We had our annual gingerbread house party last weekend. Lots of cookies were eaten, a mess was made, houses were decorated, cider was drunk. Circe, the little terrier, only had to go on time out three times (crowds get her worked up). I call that success.
The stained glass windows are my favorite part of our houses and our process is constantly evolving. Here's a brief timeline.
Late 1980s - Sort Lifesavers by color. Place each color in a separate bag. Crush with a hammer. Scrape bits out and place in window holes before baking the gingerbread. Cons - pieces don't always melt evenly and working with semi-powdered sticky candy is frustrating.
Mid 1990s - Sort Lifesavers by color. Place each color in a separate Pyrex 1 cup glass measuring cup. Heat in microwave, swirling every 15 seconds. Once it bubbles, pour the hot liquid into open holes on baked gingerbread (make sure your gingerbread pieces are all laid out on greased aluminum foil or a Silpat before you get started). Reheat briefly as necessary to keep the liquid pourable. Cons - after the first re-heating, the liquid starts to discolor quickly and then you end up with brown-ish windows. Also, hot candy can burn you badly.
2007 - Make a sugar syrup in one large batch. Have Pyrex 1 cup glass measuring cups sitting next to the stove with food coloring waiting. Once the sugar syrup is ready, divide it up into the measuring cups, stir in the food coloring and start pouring. Reheat as necessary to keep it pourable. Cons - Will discolor eventually, but withstands re-heating much better than the Lifesavers did. Will still burn you badly.
I'm pretty happy with our current strategy. It worked out well. I only burned myself once and it was minor. The colors are much brighter and the "glass" is clearer than with the Lifesavers. It's also nice not to have to buy a million Lifesavers and then sort them all out. I'm thinking about upgrading to Isomalt next year because it won't discolor at all, but it's expensive, even from the restaurant supply store.
Stained glass windows recipe (adapted from multiple sources for stained glass candy)
3 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups white corn syrup
1 cup water
Food coloring, as needed
*Combine sugar, syrup and water in a large saucepan with a candy thermometer. Cook over medium high heat until the temperature reaches at least 260 degrees. The mixture will come to a boil quickly, but then it'll need to simmer for a while in order to get hot enough. The temperature is critical because the hotter the sugar gets, the harder the candy will set up later. Don't over cook it too much or you'll end up with discolored syrup that won't take color as well.
Added on 12/13 - last year my candy thermometer was on its last legs and the readings must have been off because my windows didn't set up. From now on, I vow to always do a quick test to make sure the sugar is hot enough. Just grab a small piece of aluminum foil and dribble a spoonful of the sugar syrup on it. If the sugar syrup is at the right stage, it will set up very quickly, within a minute or two, as soon as it cools. It should be hard and glossy and pop right off the foil easily. If this doesn't happen, you need to cook the sugar longer. I'm not going to rely solely on my thermometer ever again.
*Remove the syrup from the stove and add food coloring (we divided the syrup into 4 containers and added 6 drops of food coloring to each).
*Pour into the window spaces of your baked gingerbread. Wearing gloves will help prevent burns, in case you drip some hot sugar on yourself. Re-heat gently if the mixture becomes too thick to pour easily.
Clean up: All you need is a lot of hot water and a little bit of time. First of all, if you have lots of leftover sugar syrup, go ahead and re-heat it and then pour it into a baking tray lined with aluminum foil. This reduces the amount of hard sugar you have to clean up. Put your dishes in the sink and run hot water all over the outside of everything to get any sugar off (be patient). Then you can fill the measuring cups with water and stick them in the microwave for a bit to melt any sugar remaining inside. The pot can be filled with water and heated on the stove.