Some builders use unusual materials and make homes people admire but would never live in.
It could be the homes are too small. The front walkways can be a little sticky. Or maybe it's the idea that occupants and visitors would nibble on the walls.
But a holiday favorite may be just the way to add a personal twist to the season and a way to add a centerpiece to home decorations.
Kathee Stanwood started baking with gingerbread when she was 12. Gingerbread cookies of boys and girls were used for a church fund-raiser. Stanwood made 300 for the bake sale every Christmas until the total rose to some 4,000 gingerbread people.
Peppermint candies may be used to create a sugary rooftop for a traditional gingerbread house. Meringue frosting creates an attractive icing that works as a strong glue to keep the candy shingles in place.
A home economist and cake decorator, Stanwood used her expertise to show others how to create gingerbread houses in recent Community Education classes. Others may remember Stanwood as an owner of the Uptown Deli and Cheese House for 27 years. The restaurant was once located in downtown Brainerd.
Stanwood's favorite gingerbread recipe comes from the 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book her grandmother used. The gingerbread mixture must be chilled for three hours before it is rolled out for house patterns or gingerbread people. But Stanwood said the dough makes tasty cookies.
Another less expensive recipe to make in terms of ingredients can create large batches for children's groups and the dough can be rolled out immediately. A caution comes from what the recipe produces -- an extremely hard cookie that is better for building than munching.
"You don't want to eat it, but it makes a very firm wall, which for a beginner makes it nice and it's inexpensive," Stanwood said.
Create trees by turning sugar cones upside down and decorating them with green frosting or candy mint leaves. Larger trees can be created by stacking cones together and using meringue icing to glue them together.
Stanwood created a 12-page handout complete with recipes that is now available at the Community Education office at the Brainerd School District offices near the high school. Additional information is available online by using the key word "gingerbread."
Efforts for home decorating with gingerbread can be modest and small or intricate and large.
Beginners may be best served by starting with a small house, less than 8 inches tall. One batch of dough will make a medium-sized house plus extra dough for gingerbread cookies. The key is in the frosting. In gingerbread house building the frosting acts as the very glue keeping the house together. Stanwood uses a meringue icing for long-term strength. The icing is created from powdered meringue and confectionery sugar and water.
It can take three days to create the house. Beginners may want to start with a cardboard pattern and even create a mock-up of the design to judge the size. Then create the dough, roll it out and cut the walls, roof and pieces for the house and bake them. On the second day put up the house walls. After the frosting glue sets for an hour, add the roof. Remember to pick an adequate base so there is room for a porch, yard or trees as desired.
Kathee Stanwood, home economist and cake decorator, said a lesson from national events of the last year was not to put off what you want to do. Stanwood always wanted to create gingerbread homes and hopes to inspire more people to try the traditional holiday activity as they decorate their own homes.
"The third day is to go crazy, wild and fun with candies," Stanwood said of decorating efforts.
Multicolored beans for soup mixes can become a brick wall, Shredded Wheat becomes a thatched roof. Crackers can be used for roofing material. Thin stick pretzels become wooden walkways. Or traditional candies from gumdrops to mints can be used to create roof designs using icing as a base.
Premade edible clay may be found in cake supply departments and some craft areas. That clay can be shaped into pets, snowmen, teddy bears and other figures.
Stained glass windows may be created by melting Life Savers or other colorful hard candy, such as Jolly Ranchers. Stanwood uses any kind of spray oil on aluminum foil, crushes up hard candy, creates a mold and warms the candy in an oven. Crinkling the aluminum foil creates a similar look in the melted candy mix.
Colors can be created in many designs. Stanwood uses a small box cover to create the mold in the foil. Put the candy mix in the oven, set at 350 degrees, for six to eight minutes. But be sure to check at six minutes. Make the window slightly bigger than the opening left in the gingerbread wall and use frosting glue to secure the stained glass in place.
A light inside the gingerbread house sets the colored windows aglow.
For a final touch of snow, shredded coconut does the trick. Or frosting may be used or even clear edible glitter. The bottom of a regular ice cream cone creates a chimney. Stanwood used edible clay to make a snowman and created a red scarf from a fruit roll-up.
Once houses are created they can be stored in a dry, cool place for display next season. Stanwood said gingerbread Christmas tree decorations survived for six years in her family until a dropped box meant their doom. But if plans are to keep the houses long term, bakers should avoid butter cream frosting.
"I always wanted to do a large gingerbread house but was too busy at work and home," Stanwood said of her years with the deli. Now she said pulling out the different Christmas candies is part of the fun. Making graham cracker houses creates a mini-treat that can be used as a specialized holiday treat custom created as a party favor.
Meringue frosting is used to put the house together. Stanwood used red licorice to decorate a daughter's mini-house and Andes mints to create the candy roof on her son's house.
Marcia Stevens has been making gingerbread houses for years. She said the houses are adorable and the creation process is fun.
"People love them," she said. "My mother just cannot throw them away. ... They never really get eaten but they are so cute people just love them. Kids just love looking at them. They are just like a little playhouse."
Enter the Contest
In connection with Christmas in the Park this year in Brainerd a gingerbread house contest is open to individuals, families, organizations and businesses with award categories of amateur, adult, group and professional.
Entries will be eligible for best of show, best scene (with edible landscaping decorations and figures), most unique, best local landmark and people's choice.
Gingerbread house builders can create a church, castle, barn or another building beyond a traditional house. Entries must have a Christmas theme and be mainly made of gingerbread and icing. No kits are allowed. Everything in the display must be edible with the exception of a sturdy base or interior supports. Displays may be no larger than 24 feet by 24 feet.
Contest rules include a $2 fee. Entry blanks are available at www.brainerddispatch.com, click on the Christmas in the Park link and then on the gingerbread contest link.
Entries must be delivered Nov. 3O with a location and time announced later.
Gingerbread houses will be in an indoor public display during the Christmas in the Park celebration Dec. 1. The event is sponsored by the Brainerd Northside Residents Association and Brainerd Community Action.
The Brainerd Northside Residents Association is raising funds for the preservation of the Gregory Park bandstand and would like to conduct a silent auction of any of the gingerbread houses that might be donated to this cause. The auction will take place Dec. 1 during Christmas With Santa.
For more information, call 828-9116 or 829-9110.
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