Saturday, November 30, 2013

Rat Tail...The Nemesis

All the great ones have a nemesis... Superman, Batman, Liz Lemon... And US!
Before our very first competition, we were understandably nervous. We weren't sure what caliber of competitor we were up against. Upon arriving and dropping our MASTERPIECE off, we were able to scope out the competition a bit more and were instantly relieved. It's not that the other houses were bad... they were adorable, they were charming, they were cute. But not a'one of them had the detail, the intricacies, the magic that ours had. We assumed we were a "shoe in"... we assumed wrong.

While we placed 2nd in our very first competition, the piece that won 1st place was, how shall I say... underwhelming? The theme of the competition was "Winter Wonderland".  *WE* created a gorgeous, sparkling, sugary palace, compete with a covered bridge and a horse-drawn carriage. We named it "The Lustre of Mid-day on Objects Below". Rat Tail's submission was called "Alice in Winter Wonderland", a name that the judges found terribly clever. There were some impressive elements, a molded caterpillar with a hooka pipe on a mushroom, for example. But overall, it was sloppy, it was poorly executed... it was just ok.

The creator of said house was a young man who's name we never actually caught, but his one distinguishing characteristic was a 14"long rat tail. Yes. A rat tail. We were both thrilled at placing but baffled as to WHY we came in behind this less than spectacular submission.

Flash forward, one year. We are ready to submit our second piece to the same competition, certain that this year we NAILED IT. We had detail, we had whimsy, we had realism, we had molded marzipan for cryin' out loud!!!

We dropped off our piece and went to grab some breakfast and who do we see at the charming breakfast cafe we stopped in???? RAT TAIL!! Our old nemesis had RETURNED!
Thankfully, we received 1st place that year... But it didn't remove the sting of having come in behind something that looked like a terrible 6th grade diorama.

Next week takes us back to our usual competition, which of course, we are certain we're going to win. But in the back of all of our minds... we all wonder, will Rat Tail return to give us a run for our money???

Part of the Process

An important part of any artistic creation is self evaluation. To achieve a critical eye, you need to step away from your creation and take a break. You can clean your kitchen to clear your head, walk away to get some perspective, or you can take a mini-break to refocus your energy. We enjoy singing, dancing, and . . . well, I'll let the video speak for itself.

Friday, November 29, 2013

General Tips

From trial and error, here are some basic gingerbread tips that I have to offer:

1.  always bake using flat pans.  Flat.  I have a set used only for gingerbread baking.  I hand-wash them so that they don't get warped.  Wonky pans can lead to curved or not-flat gingerbread pieces.

2.  Always put your pattern together to make sure it fits.  and don't just tape it together.  Make sure you know that the sides will fit inside the front and back pieces, etc.  AND ACCOUNT FOR FONDANT.  if you cover your pieces in fondant, give yourself some extra length on roofs etc. because that adds thickness.  Gingerbuilders discovered this the hard way.  Thank goodness for royal icing :-)
(This pattern is from our 2013 "Whoville" themed pieced.  It was "Suessy".)

3.  Flip your gingerbread over when it comes right out of the oven, and press it flat.  It can take it, don't worry.  This will help keep your edges from curling up on you.
THEN lay it out to cool and harden.

4.   You don't have to be fancy.  I know people who buy "special tools" or end caps for icing, etc.  Sure that stuff comes in handy, and can make your life soooo much easier in some cases!  In other cases, it's okay to wing it.  Use your judgement and don't be afraid to break the mold, if you will.

While making our first gingerbread houses, we didn't use couplers or
"official" pastry bags. 

We use whatever we have on hand to prop up items for drying etc.

In this pic we ran out of rice cereal, so we used shredded wheat instead.  Same difference.
 Take that. :-)

5.  Lastly, have a savory food around to help cut the sugar.  Yes, I know you're MAKING a gingerbread house not eating one, but the sugar in the air can still get to you.  Gingerbuilders enjoys chili, chinese food, cheeseballs, and wine.  Wine and friends will also help the process.  This hobby should be fun!

I'll add more tips as I think of them.  Meanwhile, ENJOY yourself and be creative.  It will turn out great!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Journey With Gingerbread

My Journey With Gingerbread

I've always had different hobbies. From dollhouses to archeology, I've just always had interests that were a little different from most people I know. I was incredibly lucky that my parents always encouraged these unique hobbies though. In the 7th grade, they bought me a beautiful doll house kit (the doll house still proudly sits in my dining room to this day). They didn't talk me out of studying archaeology in college. And when I got the crazy idea one Christmas that I wanted to build a gingerbread house, rather than saying "maybe some other time" the bought me a book, The Encyclopedia of Gingerbread, and my dad even helped me create my very first template.
So a few years ago when my friend Stephanie mentioned that she wanted to learn how to make a gingerbread house I very enthusiastically agreed to help her learn! I remember being really impressed with the design she picked for her first house. There were lots of little accents and special touches she had wanted to add. It was so much fun having one of my best friends creating this delicious, little masterpiece with me! Even better was the next day when our friend Megan wanted to join in on the fun so we just went ahead and made another house. 
We're all incredibly humble, so after congratulating ourselves on our talent and creativity, we decided we couldn't wait another year to collaborate to build another house. So we made The February House which celebrated many of the forgotten, non-Christmasy winter holidays. There were a few more creations before we decided, after only a year of gingerbreading together, to submit a house to an ACTUAL gingerbread competition. We came in 2nd place at our very first competition with our beautiful "Luster of Midday on Objects Below". I was very pregnant, and very tired for the creation of "Luster", but Megan and Stephanie had learned so much, they really took the reigns for that project. I wasn't the teacher any longer... we were teammates. 
The truly incredible thing about our trio...each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses. We each have a unique perspective. Megan has such an eye for detail and a steady hand that can bring that detail to life. Stephanie had this innate ability to visualize an entire project from start to finish. I'd like to think that I'm "the idea person" but I can't claim that exclusively... so let's just say I'm the comic relief ;-)
The three of us together have managed to work together remarkably well and still have so much fun together. I hope you all enjoy going on this journey with us.

Friday, November 22, 2013

First is the Worst, Second is the Best

and second place is what our 2011 castle received at our local gingerbread competition.  The theme for the year was "Winter Wonderland".  We went with the wonder theme and created a castle.  Lots of silver, lots of shiny, and titled the piece "The Luster of Midday on Objects Below."

We were beat out by an "Alice in Winter Wonderland" clever creation.  It was sloppy, but had good sugar work.  (Erin can talk more about our competitor later.) :-)

Keep in mind how clever the judges thought the play on the theme was.  This will come in VERY handy when we reveal our 2013 entry...

This year was the first year we covered our gingerbread in anything.  We covered it in icing, then dusted it with pulverized blue sprinkles and sugar.

We also lined everything with icing stars.  Pretty pretty.  Stylized and Whimsical are our two favorite words.

This was a rainy and muggy year.  We had to wait a LONG time for the icing to dry.  We also melted (I think jolly ranchers) for the windows.  This was different.  By the time of the competition, they had melted off.  Note to self: stick to clear peppermint candy or butterscotch. 

This was also the first time we really used fondant.  Erin hates the taste, so we (Megan) made a yummy marshmallow fondant, which we used to cover round rice krispy treat towers.  (We hadn't quite mastered round baking gingerbread yet.)

Turrets are clearly ice cream cones sprayed with Chef Duff's edible silver spray.

As the icing queen (NOT ice queen) I added little candles.

We melted jolly ranchers again and some clear peppermint (sugar free, oddly enough) candy in aluminum foil to make our lake.  Over that, we built our sweet covered bridge.  This is the same bridge from our Greedo house, and we just loved it so much!  I would expect to see it appear again and again in our pieces.
The roof snowflakes are a German candy.  Their texture is something like Jesus wafers in church.  Always keep your eyes open for new and creative treats!

The tree is rice krispy treats covered in that pulverized sugar and silver spray.  I really like the look of it.

We also made a different tree, just so show how creative we could be. :-)

We decided to make the horses 2-D and curved warm gingerbread straight from the oven to form the carriage.

Megan's talent molded us an adorable snowman from Marzipan.  He, too, started to melt from humidity by the time of the competition, but we held it together.

Placing second in our first competition is definitely something we're proud of.  I can't wait to try a more detailed castle plan!
I love our Gingerbuilder Team!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gingerbread Research

I wanted to enter gingerbread competitions, I wanted to improve my craft, I wanted to be inspired!

I checked out many gingerbread books from the library.  I found these books to be amazingly helpful with tips and easy-to-use patterns!  I thought I would share the resources with you!

Building with different patterns gave me baking practice and allowed me to see how different structures fit together.  This experience is REALLY helpful when it comes to designing my own gingerbread patterns.  2-story patterns, complex roofs, etc.  I also have a friend who is an architect and all around crafty guy.  You better believe I'll be bringing him in on some projects!

I highly recommend the Teresa Layman books:

Gingerbread Things to Make and Bake


Gingerbread for All Seasons

I found that these books are full of great ideas and easy for beginners to moderates to understand.  Not to mention the resource of patterns!

Other resources you may want to explore:

It appears we are not the only lovers of gingerbread!

Monday, November 18, 2013

“The forgiving art of gingerbread.”

Okay, so here is one thing I love about making a gingerbread house (and landscape).  You will make mistakes. Experts make mistakes. Novices make mistakes. Sometimes I even make a mistake on purpose (not a big one). Gingerbread mistakes are delicious! One of the funniest moments with our last Halloween house happened after we dyed our royal icing dark brown.
 We were putting our bridge together.  When icing goes somewhere it shouldn’t, the best “tool” for removal is usually a finger. The problem with this icing is that it looked like delicious dark chocolate. The whole rest of the day, every time we got icing on our hand, we’d say, “Damn it, it’s not chocolate!” or “It’s still not chocolate.”
I can’t even tell you have many times this happened. This may be why we go back to using more chocolate in our pieces. Royal icing doesn’t taste bad. I actually really like the recipe we use, but it’s not chocolate. The reason we used cocoa crispy cereal for most of the Halloween landscape was because I wanted cocoa crispy treats. Something Erin taught us early on in this venture, was always consider your flavor profiles. You want to make sure everything tastes good together.

Some parts of making a gingerbread house can be pretty stressful. Especially if you are a perfectionist or you have people relying on you to get it right. You need to know that it is ok to mess up. Royal icing or a well placed candy can cover or patch almost anything. I should know; I’m the breaker of the group. I’m the “Crap! Sorry!” girl.(Notice the crack in the roof of the bridge? I did that. Also, meet our fourth team member, the soup can. It makes a great temporary support)
Then Erin or Stephanie says, “We can fix it,” or “That’s why we make spares,” and I don’t feel so bad. This is also why I love working with these ladies. We support each other and complement each other; verbally and physically. You never know when you are going to get a slap on the butt with a flour covered hand. It comes with the territory, and the wine. We often joke that “Modesty is our best quality.” I think our teamwork is actually our best quality.

 By Megan Rosencrans

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Month of Holidays Crammed into one House

It may not be cohesive in appearance, but it is thematic and educational!

Our February House of 2010 gave us the opportunity to work again as a team, refine our strengths, try out new techniques, and drink more wine.  (of course)

Melting chocolate around marzipan and using a toothpick to make grooves gave us this awesome realistic looking tree stump.

Megan's molding handiwork and more chocolate and marzipan (yum!) gave us an adorable groundhog to sit near the stump to represent Groundhog's Day!

We made an outhouse, really, because I think we just wanted to use pretzels to build something.

More importantly, and to the February House theme, we made a Valentine's Day Tree (chocolate wrapped around a pretzel) and house, an MLK Bvld street sign, and a marzipan bust of the presidents.  I'm really quite proud of that bust (and I like saying bust).  Unfortunately, it's mostly covered by the roof of the house.  Take my word on how cool it looked.

We figured a little dusting of coconut snow was absolutely appropriate for February.  We may have used more, but Megan hates coconut.  :-)

As of 2013, we use a lot of brown food coloring for writing and shading.  Looking back, I like our use of chocolate.  It may be time to revive that method.

When you look at the background of our house photo, do you notice a familiar item?  It's our customary background decor.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Our First Halloween House

2 holiday houses and a February house (why not?!)  within a year, and we decided to make a Halloween house the following fall.  (Halloween is a pretty fabulous holiday after all.)

I spent early 2011 scouring the internet for gingerbread inspiration, patterns, etc.  Pinterest was still in Beta at this time, so I didn't have that luxury.  I printed what I could.

Oh yeah, and I got married.  So that kept me pretty busy.  We wanted to build a gingerbread church, but time and stress got away from us and that didn't happen.

Until September-ish.  Plans began for a Halloween house.

I purchased a pattern from Ultimate Gingerbread and that's what we used for our first Halloween house.

This house was for fun, creativity, and to try out any new techniques we could think of.

We learned how to make icing black, and paint cute faces on pumpkins.  (Again, this is Megan's awesome talent and attention to little details.)

 We learned how to stain gingerbread and make it look like wood.

and we learned that broken pieces can be patched with icing and covered up in the decoration process!


and we practiced with royal icing to pipe webs on wax paper and transfer them to the house when dry.
Ground up animals crackers make good dirt.

 We gave Old Yeller a bone and Charlotte a little spider, as per the story.

 Turns out, Megan is awesome at molding.

 and we discovered that one picture just doesn't do it justice. :-)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The inception- Megan's point of view

The inception, from my point of view, was merely a distraction from the painful events I was experiencing.  Stephanie and Erin called me and they had just finished a gingerbread house. I was immediately jealous and wanted to make one, too. My girls, being as awesome as they are, agreed to make a second house the next day. I was told to bring wine, powdered sugar, and anything else that struck my fancy, candy wise.  I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I only knew I wanted in.

I was a complete novice and started by doing whatever they told me. At one point, Erin said, “Hold that,” as I held a wall in place. I asked, “How long do I have to hold this?” “Until is stands on its own,” followed by giggles, was the reply. I don’t remember who said it, but I was not amused. I couldn’t reach my glass of wine! I started practicing bows and little details.
The wine started flowing and the ideas right along with it. It was the most fun I had had in a long time.

We loved our first house and decided that our three brains worked really well together.
Stephanie showed us pictures of the gingerbread competition held in her town. Being full of wine, sugar and bravado, we decided we could do something better than any of those houses and agreed to enter a house in the competition the next year. Obviously, some practice was in order. We made a February house and a Halloween house before our first competition house.
We learned to eat some protein and lay off the sugar to avoid the shakes and headaches.  We checked out books from the library and looked online for ideas. Erin consulted candy experts for ideas and we scoured every candy aisle in every store for more ideas. We started a pinterest board, then another and another. It was addictive, in a good way. We couldn’t wait to try out new ideas! But first, the breaking of the first house. It is tradition that the youngest gets to break the house. With us, that would be Stephanie. Enjoy!