There's nothing like the scent of gingerbread baking in the oven to kick off the holiday season. Decorating gingerbread houses at Thanksgiving became a family tradition in our house a few years ago. They make impressive centerpieces for the table, and it's a great way to get the kids involved in the holiday revelry.
Treats of kings and queens
Gingerbread cakes, cookies and houses have a long tradition that began in Europe in the 11th Century when catholic monks made gingerbread during the holidays. It wasn't until the 15th Century that gingerbread went commercial. A gingerbread paste was pressed into wooden molds depicting kings and queens, decorated with gold paint and sold at fairs and festivals.
In the 16th Century, the first gingerbread man is credited to Queen Elizabeth I, who impressed visiting dignitaries by presenting them with one decorated in their own likeness. Gingerbread making was eventually recognized as a profession. In Europe in the 17th century, only professional gingerbread makers were allowed to bake the delicacy, with that restriction only lifted during Christmas and Easter.
Fairy tales bring gingerbread to America
Of all the countries in Europe, Germany is the one with the longest tradition of making flat, shaped gingerbreads. In the 19th Century, the gingerbread house became popular after the Brothers Grimm published "Hansel and Gretel." Early German settlers brought the gingerbread house tradition to the Americas, as did many northern Europeans with their wide variety of gingerbread recipes.
You can make your house super simple or elaborate. If it's your first time, build a sample house out of cardboard or construction paper so you have the right dimensions. Or you can do it like the pros.
"I get a vision of where I want to go with it, and I just start building. If pieces don't work, I break them, I'll shave them, I sand them and then build as I go," said Mark Metzger, pastry chef at Larkspur. Metzger enters the CASA Gingerbread House Competition every year, which took place Friday in Beaver Creek.
Gingerbread houses don't have to make sense
This year, Metzger built his fantasy hunting cabin in the woods complete with ladders, a hot tub, a wall-mounted buffalo head and shotgun visible inside and signs that say "keep out."
"You don't have to have a pre-conceived notion of a house," Metzger said. "Get creative and just start building - even if it makes no sense, how does a gingerbread house make sense?"
One way to make it fun is to make it easy.
"If I were to give one tip, I would say use a hot glue gun instead of icing so you don't have to hold the pieces together until the icing dries," said Metzger, who suggests saving the royal icing to decorate gingerbread men that you can really eat. For Metzger's gingerbread man dough recipe, visit larkspurvail.com/happenings.
If building gingerbread houses from scratch is making you anxious, you can always buy a gingerbread house decorating party kit at Kitchen Collage in Edwards. It comes with everything you'll need. Sorry - you still have to bake it, but you don't want to miss that spicy sweet gingerbread smell that reminds you it's the holiday season.
Kelly Brinkerhoff is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur (www.larkspurvail.com), at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999.