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Volume XVII, Issue 49 ~ December 3 - December 9, 2009

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Baking Her Dreams

This 10-year veteran has learned through hard knocks and
flimsy gingerbread how to build a champion house

story and photos by Diana Beechener

Ami Hazell must stay still, indeed motionless, for 60 seconds, until the icing gets tacky. Her steady hand and globs of royal icing are all that keep the ice cream cone chimney from toppling down the already rebuilt roof, checker-boarded in chewing gum shingles.

The idea is solid, but the construction is not. The icing-crusted cone veers to the ground minutes after Hazell releases it.

“A lot of this is trial and error,” Hazell says as she catches the slipping cone. “If I don’t like it, I just take it off.”

A Montessori teacher who moonlights as a gingerbread baker, Hazell is putting the finishing touches on a Hansel-and-Gretel-themed gingerbread house.

The fairytale home marks Hazell’s 10th anniversary as a competitive baker. She has never missed submitting a cake to the annual gingerbread contest at Darnall’s Chance House and Museum in Upper Marlboro.

Competitive construction takes the teacher six weekends of intensive baking, but designing with royal icing and securing gingerbread walls isn’t work to Hazell, who lives in Southern Anne Arundel County. It’s a creative challenge.

“I enjoy the process most, from thinking of stuff in my head to figuring out how to make it in gingerbread,” she says.

This year, as Darnall’s Chance celebrates a decade of delicious competition, Hazell celebrates four decades of baking traditions and reflects on her evolution as a gingerbread designer.

Sweet Foundations

In a season filled with caroling, Santa visits and televised Christmas specials, what’s a Jewish family to do on Christmas Eve?

Bake gingerbread, of course.

To keep her family from feeling left out of Christian holiday festivities, Ami Hazell’s mother invented a sweet December 24th tradition: Building gingerbread houses with her daughters.

“My mother, my sisters and I always did a gingerbread house on Christmas Eve because we had nothing to do,” recalls Hazell “It was holiday-ish but not religious.”

The girls worked together to create a holiday home, festooning fresh gingerbread with gumdrops, icing and candy canes. The simple holiday treat grew more elaborate as the years passed.

“I always had to hold the candy cane on the corner,” says Hazell of her yearly duties. “My sister one year made the glass windows out of sugar. We would make little cutouts for the gingerbread men.”

Until the first of January, the decorative domicile was ornamental. Then the house became a sweet treat to start off the New Year.

The tradition was lost after the nest emptied. Hazell reports that she is the last gingerbread baker in her family. She’d given up the tradition until 1999, when her baking spirit reawakened.

“I saw an ad for the gingerbread competition,” Hazell recalls. “I thought what the hey, I know how to make a gingerbread house.”

Hazell entered Darnall’s Chance’s first year of gingerbread competition and began her 10-year quest for confectionary supremacy.

Building a Dream

Hazell may have known the fundamentals, but she had a lot to learn about competitive gingerbread baking.

Like a good teacher, she did her homework. To improve her decorating and baking techniques, she enrolled in Wilton Cake classes, offered at crafts stores to teach home bakers how to create structures out of cake and decorative icing. She learned to sculpt figures using pastillage, a sugar paste, and to create a cardboard draft house for a pattern.

She has also learned to plan ahead. Her crafting room is filled with ideas for houses, gingerbread photos and fairytale illustrations.

Hazell’s decade of competitive experience has taught her three important lessons.

Ami Hazell’s first-place gingerbread house from last year, left, and a detail of this year’s front door.

Lesson 1: Gingerbread houses have to look good, not taste good.

When she first started competing, Hazell used her mother’s gingerbread recipe as her guide. The results were delicious but flimsy. The bread’s soft dough was susceptible to humidity, causing construction calamity.

“I stopped using leavening after the first two years,” Hazell says. “I was having problems having the roof caving in.” Non-leavened gingerbread is a sturdier building material.

“It makes the gingerbread very hard,” explains Hazell. “So they’re not really eating houses anymore.”

Lesson 2: Waste not, want not.

Hazell learned that saving excess building materials from year to year cuts costs and fuels her creativity.

“Since we’re not eating it, I can keep stuff like crackers in my basement,” Hazell says. “It doesn’t matter if the crackers I use are stale.”

A basement filled with old candies, crackers and sprinkles dramatically reduces the costs of the labor-intensive build. Hazell estimates that each gingerbread house costs $20 to $30 to create.

She even accepts donations.

“People give me things now,” she says, “like stale cookies and stale crackers.” Before hoarding your leftover holiday candy for creative endeavors, consider that not all things preserve well. Candy canes, Hazell claims, go mushy after a few months.

The only downside with Hazell’s recycling is supply.

“Sometimes you get into a fix. This year I was using old chocolate Cowtales for beams, but I found out they only made the caramel ones now. I was short a couple, so I just said oh well. You have to be very flexible sometimes,” she says.

Lesson 3: Ask the experts.

For advice on candy, Hazell goes to her best resource: her students.

“I ask my kids about new candy, and they give me all sorts of advice,” she says. “They always know what to get, where to get it and what’s the newest stuff out there.”

Since every aspect of the house — except the light feature — must be edible, Hazell is constantly looking for innovations. This year, her German-inspired house features toast shingling, matzo bread-lined walls and a checked roof made of hand-cut white and red gum.

Her last task is fitting the ice cream cone chimney to the house, a feat that requires her to cover her intricate interiors with a towel to avoid a royal icing mishap.

Icing on the House

Once the last gumdrop is secured with royal icing, the real challenge begins. Hazell must move her house from her crafting room to her Jeep.

“I put down the back seat and sit with it to make sure it doesn’t slide,” she says. “I tell my husband to drive very slowly. It’s not the best day for him. There’s a lot of pressure.”

Once at Darnall’s Chance, Hazell carefully installs her house and sizes up her competition.

“I really enjoy seeing everybody else’s gingerbread houses and what they’ve done,” Hazell says. “It’s exciting if I win, of course. But I like to compete.”

Over 10 years, she’s gained a pretty good idea of what the judges are looking for.

“Creativity and difficulty,” she says. “They’re interested in how you use your materials and the overall appearance.”

Hazell’s entry in last year’s competition won her a first-place ribbon.

“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve gotten two or three first places and honorable mentions. I’ve gotten the viewer’s choice award once. That’s exciting,” Hazell says. “Somehow I usually get a ribbon, but it’s not always first place.”

Even as she re-ices her cone for a second attempt at the ice cream chimney, Hazell is planning her baking schedule for next year.

“I think that I might be working in the summer next year, as opposed to the fall,” says Hazell, who feels that six weeks of baking may not be enough.

“It’s a little difficult to get the laundry done sometimes,” she says. “But I’ll keep competing.”

See the competition thru Dec. 13, when winners in categories from children to seasoned architects are rewarded. Come early to vote for your favorite mansion, pueblo or cottage of sweets at the 10th Viewers’ Choice Awards. noon-5pm Th-Su @ Darnall’s Chance House Museum, 14800 Gov. Oden Bowie Dr., Upper Marlboro. $1: 301-952-8010;

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