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Friday, November 27, 2015

Gingerbread Architecture

A Tudor style example reminiscent of the art's northern European roots.
(Note: As with many other art forms, gingerbread houses are best photographed outdoors.)
Christmas in Russia.
Now that Thanksgiving is over (thank God); and the Christmas season, according to the experts at Walmart, is upon us, I considered it fair game to explore a type of architecture common to the kitchen--Gingerbread Architecture--what we might also reasonably call Christmas Architecture. For the most part such architecture has the following common attributes: rich in color, rich in calories, rich in tradition, rich in creative possibilities, rich in flavor, rich in fun, and nearly always limited to small, more or less, portable scale models. They can be simple enough that a child of six (with a fair amount of adult supervision) can build one, and complex enough to challenge the skills of a highly talented professional pastry chef. The best of the best are often found in restaurants, hotels, bake shops, and competition exhibitions around this time of the year.

A gingerbread shop in Strasbourg, Austria
The Medieval baking of gingerbread.
Before getting lost in the intricacies of this colorful, edible art medium, I think it best to mention the origin of the building material involved. Those who make a study of such things tell us that ginger has been seasoning foodstuffs and drinks since ancient times. It's believed gingerbread was first baked in Europe near the end of the 11th century, as returning crusaders brought back recipes for spicy bread from the Middle East. Ginger was not only tasty, it also helped preserve the bread. According to the French, gingerbread came to Europe in 992 by way of the Armenian monk, Saint, Gregory of Nicopolis. He lived in Bondaroy, France, near the town of Pithiviers, where he taught gingerbread baking to priests and other Christians. Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from Medieval Europe. Using molds, gingerbread was often shaped into different forms by monks in Franconia, Germany in the 13th century. Nuremberg was recognized as the "Gingerbread Capital of the World" in the 1600s when the baker's guild first began urging master bakers to create complicated works of art from gingerbread.

A full-scale gingerbread house as a Christmas decoration in Stockholm, 2009.
Gingerbread template example.
Before you can begin building a gingerbread house you need two things, a recipe and a plan. The full scale gingerbread house displayed in Stockholm in 2009 (above) consists of 648.1 pounds (294 kg) flour, 202.8 pounds (92 kg) margarine, 221.3 pounds (100.4 kg) sugar, 14 gallons (66.3 liters) Golden syrup, 4.8 pounds (2.2 kg) cinnamon, 4.8 pounds (2.2 kg) cloves 4.8 pounds (2.2 kg) ginger and 8.1 pounds (3.7 kg) baking powder. If you're making a somewhat smaller house...well, you can do the math better than I in reducing the quantities. As for the plan, never, ever start to build a house without first drawing it out on paper. In the case of the gingerbread variety, drawing the plan to the actual size of your creation works best. That allows you to use it as a template in cutting the gin-gerbread into individual pieces. Inasmuch as the gingerbread is baked in a large, flat pan, check the size of your ovenware before deciding on the size of your house. The template (left) is not intended to be used as is, but only to serve as an example indicating what one should look like. The roof should be created as a separate gingerbread unit. As with all such undertakings, for the beginner the "KISS" principle applies (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

A thick, sticky, hard-drying icing is the all-important glue that holds it all together. Don't try to build the whole thing in one sitting. Give it time to dry and become structurally stable. Stained glass can be created by melting fruit-flavored Lifesavers.
Do try this at home, but first, before
trying to teach someone, do one yourself.
Building a gingerbread house along with the help of a young person is a good bonding exercise, but don't start by trying something like the ornate, Gothic house of worship (above). As with any teaching encounter, by all means have one or two successful edible edifices under your belt before attempting to teach anyone, regardless of age, the building skills so esoteric to such a often times contrary medium. There are kits available with detailed instructions which, to some degree, mitigate the otherwise fairly steep learning curve. However, once your skills have evolved, don't fear letting your imagination run away with them. I was especially impressed with the intricacies of the Smithsonian Institute's restaurant chef as demonstrated in his remarkably accurate scale model of the original early 19th-century Smithsonian "castle" (below).

The Smithsonian Institute rendered in gingerbread. Do people actually eat these things?
Not to be outdone by their friends across the National Mall, every Christmas the talented pastry chefs at the White House create a scale model of their workplace as well (below). However, for the life of me, I can't understand why they consistently get the classical proportions wrong. In variably, as detailed and technically skilled with gingerbread and white chocolate as they are, the makers always end up with a creation too tall for its width (as seen in the two images below). I do like the lighted interior though, showing off details of the various rooms.

White House made of gingerbread and white Chocolate, the 2013 version.
What it should look like can be seen in the horizontally distorted image below.
By distorting the width of the first image by 150%, the more accurate model can be seen.
Unfortunately doing so makes the columns appear too wide.
Once you have mastered the intricacies (and proportions) of modeling an actual structure, you're ready to move on to gingerbread fantasy architecture as seen in the gingerbread houses (below), demonstrating the highly guarded secret skills involving curved, and shaped gingerbread. I should also suggest the use of restraint in decorating your creations. Don't strive to hide the gingerbread beneath layer upon layer of icing and candy treats. It's the brownish gingerbread which, in large part, gives such works of art their inherent, old-world charm. I know it's Christmas, but don't over decorate. There's an old axiom artists have mostly stood by for centuries--more is not necessarily better.

"There was an old lady who lived in a shoe..." or was it a teapot?
Another old axiom in art--never be afraid to fail.
(You can always eat your mistakes.)


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