Gingerbread is a form of sweet spiced cake, known since the Middle Ages. During the Christmas season in the United States, children use a gingerbread recipe, considerably less spicy than some of its medieval predecessors, to construct figures of men, women, and animals in gingerbread. A typical recipe for a fluffy gingerbread man involves flour, baking soda, brown sugar or molasses and spices including ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves depending on recipe. The tradition owes a great deal to the distinctive German decorated Christmas cookies called lebkuchen.
The gingerbread used for house construction leaves out the baking soda or any other form of leavening, resulting in sheets of thinner cookies that can be easily cut to shape or baked in a special gingerbread mold. The gingerbread house is another tradition that comes to the United States from Germany and Scandinavia. It is no wonder then that gingerbread houses tend to look like they have been lifted directly from the Grimm fairytale Hansel and Gretel, with steep gabled roofs draped in snow.
Gingerbread houses are available in kit form, but serious devotees construct the house from scratch, though they may use molds and printed patterns for the various house sections. To fit the pieces together, the gingerbread artist will use an edible glue made from egg whites, cream of tartar and powdered sugar. The glue is also used to affix pieces of candy or bits of cookies to the house to add to the effect. Various forms of icing and frosting, which may be tinted with food coloring, are used for decorative details, as are purchased colored food pastes.
The goal is to make the entire house out of edible materials. Adult constructors can often go to exquisite lengths to make extremely detailed gingerbread structures; children build simple houses for fun. An elaborate gingerbread house contains a lot of food; houses that are not lacquered and preserved may well not be totally consumed, as materials, though edible, do get stale.
The Grove Park Inn Annual Gingerbread Competition in Asheville, North Carolina welcomes more than 300 very serious competitors, in separate youth (12 and under), teen (13-17) and adult categories, who make everything from castles to entire villages in an attempt to win the grand prize of $1500. Dozens of communities host regional and local competitions. Exhibitions of gingerbread houses made by both children and adults are commonly tied in with charity fund raising events.