On Building A House … Of Gingerbread

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Walls of gingerbread host a colorful parade of lollipops and peppermints, candy canes and gummies. The blueprint for a gingerbread house is fairly straightforward—load it with all things sugar! But there is an art to building, no less decorating, one of these confectionery homes.“It’s a labor of love,” said Guy Gagliano, owner of Swan Bakery in Patchogue. The baker, and unofficial gingerbread architect, has been making the spiced bread for 42 years. And every December, for the last eight years, he has hosted gingerbread workshops with children and families in libraries throughout Long Island. This month, he expected to make about 950 gingerbread houses in total.

For the sixth year in a row, and with 20 petite houses in tow, Mr. Gagliano hosted a workshop at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton for students in the Southampton School District on December 3.

The architecture of a gingerbread house can range from traditional Cape Cod and colonial to modern. There are even full gingerbread villages. But Mr. Gagliano’s houses are simple A-frame, Swiss chalet style homes, with long roofs that beg for decorations. To make the gingerbread, he uses rye flour, which keeps the bread dense and prevents it from rising like a cake, adding honey, sugar and molasses. “This is the real McCoy,” he said. “I roll it out into sheets, and then I hand-cut every house.” Each house has four walls and two ends for the roof, bound together with Royal Icing, a hard white icing made primarily from beaten egg whites and icing sugar.

These sweet homes would be of little notice without their elaborate decorations, and Mr. Gagliano provides each child with a stuffed “goody bag” of adornments. Houses are decked with plastic Christmas trees and reindeer, as well as a healthy dose of edible treats, like gumdrops and marshmallows, M&Ms and cookies. When the children are done, the veteran baker walks around sprinkling powdered sugar over each home, creating wintry snowscapes.

This type of holiday construction project is a popular pastime, not only in the form of workshops but in contests, too.

Mary’s Marvelous, a local eatery in Amagansett and East Hampton, has been hosting an annual gingerbread house contest for the last six years. Participants purchase the kits in the store and take them home to design their masterpieces. When finished, the candied homes are returned to the store and subject to scrutiny by passersby (a.k.a. customers).

Submissions are often colorful and impressive. “We’ve seen some good ones … there was the penguin party house,” featuring the cold-weather birds drinking out of little cups, said Marion Paul, the general manager for both stores. “There was also a replica of the store in Amagansett, and Fallingwater.”

One of this year’s submissions was “Jilly’s Dream House,” a two-story modern Hamptons home with French doors that open out to a swimming pool.

There is an average of 20 participants for each store, and votes are cast based on creativity and inventive use of materials. Judging will be held on December 22, and winners receive gift cards to the store.

Designing a gingerbread house can be an exercise in architecture, but mostly it’s a chance to indulge in a creative project that offers respite from the frenzy of the season.

“It’s one of my favorite times of year. I really enjoy doing it,” said Mr. Gagliano.

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