Paul, November 26, 2011
As I recently noted, one of the projects we have to do on behalf of the Vancouver Island University is build a gingerbread house. This is an annual event at the school and is used to showcase the Professional Baking and Pastry Arts Program. It also helps raise funds as these houses are auctioned off while displayed at a couple of different venues. Any funds raised from the auction of the houses goes to the VIU Foundation, and a portion of this is earmarked for our Paris trip next March to help defray some of the costs to the students.
Although “Paris” was the suggested theme for this year’s houses, we were able to pick anything we wanted to do. A few of the students chose to follow along with this. I went in another direction. Below are the construction details (with usual copious photos) of my chosen house.
As one of my hopes once I complete the course and get some experience under my belt is to open up my own small bakery, I’d been doing some casual research online to see if I could find information on how a small bakery is set up, such as typical size, what sort of equipment they may use and so forth. During this search, I came across a design for a bakery which I thought was quite fascinating: an old 1889 building in a “living ghost town” in Colorado. The town still stands and is populated but the building there are mostly historic design. They are also the inspiration for a manufacturer of model buildings for scale train scenery.
It turns out the Sopp & Truscott Bakery building, as well as a few others in the old mining town of Silver Plume, Colorado, has been made in several hobby train scales and there is a fair bit of info available online, including some quite detailed plans. And as you can see from the top three photos in this post, that one building is used in numerous incarnations in train scenes everywhere.
Above left is the actual current building (although a large, black “BREAD” has been painted on this side of the false front) and on the right is another version of the scale model.
The building, as most of them in town are, was likely erected about 1889 after the town of Silver Plume was nearly wiped out by a fire but quickly rebuilt. It thrived for a long time as a successful mining town. The bakery itself has been in business for very many years although I understand it was originally opened as a feed store by its namesakes, Sopp and Truscott. It was up for sale back in 2009 by it’s owners who were looking to retire somewhere warmer than Colorado and was bought by a young couple who had stopped by for some lemon pie.
I started to work out how I would break this building down and recreate it in gingerbread. I collected as many visuals of the building, real or model, as I could and began deconstructing.
First, I needed to make some drawings of the sides of the building keeping in mind our set base size is 9 inch by 13 inch or “standard sheet cake” size. From there, it was a somewhat simple process of producing the template for the gingerbread pieces. I wanted to create a somewhat realistic version of the building, although replicating the finer detail possible in the plastic model was out of the question. I would still make the gingerbread version as cleanly as I could while avoiding the usual gingerbread candified look.
Here are the four main sections and the doorway, funky coloured for easier visualization. From this I created some paper templates and then transferred these to cardboard.
I then taped these basic cutouts together to form the main shape, then added some of the detail items, doorway and roof pieces.
I now had enough base pieces to start baking and cutting out the pieces. I rolled out the gingerbread dough (which I had mixed a few days before) to about 1/4 inch (.5 cm) which, when baked, would be considerably thicker. This would be useful as the side pieces are weight bearing and need to be somewhat tougher.
I placed the cardboard pieces I had now taken apart again on the dough and cut the dough a little larger than the actual finished size, about .5 inch bigger all round. I then placed the pieces in a 350°F oven for about 8 – 10 minutes until they were nearly cooked.
I then removed them from the oven, placed the paper templates on top and trimmed the pieces back to the exact size. This then gave me a finished cookie piece that had clean, sharp edges, was easy to trim while still warm and a little soft and that wouldn’t expand any more. Click the left pic to enlarge and you’ll see the excess pieces, although cut square originally, have uneven rounded edges and look overbaked.
To cut the windows and back door, I poked a pin in the corners and used a small knife to cut the shapes out following the little holes I made. I had planned to work in some sugar “glass” and perhaps even build the interior of the bakery.
The pieces then went back into the oven to finish baking for another couple of minutes. The roof pieces I made a little thinner although following the same process.
Next I needed to start decorating the piece while they were still flat so I applied a coat of coloured royal icing onto the front. Doing so while the structure was upright would have made flooding the surface impossible. This step basically involved mixing some royal icing with colour – I chose a pastel-ish purple as opposed to the original house’s white – to a rather thin consistency then brushing it on and waiting for it to dry.
While dry fitting the pieces together, I ran into a rather serious issue: as crispy as a well dried gingerbread cookie may be, it isn’t exactly structurally strong. The small connecting pieces around the windows failed and snapped apart. I tried to do some repair using melted sugar (stronger than royal icing) but that didn’t work well either. I had to re-do the front, side and back pieces without cutting the windows and doors out. Which at this point I realized was a blessing in disguise as I realized seeing ‘inside’ would double the amount of finicky detail work and these projects did not have endless work time allowed. So more dough was rolled and the windows on the next set were to be coloured in instead.
New pieces are created. Click the photo to enlarge and you’ll see the little arrows pint to the pinholes for the windows. With these points marked, I use a sharp knife (and ruler) to score the outlines and then begin by doing edges in thin royal icing. These will act as “sandbags” for the coming icing floods.
The windows are flooded with pale blue and once dry, the outside areas are again flooded in purple. I went with a somewhat darker purple for “trim” work.
Likewise, the back end of the house had door and window detail work applied. And last before final building is painting the detail bits like the cornices and the false front’s roof pieces. The cornices were simply a scrap piece of baked dough that I cut into slamm bits at an angle. After the fact, I think it would have been nicer and almost as easy to have used a small metal tube to cut out a more interesting shape. But that’s afterthought and will go into the “If I ever do this again” file.
So now all the “flat’ work is done and it’s time to do the main assembly. I melt some sugar – in this case, it’s actually Isomalt, a sugar-like compound – that is clear and sets up quickly. I could have used royal icing but that dries rather slowly and would show if it oozed out of the seams.
Using the hot Isomalt, I glued together the four sides of the building and even added some triangles hidden inside for a little more structural strength and to make sure the corners were squared. I then flipped the structure upside down and glued the roof pieces from the inside. Whoever gets this house will see a big stringy mess if they ever decide to crack it open!
I added the false front’s roof pieces as well as the cornice details. You’ll note that the doorway looks a mite crooked – it is. I had forgotten to allow for the thickness of the actual gingerbread pieces when cutting the door parts out and that ended up not fitting quite so well. Not bad enough to take apart and risk breaking though.
The back end of the house got a little colour work as well, with all the smaller windows and doorframe being built up for some 3D trim effect. I really wanted to do more here but I had to keep in mind the budget for this was $0, time was very short and all of this was falling under “first time” syndrome: you learn what not to do and what you could re-do better as you do it but that needs to all go into the “next time” file.
Next on the list: the roof. I decided to try my hand at chocolate roof shingles. I melted some dark chocolate and brushed it onto a sheet of parchment, hoping to keep the brush marks visible. It worked pretty nicely although I didn’t temper the chocolate quite successfully. I roughly scored the chocolate sheet, wanting the shingles to be unprecise, then used royal icing to glue them to the roof pieces.
The structure is now finished, all that is left is adding some details. Again I was very concious to avoid applying candy while trying to make it look Christmassy. Icicles would be used to set the building in “winter”, along with snow in the corners of the windows. Some royal icing wreaths on the front window, strings of lights and a heavy snowfall on the ground would set the mood up as decidedly Holiday Time.
The very final addition was the shop’s signs pasted to the false front. Although under “competition standards” everything on the house should have been edible and these could have been made using edible images, time was running out and the houses needed to go to the auction so I printed the signage on photo paper. I doubt anyone will eat the signs.
Here, at last, is the finished product:
The final photo above shows the long left wall where I included a photo of the actual bakery and a little detail on the real building.
Off the house went, along with all the other completed pieces: a winter Louvre, an Arche de triomphe, several creative fantasy/candy houses, a toy train… They are all on display at the local conference center and hopefully will be auctioned away and enjoyed by their owners for at least this holiday. Proceeds from the auction go to the University’s Foundation which, in turn, will in part go towards helping fund some of the students’ costs for our upcoming Paris trip for the 2012 World Bread Exhibition.
They are now out of our hands and all I have are these photos and ideas on how to make it better next time. To see a few of the other gingerbread houses made by the class, visit Chef Harper’s Flickr page here.
If you’ve found this interesting and, in spite of not being near Nanaimo, BC to bid on the house, would still like to make a donation towards my school’s Paris visit for the 2012 Europain Exhibition, just click on the button below and you can make a donation via PayPal to Yumarama. Any amount, great or small, is hugely appreciated and will help tremendously.