It's all about the icing. Not the taste, though. When you're building gingerbread structures, what matters is the consistency -- "not too soft or too hard," says Erin McIlwain, the pastry chef at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She is a member of the team responsible for the spectacular 17-foot-high gingerbread replica of the resort's historic Pauline Chapel, which was built in 1919. The replica is the largest ever made at the resort, which celebrates its centennial next year.
"When making your icing, make it thicker by adding in extra powdered sugar. This allows the gingerbread to stick to the structure better, suggested Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail's pastry chef, Andrew Schweska, who created WHOVAIL, a life-sized Whoville-inspired gingerbread house, in collaboration with the resort's pastry team, resort master carpenter Frank Bontempo and some 50 third- and fourth-graders from the local Red Sandstone School.
For those who want to create their own holiday gingerbread structures, Bontempo suggested starting by gathering small cardboard boxes and cereal boxes." Cut them into different shapes and stack them together, using glue to secure them." He added that odd shapes, especially round or curved, are much stronger than straight angles.
At the Broadmoor, Chef McIlwain suggested plywood for a large homemade structure. A few days after the Gingerbread Chapel was unveiled, we attracted an appreciative crowd as McIlwaine, her fellow chef Doug Slape and I added delicate red and green candy wreaths to the back wall. Two visiting teens from North Carolina helped. "A once-in-a-lifetime experience," jokes the teens' mom, Veronica Brown, as she shoots video. (Watch our video hereand check out the Taking the Kids Holiday Illuminationssection to see where you'll find the best and brightest holiday lights displays.
"The biggest gingerbread house I've ever seen," declares Nathanial Brown, 14, surveying the white meringue around the door, the hand-placed checkerboard chocolate above Santa peeking out of the window, the shiny "snow"-flecked brioche buns decorating the door, festooned with gold balls. Every detail is perfect -- down to the dyed-green gingerbread fashioned into roof tiles.
The chefs "repair" their creation daily, inviting young guests to join the effort. "It's ever-growing," laughed Chef Slate.
"That's what makes this so much fun because usually we're behind the scenes," said McIlwain, noting that it took a month simply to bake the gingerbread "bricks" and a week for an entire team, including a master carpenter and in-house chocolatier Amanda Houdek, to construct the structure. Planning had begun months earlier. Another tip from the Broadmoor pastry chefs: Cut the gingerbread for your house as soon as it comes out of the oven, but let it dry out completely before you begin building.
Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, you are likely to discover ever bigger and elaborate gingerbread structures to inspire your home creations -- even one at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York, which is vying for its third Guinness World Record as the largest gingerbread village anywhere. Chef Jon Lovitch spends an entire year working on the GingerBread Lane, and other gingerbread creations at Baltimore, Hartford and Orlando museums. (Here are recipesfor gingerbread and icing from Chef Jon Lovitch.)
The life-sized gingerbread house at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain in Arizona features a sugary cactus garden and a table set for six. As many as 200 people during the holiday season pay the $200 fee (plus food) to dine inside the edible walls.
At Walt Disney World, there is an 18-foot-high Gingerbread Cinderella Castle at Disney's Contemporary Resort; a life-sized edible spinning carousel and holiday village complete with holiday train at Disney's Beach Club Resort and a life-sized holiday gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
In San Francisco, it's a local tradition for families to come to the top of Nob Hill to the Fairmont San Francisco to see its two-story gingerbread house -- this year the hotel's biggest ever at 25-feet-high, 35-feet-wide. Some lucky families enjoy a special Gingerbread Holiday Tea inside (fees start at $200, plus food). Call the Laurel Court Restaurant & Bar at 415-772-5411 for more information. Show the kids that the holidays are about giving as well as getting by making a donation to Do it for the Love, a nonprofit organization that brings children and adults with severe challenges to live concerts.
When you opt for a meal inside the life-sized gingerbread house at a Great Wolf Lodge -- each resort's house has a different theme -- the dining-in fee, typically $10 to $20, plus food, is donated to the Ronald McDonald House. During the holidays, as part of the resorts' complimentary Snowland activities, kids can also decorate "cookies with Mrs. Claus."
Check out the entries at the Omni Grove Park Inn’s 25th annual National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina -- with prizes for the winners totaling more than $25,000. The contest began in 1992 with a small group of gingerbread houses built by community members as a way to celebrate the holiday season and now showcases 170 edible masterpieces.
Pull up a stool at Santa's Tavern, the first-ever life-sized gingerbread bar (1,300 pounds) complete with barstools and spirit bottles made out of candy and cookie dough at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE. Though there may be mocktails, this is for those traveling with adult kids. (Come for a holiday mixology class; have your name engraved in icing by making a donation through the hotel to the Children's Miracle Network.)
At the Broadmoor, meanwhile, the house-made chocolates featured on the Gingerbread Chapel are so popular that an entire shop to showcase the chocolatier at work will open early next year. And discussions are already underway for what next season's gingerbread house will look like as the resort celebrates its 100th birthday to great fanfare.
"We'll definitely have to top this one," said Chef McIllwane.
Happy eating -- and baking!