The holidays are often associated with sweet smells of the season: chestnuts, pinecones and the faint fragrance of cinnamon in the background. But one scent, the scent of gingerbread, and the homey scene of using it to construct charming little houses, takes the cake when it comes to holiday traditions. So in kitchens across the region, families are starting to roll up their sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty mess of it.
The tradition of building gingerbread houses dates back to Old-World Europe, where in some areas the soft, delicately spiced flat cookies were cut into shapes of men, women or animals and colorfully decorated and dusted with powdery white sugar. The tasty treat was often associated with fairs, where folks would choose from an array of glorious gingerbread creations to give as holiday gifts.
At Galloway's Seaview Resort, that tradition lives on. Chefs from esteemed kitchens all over the region recently competed in a grand gingerbread competition. Straight out of an episode of Top Chef, the clever culinary masters created innovative constructions of the traditional gingerbread house. The event is one the resort plans to host annually - with proceeds benefiting the local FoodBank. "Gingerbread was a natural choice," says Alan Reynolds, the resort's director of food and beverage. "With its strong ties to the holiday - it's something we've always showcased in our lobby this time of year so it was only natural to select this platform for our competition."
Guests in attendance at the evening festivities were able to vote on and also bid via raffle for the house they hoped to call their own.
One such house was a tree house replica created by Harrah's and Showboat Executive Pastry Chef Deborah Pellegrino. For 12 hours, Pellegrino baked, dried and conditioned her precious gingerbread so it would stand strong and remain intact.
"The key to a successful house is to ensure your gingerbread is very dry," says Pellegrino. "You want it to almost seem as though it's stale." To achieve that dry quality, Pellegrino let her gingerbread sit for three hours. The resulting masterpiece was a house in the deep woods, complete with hand-carved chocolate tree trunks. "I wanted to create a cottage-type feel for my house."
Mission accomplished indeed. And to embellish, she delicately decorated with traditional sweet treats including lifesavers, M&Ms and candy canes.
Another top contender was the Seaview's own Executive Chef Sean Kinoshita who spent two days on his masterpiece. He created a winter-wonderland house complete with marzipan rooftop shingles, windows and shutters; a snowman made from homemade fondant and ice-cream cone trees smothered in green royal icing and candy decorations. To top it off - a fence made completely of pretzel rods and licorice. "Everything is one-hundred percent edible," one of the competition's ground-rules, Reynolds says.
One of Kinoshita's best-kept culinary secrets, when it comes to the construction of a gingerbread house, is in the icing or "glue."
"Whip the (icing) ingredients on medium speed for six minutes to incorporate enough air to make the icing stiff and fluffy," Kinoshita says. He also advises using powder dyes instead of liquid colors as they will not affect the consistency of the icing.
Another important tip, according to experts, is to prepare the base of the gingerbread house first. Use a piece of plywood covered with foil or a large heavy platter or baking tray. The maximum thickness of the dough should be 3/8 of an inch and weight-bearing walls should be just slightly thicker than that. Lastly, when assembling, apply a generous (but not dripping) amount of icing "glue" to one side of the joint. Press the un-iced piece to the iced edge and hold it briefly until the icing sets. If more stability is needed, ice the walls to the base.
From start to finish, to displaying and then indulging in the delicious displays, gingerbread houses are a happy tradition. They delight the senses and bring lots of old-fashioned family fun.