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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Students are free to use a variety of candies and other edibles to construct their gingerbread house.

For many families, building a gingerbread house is one of the most anticipated rituals of the holiday season. If you're thinking of building your own, here's advice from some longtime project supervisors, plus decorating tips to make it your own.

 

SWEET RETREATS

If any place in town knows the joys of gingerbread, it's the Creative Discovery Museum. Since 2005, the children's museum has hosted thousands of gingerbread homebuilders for the ritual that heralds the holiday season.

Among the recent regulars are Pat and David Martin, who've accompanied grandson Dylan Martin, who turns 7 in January, for the past five years.

"It's the beginning of our holiday," says Pat Martin. "We do it as soon as we can get a reservation. It starts Christmas for us."

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Gingerbread traditions

Kyrstin Hill, marketing and communications manager, says the museum purchases kits to get the gingerbread parties started. "Then we supplement with more sweets than you could ever want, plus ice cream cones, marshmallows, candy canes, pretzels, Chex Mix."

Participants go "above and beyond" with their creative flourishes, she says.

This year, the workshops were moved into a bigger party room, but even with social distancing, they remain sweet retreats for the homebuilders. Hill says staff members always liberally decorate the space — glittering snowflakes this year — and festive music plays throughout the visit.

"I think it's the experience around it," she says of the workshops. "Especially for parents and caregivers, who are so busy as it is, why stress out trying to do all of this at home when someone is happy to do it for you?"

Besides the gift of cleanup, the cost of the workshops also includes museum admission before or after construction is complete. This season's exhibit is "Winter Wonders," which includes snowball fights, ice fishing and a cozy cottage to make pretend gingerbread.

And even though it's a children's museum, Hill says the gingerbread workshops draw all ages, with and without children.

"We have adults who take part every year," she says. "It's a great experience. It's all very festive, and we make it easy."

Martin says Dylan's new brother, Jude, born in October, will probably come along on the family outing next year.

"It's been fun to see [Dylan's] progression though the years," she says. And in a year's time, Jude will be "old enough to get his hands in the icing."

 

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

When it comes to gingerbread, Martha Stewart's got nothing on the 7- and 8-year-olds at Thrasher Elementary School. The domestic diva may fill a couple of magazine pages with her gingerbread creations each year, but these Signal Mountain second-graders create a gingerbread village that fills a hallway in the weeks before Christmas.

Look closely, though, and you'll notice that none of these structures is a gingerbread house. Each of these enterprising students crafts a gingerbread business after studying the concepts of goods and services, wants vs. needs and the difference between producers and consumers.

"Some choose a candy store, or post office, or a church, or a grocery store," explains teacher Lauren Bratcher. "They pick their business, and then the culminating activity for all the weeks of learning is to actually get to make it with the candy."

A long-ago idea of teacher Judy Niedbala, who retired seven years ago, the social-studies project has lasted decades.

"I used to do gingerbread at home when my son was little," says Niedbala. "He's 43 now."

She remembers suggesting the idea in a brainstorming session when hands-on learning projects were emerging in school curricula. In addition to practical lessons about what a community needs to function properly, educators then and now have included instruction in cardinal directions (east, west, north, south) and map-reading once each class's village is laid out on a streetscape.

"Map skills is kind of a lost art," says Bratcher. "You can put an address in your phone and it will take you where you need to go, but we don't want [map-reading skills] to go away, so we still talk about how to travel using cardinal directions."

Niedbala says she was impressed over the years by the students' creativity in naming their businesses, such as the Sweet Tooth Dentist and the Elfementary School. Streets also had sweet connotations, like Lollipop Lane.

In previous years, parents could come to the school for decorating day to help their child construct their business. Bratcher says COVID-19 restrictions meant the hands-on creativity was largely home-based this year.

Every child went home with a milk carton saved from a cafeteria lunch. Marshalling the adhesive properties of royal icing (and with a little help from mom and dad), they attached ready-made graham crackers to the sides and roof, then personalized each structure with candy and other edibles.

Niedbala remembers the classroom decorating days as a source of great memories for the second-graders and their families.

"The day of putting the village together, everybody had their house on a little plate, and all the candy was all over the room," she says. "It smelled like sugar when you came down the hall."

CLASSES

› Creative Discovery Museum: 321 Chestnut St. Gingerbread workshops continue weekends through Dec. 20. Cost is $55 for nonmembers (up to three people), which includes the chance to explore the museum. To-go kits, with curbside service, are available for $32. Reservations are required in advance. Call 423-648-6040 or visit cdmfun.org (click on Events) to sign up.

› Sweet & Savory Classroom: 45 E. Main St., Suite 112. Pastry chef Heather Pennypacker will lead a Virtual Gingerbread Houses class for all ages at 3 p.m. Dec. 22. The three-hour class will be live so you can ask questions as you go. You’ll make your own gingerbread dough, cut out the pieces using a template and bake, then piece together with royal icing and decorate. Cost is $35 if you supply your own ingredients, $68 if Sweet & Savory provides them for pickup (4-5 p.m. Dec. 21). Sign up at sweetandsavoryclassroom.com/ or call 423-661-8750.

 

DECORATING IDEAS

The makers of McCormick spices have recipes for gingerbread and royal icing, plus templates to construct the roof and walls, at McCormick.com/recipes. They suggest browsing your supermarket's cereal and candy aisles for inspiration to decorate a house, yard and accessories. Here are some of their ideas.

* Stepping stones: Vanilla wafers, licorice pieces or candy of your choice.

* Shutters for windows: Pretzel sticks or wafer cookies.

* Roof shingles: Necco Wafers or mini shredded wheat cereal (use sugar-coated shredded wheat cereal for snow effect). Use royal icing to attach. Start from bottom edge of roof and overlap roofing material, working your way to peak of roof.

* Fence: White chocolate or chocolate-covered small pretzel twists.

* Brick: Red licorice bites.

* Porch pillars: Peppermint sticks.

* Chimney: Cocoa-flavored corn puff cereal, multicolored cereal pieces, caramel- or chocolate-covered popcorn pieces, chocolate-covered raisins. Hold in place with royal icing "mortar."

* Snowman: Marshmallows or royal icing balls.

* Sled/toboggan: Use a small strip of fruit roll-up for wooden slats and pretzel sticks for sled runners; attach with royal icing.

* Evergreen trees:

— Use ice cream cones as the base for evergreen trees. Using a decorating bag filled with green-tinted royal icing and a star tip, pipe elongated stars one layer at a time beginning at the bottom of the tree. Continue piping star layers until you reach the top of the tree.

— For easy evergreen trees, use a small spatula to cover ice cream cones with green-tinted icing, using the spatula to gently pull icing out slightly to form tree branches.

— For Christmas tree lights, use a decorating bag filled with tinted royal icing and a round tip to pipe dots on the tree, or sprinkle with fruit-flavored sweetened rice cereal.

— For a larger tree, stack two cones together, attaching them with royal icing. Decorate as described above.

— For small tree, trim bottom of cone. Decorate as described above.

— Dab a small amount of white royal icing on tree branches for a snow effect.

* Shrubs or bushes: Shape green spearmint leaves from jelly-type candy.

* Porch steps: Wafers or any rectangular cookies.

* Icicles: With a decorating bag filled with untinted royal icing and small round tip, pipe small icicles from house and porch roof.

* Miscellaneous: Gumdrops, starlight mints, mini marshmallows, red hots candy and various colors of licorice pieces all make decorative additions.

Email Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com.

CONTEST WINNERS

The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, has announced winners of its 28th National Gingerbread House Competition, and two top entries came from Blue Ridge, Georgia.

Susan Rotante, director of public relations and community outreach for the hotel, says the contest drew nearly 100 entries from across North America for the chance of winning more than $25,000 in cash and prizes.

“While the competition was mostly virtual this year, there was no shortage of creativity in these entirely edible designs,” including “a show-stopping mermaid, elves storming a castle to save Santa [and] a robot on Mars,” she says.

A combined panel of virtual and in-person judges, including celebrity chef Carla Hall, evaluated each confection based on overall appearance, originality/creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency of theme. Each entry was required to be at least 75% gingerbread.

The grand-prize entry had more than 5,000 individual pieces, and it took the team who created it, The Merry Mischief Bakers of Phoenix, Arizona, more than 1,000 hours to finish it, according to Rotante.

“A lot of time, compassion and love was put into all of this year’s creations in an effort to bring joy in an otherwise difficult year,” she says.

Among the winners are The Toccoa Titans, who won second place in the teen category for “Arctic Wonders”; and The Glitter Girls, who won first place in the children’s category (ages 5-8) for “A Mermaid Christmas,” pictured at left.

While there is no public display of the gingerbread houses this year, except for guests, the Omni Grove Park Inn has several virtual activities for fans at home, including photos of the winning entries and a three-part series of gingerbread making classes available through Jan. 21. Find out more at https://www.omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park/things-to-do/gingerbread/national-gingerbread-competition.

 

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