MANCHESTER - The day after Thanksgiving, you can find our family in the kitchen counting candy. On the counter are piles of red licorice whips, chocolate nonpareils, cinnamon Red Hots, gumdrops and peppermint drops, a bag of mini marshmallows and a handful of Kit-Kats left over from Halloween. We're not even tempted to taste, since every precious morsel will be used for decorating our family gingerbread house. Our annual gingerbread house ritual started when my daughter was in first grade, and we decided to enter a contest that was held each year as part of Flood Brook Schools' Christmas Bazaar. As a lure, a recipe for the gingerbread dough with the royal glue icing accompanied the invitation. The recipe looked easy enough, and all the ingredients were on hand. I thought it would make a good project to do together, an introduction to the joys of cooking.

I assembled the flour and sugar, margarine, molasses and began to mix the dough. I measured and she stirred until the concoction became a thick heavy mass of dough. I rolled it out of the mixing bowl and onto a floured counter, and she kneaded the dough until it formed a ball. I wrapped the ball in waxed paper to chill and we began to sketch out some house designs.

A three-story Victorian house with a window and porch would have been ideal, but my practical side said to do something simple. I opened up a picture book to Hansel and Gretel and chose the witches house as a model. The basic frame looked uncomplicated - four sides and a roof. But it didn't take long before I realized that there is nothing simple about building a house - even if it is done with gingerbread. Assembling four walls held together with wet icing and a brittle gingerbread roof required patience, plus a masters degree in architecture.

We made a cardboard model and cut out the pieces, baking them as the recipe noted. But to my horror, the gingerbread shrank and warped while it baked. I tried to disguise the gaps between the walls and the misshapen roof with extra royal icing, until the roof snapped in two. Luckily, there was just enough leftover ingredients to mix up a second batch of dough. I cut out another roof and this time rolled the pieces out more thickly, so there was not chance of breaking. Our afternoon of fun was quickly turning into a disaster. I suggested to my daughter that she leave for a few hours, so I could assemble the pieces - alone. She happily toddled off to watch Sesame Street.

It's been a learning curve ever since, and what I've learned about making gingerbread houses with young ones is that it's best to assemble the house first - preferably while the kids are away in school. Make sure the icing is completely hardened - this takes a minimum of overnight- and then set the whole thing out with a tray full of candy, so the children can decorate to their hearts desire. And always, I repeat, always bake two sets of everything just in case something cracks.

Please join me for a gingerbread baking class in the BVA kitchen at Brook Valley Appliance on Saturday, Dec. 7th at 11 A.M. The cost per person is $25.

Proceeds will go to support food cupboards across the Manchester and the Mountains Region. Ticket also includes your entry fee in Brook Valley Appliances Gingerbread House competition beginning Dec. 14. Prizes will be awarded.

In this demo style class you will learn how to mix the dough, how to roll out the dough, cut the pieces, and bake. We'll make the royal icing and you and your children can decorate a pre-baked house. Each participant will go home with a bag of candy to get you started, courtesy of The Vermont Country Store. Call Brook Valley Appliance at 802-362-1045 to reserve your space.

Gingerbread Recipe

1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter or margarine

1 cup loosely packed dark brown sugar

1 cup dark molasses

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1-teaspoon baking soda

1-teaspoon ground cinnamon

1-teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1-teaspoon salt

1/3-cup water

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar.

Add the molasses and continue mixing until well blended. Blend together all in the dry ingredients: flour, soda and spices in a large bowl or measuring cup. With the mix on low speed, add the dry ingredients alternating with the water. 2. 3. If the dough becomes too stiff, add the last it of flour by hand. Work the dough with your hands until it become smooth. Turn out into a plastic wrap, form into a neat rectangle, wrap well and chill thoroughly for a few hours or overnight.

4. 5. Preheat the oven to 350* 6. 7. When ready to roll out, light flour the counter or a marble pastry board.

With a rolling pin, roll out the dough to 1 inch thickness. Make a pattern with oak tag or cardboard. Cut out the pieces, and place on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. If you have extra dough, wrap back up and reserve in case any pieces break and will need replacements.

8. 9. Bake at 350* for 10-15 minutes or until firm. Remove from the oven and carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool. While it is baking, make the royal icing.

Royal Icing: 1-pound confectioners sugar 3 egg whites at room temperature 1teaspoon cream of tartar Mix at low speed until blended. Turn up to high speed for 7-10 minutes until stiff peaks form. This is key to making sure that the icing will turn to "glue." Add extra confectioners sugar if need to obtain the right consistency. Transfer to a plastic zip lock bag and snip a small corner to squeeze out the icing.

To Construct: Start with the base: Squeeze out a thin line of icing onto the bottom edges of the walls, where they meet the base. Then add more icing to the edges of the walls, where they come together. Gently add each wall and press pieces together to attached to the base, Allow these to completely set before adding the roof. Glue the roof pieces together, and then attach to the walls, by adding icing to the top edge. It is okay to fill in the gaps with extra royal icing to completely secure. Keep adding pieces until the house is complete.

At every step, waiting until the previous step has hardened, or it may fall apart. For best results, allow the gingerbread house to sit overnight in order to become completely solid before adding candy.

* The pattern: We will include a basic pattern for making a "Hansel and Gretel" gingerbread house, as shown in the photo.