Diminutive gingerbread houses, their doorways framed with peppermint canes and cinnamon candies dotting their gabled roofs, can bring out the competitor in some people.
“I plan to win,” said Marissa Schneider (CAS’15), sitting at a table loaded with marshmallows, M&Ms, gummy bears, and a pastry bag of white icing, the tools provided for Boston University’s second annual gingerbread-house-making contest. “I’ve asked two friends who are engineering students to be on my team. They’ll know how to put it together.”
Schneider and her team were one of five competing in last week’s contest, held in the George Sherman Union Faculty Dining Room. The contest is the brainchild of the student club CAKE (Culinary Arts and Kitchen Entertainment), started by Lyndsay Maggin (SMG’11) as a way to meet people after transferring to BU from the University of Colorado. The club, which boasts 980 members, organizes all kinds of culinary competitions—from cake decorating to eating contests.
The teams of four to five members had just 30 minutes to construct and decorate houses made of planks of dough and icing. Each team was given a gingerbread house kit with sturdy prebaked walls and a roof and a pastry bag full of extra-sticky icing, as well as candy decorations and a cardboard base. The end result would be judged on creativity and construction.
“It has to be standing,” Maggin told the assembled teams. “We had problems with that last year.”
The trick, explained Maggin, who has worked as a pastry chef, is to use plenty of icing to glue the walls together. Then the walls have to be held in place for at least 30 seconds. Many of last year’s competitors built their cookie abodes too quickly. Three of the five houses imploded, crushing marshmallow snowmen and gumdrop bushes.
Actually, the instructions that come with most gingerbread house kits call for letting the icing dry for an hour or two before decorating. So the bar was set high for these mostly female, mostly freshman students. But as they slid off their backpacks just shy of the 5:30 p.m. start time, no nerves were evident, although not one team had planned their design in advance, as Maggin had suggested, and the last time most had built a gingerbread house was at their mother’s side.
“I’m not worried,” said Jason Stack (ENG’15), one of Schneider’s engineering student recruits.
At 5:30 sharp, Maggin called, “Start,” and the rustle of plastic wrap being peeled from the gingerbread walls and roofs filled the room. Stack carefully squirted a straight line of icing across the cardboard base. Then he and fellow engineering student William Boag (ENG’15) debated the best angle to join the first two walls. They decided to redo the line of icing on the cardboard to make it straighter, watched nervously by Schneider and the two other female teammates.
Around them at other tables, gingerbread houses rose quickly, especially at a table of freshmen from Warren Towers calling themselves the Holiday Hooligans. Working quietly, they had attached the roof and begun landscaping with trees made of green M&Ms just 10 minutes into the competition. Other teams had carefully moved their fourth wall in place with icing-covered fingers. Schneider, checking the clock, sprang into action.
“Enough frosting!” she commanded. “I’m demoting you,” she told Stack, grabbing the icing bag.
As she quickly squirted away, around her other teams gingerly dropped roofs into place and furiously applied candy decorations. Then came a wave of groans and exclamations of “Oh no!” as roofs slipped off or walls caved in. Even the Hooligans ran into trouble. The icing in their pastry bag blew out the back, dumping the sticky innards all over the cardboard base. The same happened at another table, only the icing exploded over the table, forcing team members to apply the pool of sticky confection with their fingers.
When the clock struck 6 p.m., miraculously all the houses were standing. One was missing half of its roof. Another was bolstered with marshmallow pyramids. The team of four judges, including Maggin and a few spectators recruited at the GSU, quickly named the Hooligans’ sturdy house the winning entry. Their design was an almost suburban version of a gingerbread house, with its sprawling snow-covered yard and front path paved with cereal squares. The team had turned the icing explosion into a skating rink.
Around the room, the losers quickly ripped their houses apart and tried to eat them, although the thick gingerbread was as tough as drywall.
“We were robbed,” Stack said as he gnawed on an icing-slicked wall.
As for the Hooligans, they won in the nick of time. As the team members rooted through their winners’ gift bags, their house collapsed.
Find out how to make your own gingerbread house here.
See how the White House pastry staff does it in this video.