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Culinary students offer gingerbread house advice

Posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Practice makes perfect, and the time and effort allows you to cherish the experience

– Kimberly Thompson, CHS culinary arts student

Coffee County Central High School senior Erika Jesch. (Staff photos by John Coffelt)

 By John Coffelt,
Staff Writer

 Each year the Coffee County Central High School culinary arts classes pool their individuality and skill together to make an intricate gingerbread village.

Two of this year’s aspiring chefs offered tips of the trade to help even the most novice baker through the pitfalls of cookie-house construction.

Like with any building project, a good foundation is essential. For a gingerbread house the two main core building materials are a sugary multi-purpose icing and, of course, the gingerbread cookie.

Erika Jesch, a senior and third-year culinary arts student, said for a gingerbread construction, the cookies need to be strong and stiff.

Jesch recommends waiting at least a day to allow the cookie sheets to harden before assembling.

“It needs to be solid and dry out a bit,” she said.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make is to get into too big of a hurry and try to make it all in one day, Jesch added.

The fondant, or icing, is the “nails” that hold the house together, hardening like culinary glue to hold the pieces together.

Early in, the classes discovered their projects went together easier by decorating pieces before assembling the houses, according to culinary arts instructor Susan Steel.

“If you’re decorating let’s say a roof, lay the roof out and decorate it and let it dry, then it stays,” Steel said.

Assemble it first, and the decorations roll off.

Looking at the class’ village proves that when it comes to decorations, the only limit is the imagination.

Some of this year’s innovations include melted Jolly Rancher stained glass, a gingerbread hunting blind and the castle that Jesch and her class partner Kimberly Thompson made.

Previous years’ houses included a gingerbread clock tower and even the house from “Up.”

While the fondant may be the glue that holds the house together, the tricky part is keeping it together until that glue sets.

“We had cans and everything holding it together until it dried,” Jesch said.

The first-year students are permitted to use a kit to make their houses, but the more advanced students, like those in Jesch and Thompson’s honors class, must make the gingerbread cookies from scratch.

“The dough is very simple. You use molasses, clove and nutmeg. I use the cloves and the nutmeg. Some people use cinnamon,” Jesch said.

She said the dough is very simple to make.

“It’s just like making normal dough. You mix the dry ingredients and get to the wet ingredients and add that in after.”

If she were planning a gingerbread house at home, Jesch would still make the pieces from scratch. She sees it as a chance to make holiday memories.

“The other day I made homemade sugar cookies and [my sisters and brother and I] got to decorate the cookies with icing. They just loved it,” Jesch said.

Baking with the family is a chance to slow down during the busy holiday season.

“Take your time and enjoy it,” her teacher added. “Let it be a Christmas time, where you play music and smell the smells – the cinnamon and spices.

“All the smells really get you in the Christmas spirit.”

Steele described how when the classes are baking their cookies, the scent wafts into the main hall bringing a spirit of Christmas to the school.

“Take the time,” Steele says, “and really create the Christmas memories.”

Thompson, who trained under Chef Mike Osborne at the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center, agrees,   “Gingerbread is a wonderful Christmas tradition.

“Assembling a gingerbread house or any food structure teaches … the fun and creative side of culinary arts.”

To Thompson, part of culinary, whether it be assembling a gingerbread house or becoming a master chef, “is to be patient and keep your cool. Practice makes perfect, and time and effort allows you to cherish the experience.”


Homemade Gingerbread

Yields enough gingerbread for a moderate size house

6 cups of all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon of baking powder

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1 cup of shortening (melted and slightly cooled)

1 cup of molasses

1 cup of packed brown sugar

1/2 cup of water

1 egg

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Sift dry ingredients (except the brown sugar) together in a medium size bowl and set aside.

In a separate medium bowl, stir the shortening, molasses, brown sugar, water, egg, and vanilla until smooth. Gradually stir the dry ingredients until completely dissolved.

Divide the dough into three equal pieces.

Refrigerate for at least a minimum of three hours.

Mold dough into desired shapes and bake in over for 10 to 12 minutes on 350 F.


Royal Icing

Makes enough for 1 decorated Gingerbread House

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

1 pound sifted confectioners’ sugar or more as needed

1/2 cup pasteurized egg whites (3 large egg whites)

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Place all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and combine. Scrape down sides. Turn the mixer to high and beat until thick and very white. Mixture will hold a peak. This should take at least 7-10 minutes.

When finished, cover with plastic wrap, making sure it touches the royal icing so a crust doesn’t form. Royal icing dries out quickly, so make sure it is covered all the time. Otherwise there will be lumps in the icing and they will never pass through an icing tip.

(Recipe submitted by Kimberly Thompson.)

“I prefer white icing, but you may tint it by using a small amount of paste food color. For 1/4 cup tinted icing, dip the tip of a toothpick into desired color, then into the icing, and stir well. Repeat until desired color is achieved. For strong colors, such as red, royal blue and dark purple, use 1/8 teaspoon color to 1/4 cup icing,” Thompson advised.