- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Susan Smith, manager of the Heidelberg Pastry Shop in Arlington, is surrounded by sugar and spice. With the holiday season at hand, she says the demand for sweets, especially gingerbread houses, is at its peak.
She says pastry chefs at the bakery begin designing the handmade creations around Thanksgiving. The miniature houses, which cost $49.50, are about 10 inches tall and 12 inches wide, with an assortment of candy used for decorations. Although the houses contain a few plastic pieces, most of the features are edible.
"It's a child's biggest fantasy to take a piece of candy from a house and eat until the house is gone," Ms. Smith says. "For adults, it brings them back to a more nostalgic time when everything was simple."
Although gingerbread houses can be made in any season, they usually are most popular at Christmastime. Along with Christmas trees and Santa Claus, the tasty houses have become a symbol associated with the holiday season.
The German practice of making houses with frosting and candies was imported to the United States in the 19th century. Large pieces of lebkuchen, the German word for gingerbread, were used to build hexenhaeusle, or witches' houses.
The concept of making gingerbread houses started in German folklore. According to the folk tale, children named Hansel and Gretel came across a life-size gingerbread house in the forest and began eating pieces of it. In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm included the narrative "Hansel and Gretel" in their collection of children's stories. Then, in 1893, Austrian composer Engelbert Humperdinck wrote an opera with a similar plot, called "Hansel and Gretel."
The fable may be about 200 years old, but 10-year-old Sarah Bingham of Fredericksburg, Va., says she still enjoys hearing it. She also loves building gingerbread houses. In fact, she won second place in her age group in the 16th annual Gingerbread House Contest at George Washington's Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg.
Her confectionery delight features a red barn, three horses, six hay bales and a manure pile. She used decorator's icing, food coloring, Milky Way candy bars, coconut and Milk Duds to construct the setting. She made gingerbread horses using a cookie cutter and frosted them with brown icing. Her creation will be on display at Ferry Farm with the other entries through Dec. 30.
"It's very fun making gingerbread houses," she says. "I like it when I get the frosting on my fingers, and I get to lick it off."
Peyton Amy Taylor of Kingsville, Md., may be an adult, but she says her childlike spirit motivates her to create the culinary treats. Her "Rudy Point Lighthouse," taking its name from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, won second place in the annual gingerbread house competition at the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa in Asheville, N.C.
She worked on the piece from August to November, making sure it fit the rules of the contest, which required that it not exceed 2 feet in height, width or depth. It also had to be completely edible. She used various items to enhance the scene, such as jelly beans for stones, gingersnaps for the walkway and Tootsie Rolls for firewood. She chose candy cigarettes for the porch railing on the keeper's house and shredded wheat cereal for its roof.
"I was toying with the idea of doing a replica of the Gay Head Lighthouse in Martha's Vineyard, but I was in the mood for doing something more lighthearted," Ms. Taylor says. "I wanted to do something fun and kind of silly."
Aaron Morgan, executive pastry chef for Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa, gave a free two-hour workshop on making gingerbread houses earlier in the season to prepare for the contest. Mr. Morgan, co-author of "Making Great Gingerbread Houses" with Paige Gilchrist, says the competition receives about 225 entries each year.
Whether or not a gingerbread house wins the resort's contest, Mr. Morgan says people should have fun designing the miniature houses. His favorite candies to include on projects are Raisinets as rocks for chimneys and peppermint sticks as wooden logs.
"You just have to let your imagination run wild," he says. "Don't think of candy as something to eat, but as an art form. Once you get in a mind-set, it's just a canvas waiting for you to paint it. There's so much you can do. If it doesn't work, you can just eat it."
Pat Flynn, owner of www.gingerbreadhouses.com, based in Green Acres, Wash., says if someone is intimidated by making a gingerbread house from scratch, ready-made kits are available. He offers kits on his Web site for $37, which come with instructions.
"It's fun making them," he says. "It's a family experience. It may not turn out perfect, but everyone has a good time making it."
Because the holiday season doesn't usually allow a lot of extra time, Hope Anzalone, owner of Gingerbredibles in Omaha, Neb., offers finished gingerbread houses through her Web site, www.gingerbredibles.com. Therefore, people who don't have time to assemble their own houses can still enjoy them.
Mrs. Anzalone, who charges $25 to $200 for her creations, says she starts by making the dough and rolling it on parchment paper. She uses a pre-cut pattern to make the pieces and bakes them in the oven.
"You almost want to bake it to the point of burning it to make the gingerbread hard," she says. "A lot of weight goes on it. You don't want them to bend."
She mixes royal icing from powdered sugar, meringue and water, which acts as the glue that holds the gingerbread pieces together. She assembles the walls first and waits until they dry before adding the roof. Sometimes she places a support in the middle so the roof doesn't collapse Then she puts finishing touches on the house with candy and icing.
"Christmas is a time when you want the smell of cinnamon and ginger in the air," she says. "What better way than to have something visually beautiful that smells wonderful in your house."
Gingerbread houses make wonderful centerpieces for a table or decorations beneath a Christmas tree, says Joe Poupon, owner of Patisserie Poupon, which has shops in Northwest and Baltimore. His bakeries make mountain homes resembling the architecture in the Swiss Alps for $75. The pastry chefs use classic French cookies, such as palmiers, tuiles and macaroons, to decorate the houses.
"In a sense, it's like making a cake," Mr. Poupon says. "It's a really nice way to display the candies, cookies and figurines we make. When you see them, you think of an old-fashioned Christmas with a lot of snow."

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