For several years I’ve mused about making a gingerbread project around Christmas. Each year I watch specials on the Food Network about gingerbread competitions, and I wonder if I could do that. The one project in the back of my mind is a mad scientist’s lab or an astronomers observatory – how cool would those be in gingerbread?
This year, though, was my year to jump in head first to the world of gingerbread. Why this year? Because the National Zoo in DC was holding a contest, Gin-GRR-bread Habitat Contest, to make a gingerbread habitat for the lions, including the 7 new cubs. The prize? A behind-the-scenes tour to meet the cubs! So the prospect of seeing the little guys (or girls) up close was my reason for getting into gingerbread this year. (I fear that I may be addicted now, but we’ll see if that holds up next year.)
This post is to document my process for anyone else who is thinking about getting into gingerbread and wondering how hard it is. The short answer is that it’s not that hard, but it takes a lot of planning if you want to do something overly detailed. I admit that I may be a bit of an overachiever, especially for my first project.
I started by making a model of my creation out of cardstock. This is crucial, but I forgot to take pictures of my model, and it is now all crunched up in my home office. The model should be the exact size that you want your project, and tape or glue it together to see where your seams will be. This will make sure that your measurements are correct and that the structure will stand. It will also make sure that you have all the pieces that you need to make whatever structure you’ve designed. (Of course, there are patterns online, so you could skip this step if you weren’t making an original design, like I was.)
The next step was to bake my gingerbread. I found this recipe in a quick websearch follow all of their directions about cutting the pieces, baking, and trimming baked pieces. (Trimming baked pieces is important for structural integrity, though royal icing can cover a lot of flaws if necessary.)
I painted a few details on my gingerbread pieces before baking – the paint was gel-based food coloring.
With my gingerbread pieces made, I needed to cover my wooden base with something edible (because of the rules of the contest &150; if you’re doing this for fun, no need to be quite as complete). I decided on crisped rice bars (also know as “Rice Crispie Bars”, but I didn’t use the name-brand cereal, so we’ll go with “crisped rice”). I looked around on the internet to see what recipe was recommended for crisped rice bars when using them for sculpting rather than eating. The two things I picked up were: eliminate the butter and crush up part of the crisped rice cereal. So the recipe I used was: 10-ounce bag of mini marshmallows and 6 cups crisped rice cereal (before crushing any). Once the cereal was measured, I crushed up a few handfuls of it until it measured 4.5-5 cups. Melt the marshmallows and then stir in the cereal. The crushing makes the end product a bit more dense, which is good for sculpting.
I covered my wooden base with the crispie treats. I also wanted to make a moat for my habitat, which I thought I’d do with poured sugar or icing, so while it was still relatively warm, I cut a trench into the crispie-treat-base. You can kind of see it in the picture below.
Next up, I needed windows for part of my creation (the idea was to have a little “lookout” where visitors could feel like they were part of the lion pride…the bottom floor of the lookout was within the lion enclosure and had really big windows). I found a few ideas on the web for gingerbread house windows, many of which were not see-through. I needed see-through windows, since I wanted to put a few visitors in the lookout, looking out on the lions. The best idea for see-through windows was to use hard candy. This could be done using pre-made hard candy, placing an opened piece in a window hole, then baking it in the oven until the candy melts. However, I couldn’t think of any hard candy that would have melted clear, so I made my own. (UltimateGingerbread.com has a page of window ideas, including the hard candy recipe I used.)
After making the hard candy, I poured my windows (I put them on a silicone baking mat, which made them very easy to remove when they were hardened and cooled later). Then I quickly colored the rest with some blue gel food coloring, and poured it in my moat-trench to make water.
With my base ready, I could start assembling my habitat. I used the recipe for royal icing on the same webpage where I got the gingerbread recipe. I noticed that a few of my larger gingerbread pieces were a little unstable (I was afraid they would break), so I started by strengthening them a little with graham crackers.
Then started assembling the structure, starting with the inner walls (the ones next to the moat), then the outer walls, keeping it close enough that my walkway would work. When I put out the final walls, I discovered that I had cut them a little short, so that the area under the walkway would have been visible. I didn’t feel like baking more gingerbread, so I improvised with a stack of pretzels (visible in the picture below)…in the end, it really fit in with the overall look of the habitat, so I was happy with how it looked.
Then the lookout structure went up. I spaced it away from the left wall using the gingerbread piece that will be used as a roof for the lion’s shelter.
Before finishing the structure, I wanted to make my people figures. This was because I wanted to have a couple in the bottom of the lookout, looking out on the lions. So I made up some gumpaste, using a mix from JoAnn’s. I colored it using gel food coloring. From it, I made all 7 lion cubs, 2 adult lions (the moms), and a few people.
I also needed a staircase for the lookout before attaching the top. I did this using a rod pretzel and cut-up pieces of Trident gum attached with toothpicks. I actually added a little royal icing to keep the gum on the pretzel a little better.
Then I put in the staircase, and placed the people in the bottom of the lookout (also deciding on the placement of the lions). Then I put the main floor on the lookout, along with railings for the staircase.
Next came doing something with the ground. I had a large “rock” made from crispie rice treats that I covered in grey-colored royal icing. Then started on the grass…I originally thought I’d use the grass-tip on the icing bag, but found that the royal icing I made wasn’t stiff enough to do it right. So, I started with a layer of green royal icing (because I’d already started trying to pipe the grass in, so I just iced the bottom so it would all be even). In the end I used coconut colored with green and a little yellow coloring.
After adding the lions,
Then…the tree. Ahh, the tree. It looked very cool when I was done with it. Plan A had been to use bendy straws covered with sculpting crisped rice treats, but that failed utterly. Instead, I used a few rod pretzels connected with royal icing and toothpicks. My downfall was putting the tree on before delivering it to the judging site…or in using pretzels instead of a dowel screwed into the base and tightly secured…but more about that later. I attached it to the base, using a Nilla Wafer cookie to help stabilize it (oh how naive I am). For the leaves, I used corn flakes with green-colored royal icing mixed in. (I added more after the picture below was taken.)
Next, I finished the lookout, complete with a windows, railings and a roof.
Finally I added the finishing touches – the people, railings, benches, and some decoration along the base of the design.
I’ll write another post taking a tour of the completed habitat…here I just want to close with saying that the tree, unfortunately, didn’t make it the judging of the contest. First it toppled as I was carrying it to the car, so I replaced it when I dropped off my entry. But then, it toppled again less than a week later on display at the zoo. Boo.
One thing I learned was that I really need to trust my gut instincts. I had thought about waiting until we got to the zoo to attach my tree in the first place….that would have been a grand idea. Once the tree broke the first time getting into the car, I thought I should maybe not put it back on…that might have been a good idea, too, since the second time the tree toppled, it did quite a bit of damage, which I couldn’t fix. Even before I constructed my entry, I had considered using a dowel for the tree…that probably would have been the best idea.
Still, a very fun project, and I’ll certainly enter again if they have another contest next year.