Every year, I buy one of those boxed gingerbread house kits and my kids and I go at it. We glop it together with that glue-like petroleum by-product substance that they call icing, we decorate with the stale jelly beans and mini gum balls they provide, and we call it a day. It’s fun and the kids enjoy it. Do yours? If so, head to the Stamford Museum and Nature Center (SM and NC) this month and next to see how the pros do it. “Visions of Gingerbread: The Sweetest Architects” is the name of the exhibition that the museum is presenting as both a showcase for local bakers and as a fundraiser for the SM and NC.
Executive Director, Melissa Mulrooney (along with Curator of Collections, Rosa Portell, and Media Relations and Marketing expert Ali Farsun) came up with a yummy and spectacular way to raise funds for the SM and NC. They invited local bakers, chefs, and restaurateurs to compete in a friendly competition to create, simply, a “gingerbread structure.” After that, there were no rules. The 7 competitors that entered came up with some fabulous structures that are on view from November 7th -December 20th and if you’re in the area, you should definitely check it out! You can vote for the “fan favorite,” which will be announced on the last day of the exhibit, and you can place a bid in the silent auction and perhaps win one of these masterpieces for your home or as a gift or donation. All the proceeds from the silent auction go to the museum’s education department. The exhibition is small and you can explore the rest of the museum and the grounds while you’re there.
Here are the 7 structures in all their glory. And remember, everything is edible so whatever is NOT gingerbread, is either sugar, marzipan, icing or some other delectable delight!
1) “Henri Bendel’s” was created by bakers Lisa and Stephen Maronian and Rene Mendez of Sweet Lisa’s Exquisite Cakes (Cos Cob), and transports the viewer directly to 5th Avenue on a wintry, Manhattan afternoon. The store front windows of frosted glass sugar invite you in and the sun seems to seep in through the true divided light. The famous store-front awnings are made of white and dark chocolate marzipan tabs and seem to flutter in the brisk December breeze. There is a NYC taxi waiting out front for shoppers with too many purchases and the sidewalks are dappled with snow. A single figure, a smartly dressed woman, in what looks like a pink Chanel suit, is walking her dog into the store. She looks like a character straight out of “Mad Men.” And there’s no question here as to what Don Draper would do! (Well, first he would smoke a cigarette! But right after that, he’d devour this delectable confection!)
2) “Casa Batllo,” an amazing copy of Anotoni Gaudi’s structure in Barcelona is the wonder of Rebecca Martin and Rubin Palma of the Sweet on You Bakery and Café (Stamford). This is edible architecture at its exquisite best and the bakers certainly show off their sugar-art technique. Oodles of gooey gingerbread slip and slide down the façade in what is truly an inspired design. Complete with sugared tiles and lacey balconies that hold true to the architectural original, this “Casa” lures you right in. You are the guest and the invitation to enter is emphasized by the view into the living room where a baby grand piano beckons. As crazy and wild as Gaudi’s original, this “Casa Batllo” seems to be in constant motion.
3) “Sweet In - SPIRE - ation,” baked by Mary Colacurio of Michael Joseph’s Fine Foods (Darien) is a whimsical fairytale castle, straight from every little princess’s dreams. Complete with turrets and spires, bridges and ponds, this grand castle is simple yet evocative. Beneath the royal abode, a blanket of pure white, glistening snow (rolled fondant) rests atop a crunchy layer of Rice Krispie treats. Edible silver adds to the shimmering scene. Life Savers are used on the base so that any princess NOT rescued by her toad of a prince might still stand a chance!
4) “Roman Colliseum” is the purest and surprisingly least decorated of the group. Keeping this enormous structure simple is the genius of Tim McGrath of DiMare’s Pastry Shop (Greenwich). With no need to elaborate on the perfect imperfections of the ruins, McGrath decided to keep true to the iconic Roman architecture with a gingerbread creation which is simple and simply grand. Rice Krispie treats are used here, again, as the lining for the structure and pretzels, another common ingredient throughout the exhibit, are utilized for gateways and entrances. Ceasar would have definitely given this colossal attempt two thumbs up!
5) “Wildcat Rollercoaster,” from the Hershey Park theme park in Pennsylvania, is the wonder baked by Herb Mueller of the Black Forest Pastry Shop (Greenwich) was by far my 6 year-old son’s favorite! Thin slices of gingerbread are intricately woven and perfectly shaped to create the look of the real amusement park thriller. Life savers on the bottom, again, serve as the base. Mueller has added mini people who sit in anticipation and anxiously await their plunge to the bottom of the track, only (we hope) to rise again on the other side!
6) “Traditional Gingerbread House” is the entry from Karin Krumpelbeck (what a fantastic name for a baker!) and this is the one gingerbread creation that didn’t give me an inferiority complex. Don’t get me wrong, it is amazing, but it is a traditional Hansel and Gretel style gingerbread house, and not an architectural extravaganza! It drips and oozes, it is frosty and bejeweled, and it is full of all the candies that children adore. M&Ms are everywhere and, again, pretzels abound as gates, fences, doorways, etc.
White frosting pours over the rooftop and snow worthy of an artic storm urges the viewer to run inside where, hopefully, Santa and Mrs. Claus await with hot chocolate and a warm blanket. (And hopefully NOT Hansel and Gretel’s witch, with an unorthodox use for her oven!!!)
7) “Cheshire Barn” was my favorite and was actually created by a team from the museum! As part of a wonderful cooperative effort, the staff recreated an historical stable, complete with a plaque which sets the date of construction at c1750. This barn comes with all the fixing’s. The animals are painted cookies and are appropriately placed around the barn, grazing and loafing. The fences, made to look broken and worn, are made of -yep, you guessed it! - pretzels. Inside the barn, there are bales of hay made from Mini Shredded Wheat and some of that cereal has been crushed to cover the floor of the barn with an authentic, hay blanket. The roof is tiled with layers of those “100 Calorie Packs” of chocolate Oreo thins for a truly genuine look.
At the preview party, 3 renowned judges were invited in to chose their 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners, which they did. But my lips are sealed. If you are in Stamford, take a trip to the SM and NC (39 Scofieldtown Road) and be your own judge. There is also a fabulous exhibit at the moment called “Playthings of Yesteryear” which showcases toys of our parents and grandparents. Along with the gingerbread exhibit, it’s a perfect museum package that your kids will love. This exhibit is not too big, not too small, but just right. Like any delicious dessert, too much makes your tummy hurt! Isn’t it always better to wish for just one more bite?
For more information on this exhibit and the bakers who contributed, go to www.stamfordmuseum.org