Written by Sonia Thompson
Photograph Courtesy of The Ford Center
Walking in a winter wonderland in the South isn’t usually an option, but creating a miniature, edible version is. For the last six years, Oxford resident Michelle Zerangue and her family have been designing and constructing a gingerbread house for the Ford Center’s annual Gingerbread Village (on display through Dec. 19).
“I really enjoy being part of a project that was started to have fun, but also serves to help give back to the community,” Zerangue said. “Every year a big part of this project is to help stock the local food pantries. Also, it became a bit of a challenge to see if we can go beyond what we accomplished the previous year.”
Together, Zerangue, her husband and their five children have built a Christmas village with several buildings and a train; Dr. Seuss’ Whoville; a Cajun Christmas-themed abode; a Christmas castle; and a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-inspired gingerbread house, in honor of the book’s 60th anniversary.
“Most of the inspiration has come from books, poems and interests that our children have that we can build and make come to life,” Zerangue said.
There are no strict construction rules, but Zerangue said she tries to make sure that all of the building supplies she buys are edible.
“Most of the construction part is done by me, and the kids get involved when the decorating begins,” she said. “The older they are, the more they are allowed to work, according to their abilities. They are ages 15, 10, 8, 5 and 2. The biggest parts of their jobs are helping make things with modeling chocolate, attaching candy pieces and eating.”
It’s a fun activity that has become a family tradition. Zerangue doesn’t even mind when some of the building supplies go missing.
“Items seem to disappear,” she said. “I have often found little bites in the gingerbread pieces that I have made. I also always make extra modeling chocolate because somehow, quite a bit gets eaten.”
Structural Gingerbread Dough
Note: Although edible, this dough is meant for construction and is very stiff and very hard to bite into. Do not use this recipe for cookies to eat.
9 cups flour
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
1 Tablespoon ground allspice
1½ teaspoons ground cloves
1½ teaspoons salt
2 cups corn syrup, light or dark
1½ cups brown sugar, packed
1¼ cups shortening
Mix flour, spices and salt in a large bowl. In a large pot, combine corn syrup, brown sugar and shortening. Heat until the shortening is melted and most of the sugar is dissolved (it does not have to heat to boiling). Let the mixture cool slightly, and stir into the flour mixture. The mixture will be stiff and difficult to stir. When it is cool enough, use your hands to mix it all together well. Knead the dough until it is smooth and all the flour mixture is incorporated. If it is too stiff, add a little water until you have the dough at a point that is workable, but don’t make it too sticky. Let it rest for 30 minutes to an hour. It can be put in the refrigerator and used later if you do not want to work with it right away. Bring it to room temperature to work with it. If it’s too stiff, carefully microwave it for 15 seconds at a time to help make it more workable.
Roll it out on a floured surface, cut out your desired shapes and bake 12-15 minutes. This time will vary depending on the thickness of the dough and the size of your design. Watch it carefully; it is usually ready when the edges begin to brown. Overbaking can make the gingerbread pieces brittle and difficult to work with. Underbaking may make the pieces too soft.
TIP: Model Behavior
“If you are building a big gingerbread house, making a model out of cardboard is always a good idea so that you can troubleshoot possible problems before you actually build the real thing. This also gives you a pattern to use to make sure that pieces fit together.” -Michelle Zerangue
Zerangue said the icing acts as glue for the gingerbread pieces and is good for piping on decorative designs. “The biggest secret to a successful gingerbread house is a good, stiff royal icing and a whole lot of patience,” she said.
Rice Krispies Treats
She likes to use them as the ground and base for items that need to be formed or carved.
“We also use lots of different types of candy as decoration and building materials as well as cereals, beans, sugars and other types of dry foods for textures,” Zerangue said.
She likes to use peppermints that have been crushed and melted. She uses the melted candies for windowpanes.
“This is one of my favorite things to work with and is so versatile,” she said. “It is great because you can build practically anything at all with it. Over the years, it has become a big part of what we use instead of decorating with candy.”
Visit the Ford Center’s Gingerbread Village December 3-19.
The Gingerbread Village is free and open to the public, but visitors are encouraged to bring nonperishable food items that will be donated to the Oxford Food Pantry and the Ole Miss Food Bank. The village is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to noon, with additional evening and weekend hours planned. For more information, call 662-915-2787 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Categories: Current Features