This is the high point of German Christmas baking. It’s every child’s dream to have one of these. Hexenhaus is the German word for “witch’s house”, because the house is that of the witch in the fairy-tale Hansel und Gretel. It’s made of Lebkuchen (gingerbread without any ginger) and decorated with sweets. Like everything connected with fairy tales, it’s full of mystery and contradiction – very desirable and yet very scary, because it is the witch’s way of luring little children to her, so she can roast and eat them. Luckily, all German children know that the tale has a happy ending for them and the house is something that features in their dreams, to be recreated by busy parents as a special surprise.
My own children had a Hexenhaus every Christmas and it was part of the tradition. One year, we drove from Hobart to Launceston to celebrate with their grandparents. Anna and two of her friends were on the backseat and the little house was entrusted to their care, as it was too delicate to put in the boot with the bags and gifts. Very mysteriously, most of the sweets on the back of the house had disappeared by the time we arrived two and-a-half hours later! I’m sure the wicked witch was to blame…
Here is the recipe, make it as a surprise or with children or teens:
300 g honey
60 ml water
75 g mixed peel, chopped finely
50 g sultanas, chopped finely
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
375 g flour
teaspoon baking powder
200 g icing sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
(use double the amounts if you want to make icicles)
some extra icing sugar for dusting
icing bag with nozzle
wooden board, cake base or similar non-bendy base to put the finished house on
Please read entire instructions before you start, or you’ll regret it later! This recipe is fairly easy but you need to be well prepared.
Make a template for the house:
It’s always best to learn from other people’s mistakes. Learn from mine and make sure you have 2 sides, 2 gables and 2 roof parts before you bake the dough! It’s not fun trying to cobble together the side of a house from odds and ends. Roof: 12 cm x 7.5 cm, side walls: 10 cm x 6.5 cm, end wall (gable) 6.5 cm wide, appr 9cm high, sides 6.5 cm high. Cut the templates out of card or paper and try them out for size. There will be a little dough left over to make into trees.
Warm the honey and water until they are well mixed. Do not boil. Let cool a little. Add spices and flour mixed with baking powder. Knead until smooth. Let the dough rest for a little while (have a quick cuppa!). Roll out about 7mm thick onto a floured surface and cut out pieces. Any left-overs can be turned into trees. Bake at 180C on a non-stick baking tray (or waxed with beeswax) for about 10 minutes, be careful not to let it burn.
Here comes the tricky part:
While the house is baking, make the icing. It’s not a bad idea to have the strongest person in the house handy for this job, otherwise it will be a good pre-Christmas workout for you! Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl. Add the egg white and lemon juice. With a spoon, mix carefully and then continue to beat with the spoon for at least 5 minutes. This is where the strong person mentioned above comes in handy, because this is not an easy job. The icing mix has to be very smooth, glossy and NOT DRIP AT ALL off the spoon. If it drips, your house will FAIL. Beat it until you think it’s stiff enough, then beat a little more just to make sure. Ooops, don’t let the house-parts burn in the oven while you’re doing this!
The house must be assembled while the pieces are still warm, otherwise it won’t stick together and it’s impossible to trim the parts once cool.
Trim any crooked edges, especially where they will join onto other edges. This will make it easier to glue the house together with icing. The trimmings can be used to make a stack of ‘firewood’, or just eat them like I do, and then remember you were going to make a firewood stack for the witch. Cut out a door on a gable end and a window in the side with a sharp knife. With the icing bag, put a thick bead of icing on the ends of the house and stick together. Put the roof on top and support with whatever is handy (small glass, building blocks etc). Leave to set for an hour or so, cover nozzle of icing bag with foil in the meantime to stop it drying out. Decorate the house with icing and sweets. If you are crafty (or have crafty kids) make a witch, Hansel and Gretel to complete the house. Enjoy!
P.S. You can add icicles and also a chimney, with cotton wool as smoke. I forget the chimney nearly every year, but it does look good.