The Lumberyard Arts Center with generous sponsorship from Xtream powered by Mediacom is excited to offer Gingerbread Kits to Go to celebrate, create, play and innovate this holiday season from home! The program is possible only through the leadership and direction of Arlena McLaren. It was Arlena who initiated our Gingerbread House creation holiday program eight years ago. Each year, Arlena creates her own gingerbread house masterpiece. Last year she created a gingerbread Lumberyard Arts Center. This year’s Inspiration? Think Baldwin City Sesquicentennial, Baldwin City’s First Mayor, Lucy Sweet Sullivan….You’ve got it! It’s the Sullivan House!
This is the first of several blogs we share with you the process of the Gingerbread Sullivan House creation in Arlena’s words.
Arlena’s Story: Week One
Once I decide on a structure, I dawn my gingy socks, for good luck, and begin researching and sketching.
Unfortunately, the Sullivan House was moved in 1980s outside of town and later was destroyed by fire, so only a few images remain. A huge thank you to Shara at the Baldwin City Library for allowing me to look through the “Lucy Sullivan” files they have already compiled. It was a huge help and put a lot of the missing pieces together.
The final piece was a image sent to me by Brian Cramer of an etching done by an engraving company founded by Lucy’s son-in-law. I loved learning about Lucy and her family and how, for quite a while, this house, this area, was the gathering place for so many in town.
In the past, I typically will use graph paper and draw out the walls and figure out the proportions. This year, I actually drew it all on my computer. It made it easy to adjust the size of the house to fit my board and make additional prints of certain walls and details if needed. I still enjoy sketching, but will likely use both techniques from now on.
The hardest part was deciding to only do the main house as there where several “additions” to the property. In the end, the size of my board and the final proportions of the piece made the decision for me.
Our story continues next week as we discover how Arlena translates her computer generated drawing into gingerbread fabrication.
With the final drawings complete, I print the pieces and attach them to foam core. I have used foam core for years not only because it is easy to cut, but also because it is approximately the same thickness as my final baked gingerbread pieces. This ensures the pieces fit more accurately. My first 3d model is now complete. I make any adjustments, and write any notes and label every pattern piece. I especially note how the pieces go together, whether one is behind or in front of the other. This year’s structure was one of the smallest I have done with only approximately 50 pieces.
Next step is making the gingerbread. Over the years, I have researched and adjusted many recipes in search for the perfect construction-grade gingerbread. I can honestly say, I still haven’t found the perfect one, but each year I come a little closer. Construction-grade gingerbread is still edible, but bakes very hard. You could eat it, but you might chip a tooth. This year, I experimented with blonde gingerbread, since my structure is light in color. I also made a darker more traditional gingerbread for the porches and the roof tops.
I learned a new technique last year where I add my texture of the shingles or boards, then let the pieces dry for 24 hours before baking. Each batch cooks in a slow oven around an hour. (More if the pieces are very large). This was the first year I didn’t cut the windows out. Since the structure is much smaller and will be burdensome for someone to remember to shut the lights on and off, I decided to omit them this year.
With the pieces fully baked, I get my trusty saw and go piece by piece making any adjustments necessary as I still get a tiny bit of spreading with this recipe. The pieces need to be square to ensure they will fit together properly before I begin decorating. By the end of the week, I begin placing the windows made out of fondant. I tint the white fondant with a small amount of gel food coloring to achieve the perfect glass color.
Unfortunately, the blonde gingerbread was still a little too yellow for the Sullivan House’s white exterior, but that is how it goes in gingerbread. My philosophy is: “When working with gingerbread, much like life, there is always an answer.” I think that is why I enjoy it so much. It creates a challenge with limitations, that forces me to think creatively.
With the fondant windows and doors complete, I turn my attention back to the siding. My blonde gingerbread was too dark, so I went back to the fondant for my answer. Each piece of siding is made from fondant that has been rolled out to a uniform thickness. Then, after I determine the height of my siding (taking into account the overlap, just like on a real house) I use my quilters ruler and began the painstaking process of cutting and gluing each piece of siding down. I make sure the siding starts at the same height for each piece, as well as ensure the spacing between siding is consistent. For that, I used a pencil mark on a smoothing tool from my ceramic class from 30 years ago. It made for easy work and a handy tool to keep the siding straight. I continue to be mindful of how the pieces go together to ensure I am not siding an area where the pieces come together. To adhere the fondant to the gingerbread, I create a glue using warmed fondant and water. The siding is tedious work, but the final result looks awesome.
Now that the siding is done and dried overnight, it is time to begin assembly. I grab another pair of lucky gingy socks and begin making the royal icing.
This icing is the key to any good gingerbread structure. It smells amazing and also reminds me and my family of the many gingerbread memories we have made together over the 18+ years. I store the icing in freezer bags to keep it from drying out and all I have to do it clip the end and I am ready to start assembly.
One final piece to help with assembly are cans. Cans are heavy and small enough to hold the pieces in place while the icing dries.
I learned two things early on in my gingy career: First, add some pieces of foam core to the can to keep the can out of the icing while drying. Secondly, DON’T FORGET TO REMOVE THE CANS BEFORE YOU ADD YOUR ROOF! Yes, I did that once. It was a large two story structure with a complicated roofline and I realized after it was on and drying that the cans were still inside. I painstakingly removed the roof and retrieved the cans, then reassembled. I could have left them, but that would be cheating. The number one rule of gingy is: If you can’t eat it, it doesn’t belong on or in your house.
By the end of the week my structure was starting to take shape. But still much more work to be done.
Stayed tuned for the final result……