Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How to have a Graham Cracker house building party

I'll admit, we're not a family with a lot of holiday traditions. Sure, we meet up with extended family and exchange gifts and eat too much. But that's really about it.

Except for this one, which is very near and dear to our hearts. We simply must include this one every year. It doesn't always happen before Christmas, but it always happens.

It is, of course, the Graham cracker house party.

It starts off with us finding a location to meet (for some reason, it's not always easy), and inviting several families. Because it's holiday season, most that we invite don't come -- and it's really better that way, because this party seems to be a space-hog. We almost always end up with about 4 families, and we have a blast.

To start off the evening, we make a big pot of soup. We don't have an "official" meal, but anyone that didn't get supper before coming out can have soup and bread. It also helps offset all the sugar.

Then we set aside one table for decorating, and load it up with all kinds of candy and breakfast cereals. Coconut for grass, Shredded wheat for thatched roofs, pretzels for structural details, gum drops, gummy bears for characters, and so on.... We ask guests to bring a small bag of candy and/or a box of graham crackers as their contribution, so the candy possibilities are endless.

In a different room, (or at least a ways away), we make the structural glue. It's easy
  1. Put candy canes (or any other hard peppermint candy) on a pancake griddle.
  2. Turn it on high
  3. Wait
You can start using this "glue" when it starts melting. Eventually it'll look like this.

While it's melting, cut up cardboard boxes into "bases" -- ours are about 8x12 inches, and cover them with tin foil. Makes them pretty.

When the candy canes have melted, we can use it: dip the edge of a graham cracker in it to coat with "glue", then stick that edge to another cracker, and hold still until it's "set" (about 15 seconds).

For most parties like this, we'll make-ahead a few small houses. Our pre-fab houses are merely three graham crackers, broken into six squares. Each square has one side dipped, and stuck to another one at a right angle. After this, we have three "v"s. Dip the sides of two "v"s and stick them together to make a standing square -- these are the four walls of the house. Set the third "v" on top, it's the roof.

A word on buying graham crackers for this project: The cheap ones are generally more sturdy. Aldi or Walmart brand are the best we've found.

Of course you don't have to make little houses like the above -- those are really just for toddlers or people who don't want to build. The real fun (for us) is in the other types of structures we can make. Anything from a "Berean Addition" (it's a local joke), to an outhouse, to mine this year - a table-top water fall. In the past, people I know have built train engines, taj-mahals, 5-foot-tall sky scrapers and the like. Now, doesn't that make us seem less out-there?

After your structure is made, it's time to decorate. For this, you want glue frosting (or, if you don't have a kitchen aid or want to eat the frosting, cement frosting). It's best to make both of these as people are still hanging around talking and eating soup, since they take a while.
Glue Frosting
6 egg whites
1 lb powdered sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar

Mix in a kitchen aid (nothing less will work -- it'll burn up the motor. Don't ask how we know), with a wire whisk for 10 minutes.

Cement frosting (for those without a kitchen aid, or who want to eat their frosting)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar or 1 tablespoon white corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup water
2 egg whites
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (optional, unless you want it to taste good)

Place sugar, cream of tartar or corn syrup, salt, water, and egg whites in the top of a double boiler. Beat with a handheld electric mixer (it doesn't have to be anything special, a normal mixer will cut it) for 1 minute. Place pan over boiling water, being sure that boiling water does not touch the bottom of the top pan. (If this happens, it could cause your frosting to become grainy). Beat constantly on high speed with electric mixer for 7 minutes. Beat in vanilla, if desired.

We use the glue frosting, because we don't particularly care if we ingest a few raw egg whites. If you care and think your littles will eat it, then use the cement frosting. It's not as strong, and doesn't dry as hard, but it's certainly suitable for the task of holding candy to your house. Which is really all the frosting does. When it's done, scoop the (very stiff) frosting into bowls and dye with food coloring. I use the paste food coloring made by Wilton for frosting - the colors are really bright. But anything will work.

Then, decorate to your heart's content. Or don't. Whatever you like. It's a pretty low-key party. Unlike actually constructing the houses, decorating is a toddler-safe activity (just watch the sugar consumption).

Each of the littler ones started with the pre-fab house. Here's some of their work.

Lisel's house.

Josephine's house. (I think?)

Bennet showing off his house. Next year he wants to build his own "not a house".

A Christmas-tree filled yard

And a few of the others:

A truck

A teepee, complete with a campfire

A "candy box" (the lid is removable, but she didn't fill it with candy)

A large blue house. The sides are each eight full graham crackers.

It's fun to tell a bit of a story with your scene:

"A Berean Addition"

My table-top waterfall (you know... like those little wavy fountains)

A super-cute little village

This one uses candy-cane hinges to open and close doors and windows

Nathan built an outhouse, and Toby built a trailer house - complete with a patched roof, since they all have patched roofs. I can't believe I didn't get pictures!

We have fun every year. This year it was almost called off due to complications in weather and transportation, and we were very unprepared. Somehow, it made it all the more fun (because we have understanding friends!).

Afterwards I got two notes:
Thanks again for the party on Sat. We had lots of fun and can safely say this is one of our few Christmas traditions. I hope you don't suffer too badly from the sugar consumption!

Thanks so much for hosting the graham cracker party on Sat. We really enjoyed ourselves, although the kids were on a major sugar high when we came home - thanks A LOT for that! .... Saturday was a great example of how, even though we have kids, or maybe BECAUSE we have kids, we can do fun parties like that. The house doesn't have to look perfect [good thing!], the food doesn't have to be fancy, the activities don't have to be trendy or store-bought. It's the PEOPLE and the MEMORIES that are important. The Xmas parties I remember from my childhood were parties of my dad's lawyer partners where we dressed in our best and were told to be good, then sent down to the basement so the adults could have fun while the kids put up with each other. I much prefer your version. :) Even now that I'm the adult. :)

Notes like these make it even better! Thanks you all for coming and making Christmas special this year! We're grateful to have you to enjoy these Christmas traditions with!

What's your favorite Christmas tradition?

Those of you who were at this party: if you want copies of any of the pictures in a large format, just ask.

1 comment:

  1. We started a new tradition I think tonight. My daughter and I made gingerbread men (using a hungry girl recipe, linked on my blog); and we took them to my parents house after they cooled with the (simple) decorations. After dinner, each of us decorated our own "man". We opened presents, then we ate our men when we were done. I done a "family picture" with our men "together", it turned out really cute. Im going to digitally scrap that picture. I think I'll start an album with each year's "family picture" of gingerbread men, LOL
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