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MAKE THE DOUGH: Put about half the flour in a food processor with the butter. Whizz until you can’t see any lumps of butter remaining (if you don’t have a food processor, rub the butter into all of the flour with your fingertips, until it resembles fine crumbs). Tip the buttery flour into your largest mixing bowl and mix in the remaining flour, spices and bicarbonate of soda with a pinch of salt. Stir in the sugar.
Whisk the eggs with the golden syrup and stir into the flour mixture with a wooden spoon. Using your hands, knead together into a smooth dough. Use straight away, or chill or freeze until ready to bake.
CUT OUT ALL THE SHAPES: Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Roll out a quarter of the dough at a time on a sheet of baking parchment, to the thickness of 2 x £1 coins. Use a small, sharp knife to cut around the cottage templates (see the 'try' section below to print off the template) – remember that each time you’ll need 2 x ROOF, 2 x END and 2 x SIDE for one cottage. Remove the trimmings and lift the gingerbread, on its parchment, onto baking trays. Re-roll trimmings to cut out all the shapes you need.
BAKE YOUR GINGERBREAD: Bake the gingerbread one tray at a time (so it cooks evenly), on a high shelf in the oven for 8-12 mins, until rich brown and firm to the touch. Give each tray 3-5 mins to cool, then carefully sit the templates back onto the relevant shapes and trim any edges to neaten (step 1, above). Keep these trimmings for nibbles. Use a small knife, or heart-shaped cutters, to cut out any doors and windows you want to have. If you want to fill your cottage with lights, use the end of one of the SIDE templates to cut out a little door in the back END of the cottage.
For a roof like ours, roll out remaining gingerbread to about half the thickness of the walls. Use a 3-4cm cutter to stamp out rounds – to fully cover the roofs, you will need about 75 round biscuit tiles. Bake as above, but for 6-9 mins – as they are thinner, they will bake quicker. Let all the biscuits cool completely.
DECORATE YOUR GINGERBREAD: Sift 250g of the icing sugar into a bowl, dribble in water, stirring in until you have a thick-ish icing. Tip the preserving sugar or pearl sugar into a shallow bowl and get a couple of cooling racks ready. Dip the round roof tile biscuits into the icing, one by one – covering about a quarter of the biscuit in icing (step 2). It looks nice if they’re all a bit higgledy-piggledy. Dip into the preserving sugar to stick, then sit on the cooling racks and leave to dry.
Put the egg whites in a large bowl, sift in the remaining 500g of icing sugar, then stir to make a thick, smooth icing. Spoon a little into a piping bag with a very small nozzle. Spoon half of the rest into a piping bag that has a slightly larger nozzle (or spoon into large food bags and, when ready to ice, snip off the corner to turn into a piping bag). Keep the rest covered in the bowl. Use the small piping bag to pipe any icing decorations you want onto the END that is going to be the front of your cottage. Leave to dry.
START BUILDING: Arrange the wall biscuits as you are going to assemble them. Swap to the big bag of icing with a medium nozzle to pipe generous snakes of icing along the SIDE edges (3) and stick the walls together. Pipe extra icing where the walls join each other on the inside of the cottage, and support the sides using your icing balls (4).
To decorate the roof, scrape any excess icing and sugar from the underside of the roof tiles with a small knife, so they can lie flat. Start at the bottom of one and work along in a row, using the icing in the bowl, spread good-sized blobs of icing on the underside of the top of each tile biscuit to stick (5). Let the bottom row overhang the edge of the ROOF. Continue working up, sticking a row at a time, sitting the row above in the gaps of the row below, so the tiles sit in a diamond pattern rather than straight lines down the ROOF (6). You’ll need to cut some of the tiles on the edges to fit – just use a big sharp knife and be brave (you should have a few spares available in case you have any accidents). Repeat to cover the second ROOF, then leave the completed ROOFS with the half-built cottage for a few hrs at least, or preferably overnight, until set.
When ready, remove the supports from the cottage and stick on the ROOFS (7). This bit can be fiddly, so you may need an extra pair of hands. Shape your icing balls to support the bottoms of the ROOFS. Hold the biscuits on firmly for a few mins until the icing starts to set (8 & 9). Set again for a few hrs, or overnight.
FINISHING TOUCHES: To finish decorating like ours, roll marble-sized balls of the ready-to-roll icing and stick them along the ROOF top – this is perfect for hiding the join. To make the icicles, start with the nozzle at a 90-degree angle to the ROOF and squeeze out a pea-sized blob of icing. Keeping the pressure on, pull the nozzle down and then off – the icing will pull away, leaving a pointy trail. Repeat all around the front of the cottage, covering the gap between the ROOF and roof tiles too, if you like.