12/6/2012 - It’s Amherst’s newest housing development: more than a dozen homes connected with winding pathways and snow-capped hills. And it’s entirely edible.
With a staff of expert confectionery small-scale home-builders, Frederick’s Pastries has erected its annual gingerbread village, this year with the theme A Kid’s Christmas. It’s a friendly competition among the bakers, with customers voting on their favorites.
“I only use my cake decorating skills a little, and that’s why it’s fun; we get to be creative. There are size and height restrictions, and we are provided the cookie and frosting, but everybody comes up with their own little something different,” said decorator Jen DeMarco.
The DeMarco house is a grab-bag of childhood Christmas imagery: There are Angry Birds, Legos, Peanuts characters, the Abominable Snow Monster of claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fame, and penguins, which is a nod to her winning Antarctica house in 2010 when the theme was Christmas Around the World.
Another structural marvel-maker is Anne Walsh, Frederick’s manager, who channeled her inner “girliness” and went with a replica of Cinderella’s carriage. The carriage features little in the way of heavy candy because she baked the gingerbread into various shapes for the wheels, carriage seats and body. Instead, she used a thin layer of frosting to coat on designs like curtains, wreaths and animals.
“The key to your first house is to start simple. I think the more elements that are involved, the more patience you need, especially letting it dry,” Walsh said. “I’ve been doing it for many years now and I always anticipate the theme, because everyone gets the same template, and when they go on display it’s exciting to see why people did what.”
The village also features Spongebob Squarepants’ undersea pineapple, Calvin and Hobbes hanging out on the roof, Clifford the Big Red Dog’s house and more traditional structures, such as a colorful church with a towering steeple and a decadent gazebo with a S’more’s roof and Twizzlers running up the center.
All of these wouldn’t be a village without connecting elements: a sugary landscape done by Frederick’s proprietor Susan Lozier Robert, who creates winding fudge paths flanked by chocolate covered pretzels, gumdrops and gummy bears, frozen ponds of blue frosting and even intricate frosting Christmas trees with ice cream cones in the center.
Having been a gingerbread house maker for so many years, Lozier Robert has some suggestions for people who want to make their own at home.
“The most important part is the cookie and the icing,” Lozier Robert said. “If the cookies are too thick, they will never harden, and too thin, they’ll cave in. For the frosting, which is Royal icing, the consistency has to be perfect, and there can’t be too much of it.”
Even with the foundation done correctly, the houses still need to set. Often, Lozier Robert said, do-it-yourselfers come in to the store having been inspired by the village and complain they woke up after making gingerbread houses to caved roofs and sagging walls. Having the house sit undecorated overnight makes a world of difference; one strategy, she added, might be keeping news of an impromptu gingerbread house making party from the kids until their foundations are good and ready.
“Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” said cake decorator Kasey Fogg. “You can push a house to the limit, but keeping it simple is not a bad thing.”
Fogg is competing for her fourth year, going for the top spot with a recognizable Dr. Seuss theme. Her entry is a layered pile of Seussian symbols as chaotic as his stories: a stack of books beneath a hill with the famous cat’s hat on top. It doesn’t even appear to be a house until your eye catches the Grinch, popping out of a fireplace with Thing 1 and Thing 2 on the other side. A finishing touch, on top of the hat, is the fish bowl and its level-headed occupant from the story.
“The hill and part of the hat are made of gingerbread, but due to weight, I had to make some of the hat out of a rice crispy treat, and the fish is made of fondant frosting,” said Fogg.
Smooth, colorful fondant coats the entire piece to “make it look nice and smooth, and appeal to the kids,” she said. Simple, no, but Fogg said she does a lot of prior planning, even making sketches of her ideas in the run up to the event.
“It’s a tradition we all anticipate, like putting up your Christmas tree. And others do too. We probably get about 2,000 votes from customers. School groups have even been calling us over the past month asking if our village has been set up yet,” Lozier Robert said.
Both the Bedford and Amherst locations will display Gingerbread villages until Christmas; at the Amherst store, customers can vote on their favorites. In addition to the house contest winners, 12 ballots will also be drawn at random for various prizes from Frederick’s, including pastries, other sweets and gift certificates.