his mouth, as he helped apply the funny pink Swedish candies called “virgin’s breasts” to the roof of a house.

Boy house

Boy house

This year we had new kids join in.  Tom and Simon sort of threw the candy at their house, while Chloe and Anais were careful but inexperienced.  The results? Four houses of indubitable character.

As our kids’ lives become increasingly busy with sports and various other pursuits, we struggle to find the time to do the Christmas house.  But since Lena and I are so attached to the tradition, we make it happen.  What’s most fun about the whole thing is to see that it’s important to the kids too.  And besides, Christmas would not be Christmas without that little house scenting up the living room.

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14 Responses to Gingerbread Houses – Maisons en Pain d’Epices

  1. suedoise says:

    What a very pretty Christmas gingerbread house thank you for inspiring reading.
    And just ere did you get the candy such as the sugared jelly buttons called “virgin breasts” – does Ikea offer such service??
    However a Swedish Christmas is no easy matter, a nightmare of merciless do-it-yourself as for decorations and food, the Swedish woman´s burqa.
    Women suffer all through December with all its musts and true enough are down and out by Christmas Eve (when in late afternoon celebrations start with a monster smorgasbord).
    Not a few Swedes go abroad to get away. Entire families travel to Thailand.
    Apart from this: is not pain d´épices a soft cake?

    • Susan says:


      I do understand what you are saying here – Christmas being the Swedish woman’s burka. Do refer to my comment about “cherry picking” traditions! We choose what we can do because we’re not held to our specific traditions, which is a lucky place to be. IN terms of the “nightmare of doo-it-yourself” decorations, this made me laugh. Sorry. But to me, all that is charming, but when it’s expected, I suppose it’s a nightmare. Over the years we’ve done it all – woven paper heart-shaped baskets, made snowflakes, woolly people.

      I hope you get to choose which traditions you follow, and Happy Holidays! As for the candies, they were all available at IKEA.

  2. Molly M says:

    LOVE these! We are having a multi-generational “team” competition at our house this year, which should be fun! Favorite additional decorations here are pretzels and licorice (red and black), along with candy canes. You mention this is a Swedish tradition – do children in France ever try it?

    • Susan says:


      It’s a northern Europe tradition, really. The French don’t make gingerbread houses. This is when it’s fun to “cherry pick” traditions! We also love buche de noel, for Christmas Eve supper (though not sure that I’ll make one in the NY kitchen this year!)

  3. Julie says:

    Could u write your caramel recipe down please? I’ve always used royal icing to ‘glue’ the houses together.

    • Susan says:


      Put 4-5 cups sugar (depending on the number of houses you’ll make – about 1-1/2 cups/house) in a pan, heat it over medium heat until it turns dark golden, stirring from time to time. If it begins to turn solid when you’re using it, put it back over the heat. Good luck, be careful!

  4. Cathy Bennett says:

    how fabulous and what a great tradition!

  5. What an wonderful memory you have created for all of the kids. Most gingerbread houses in America are glued together with frosting. I love that you used caramel. They all look so fun.

    My heritage is Swedish so I would love to know why the candies are called virgin breasts. I am sure I am not the only one who wants to know. 🙂

    • Susan says:


      Well….I’ll have to consult my Swedish specialists to find out, but I”m guessing it has to do with shape, size, and color…!

  6. Gina Legalle says:

    Looks like so much fun! I’ve never done a house and I think I should start doing this with my children. Great idea for the first week of vacation time!

    • Susan says:


      You will LOVE it and can probably even buy the frosting at ikea, for gluing the pieces together. It’s so much fun!


  7. Sharon Caulfield says:

    Susan, can you help us with a pain d’epices recipe? My son spent a year in France and fell in love with the little loaves one can purchase in every boulangerie. it is soft and spicy and perfect for butter in the morning. But when we try to make pain d’epices here in the states (and we have tried in several states 🙂 ), even with translated Fthe rench recipes, the result is always dry and very dense. Do you have any suggestions for a better outcome? We are even considering changing format to an almond flour version to see if that will give us more moisture.

    • Susan says:

      Dear Sharon,

      Thanks for writing! I have a wonderful pain d’epices recipe in the FRENCH FARMHOUSE COOKBOOK. By nature, spice cake isn’t terribly moist – it’s more a bread than a cake. It shouldn’t be unpleasantly dry, though. You know, it was originally developed by Genghis Khan to sustain his soldiers during long campaign, so it was more of a hard bread, made with honey so it would keep.

      Do try my recipe and I hope it works for you. I don’t think that using almond flour will make a huge difference, but you can always try.

      Happy Holidays and let me know what works out.

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