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Elaine Owens Smith was strolling down the aisle at Kroger 15 years ago when she spotted a gingerbread house kit. “This looks like fun,” she thought, impulsively tossing the item into her cart.

A few weeks later, Smith decided to complete the project. It went so well, the following year she made a gingerbread house with her niece Megan Owens, then just 6 years old. Both aunt and niece had such fun that even before they finished the first house together, they decided to make another the following year. As the years passed, making a gingerbread structure together became a holiday tradition.

Along the way, they discovered a secret: making a gingerbread house isn’t really about baking the gingerbread or decorating it or even about munching on the tasty building materials. Making a gingerbread house is about making memories.

Today, Smith not only continues to build her annual gingerbread structure with Megan, she also helps other families make their own memories by teaching classes about the basics of gingerbread houses. On this wintry Saturday, 12 people from the Bowling Green area are discovering that secret for themselves as they gather around a table heaped with confections to decorate their first gingerbread house.

“We have just created a family tradition,” Nancy Davis says across the table to her daughter, Monica McCoy, and McCoy’s son Connor. Davis’ other daughter, Danielle Davis, of Morgantown and her son Mackinly Ausbrooks are seated next to them. A few minutes later, Connor’s spontaneous shout of “This is awesome. I just love it!” delights the entire room. Everyone laughs at the simple, yet profound, statement of what they are experiencing.

Davis and her daughters had been concerned that the youngest generation wouldn’t have the attention span or patience for the four-hour class, but the young boys are engaged throughout the process.

The moms are happy as well. “No one has to bake,” notes Monica McCoy of Alvaton. “No one has to clean house. We just get to come and have fun.”

Connor cuts in. “This is going to be great,” he says, assessing his house. The colorful creation sports an eclectic mix of candies, as exuberant as its architect. When asked how he would describe his house, Connor replies, “It looks like the tastiest.”

“We have used the kits for about four years,” says Terry Johnson, “but this has inspired me. Next year we are going to make our own gingerbread.” Their house has a Necco candy roof worthy of the finest roofing company. The colors alternate, and each “shingle” overlaps the last. The experienced decorators offer others a few tips.

“You have to be quick,” says Kari Bertram, Johnson’s niece. “If you’re not, the icing gets hard.”

“You have to have patience, too, and creativity,” adds Johnson.

It’s the creativity that intrigues Alecia Ward and her grandmother, Beverly Ward.

“Alecia is interested in creative things,” says her grandmother. “Last year, she wanted a cake decorating kit for Christmas–and she got one.”

Last year, Alecia said she wanted to build a lighthouse the next time. The best part? “Making a fun mess,” she says. Sneaking tastes of the candy comes in a close second.

At the other end of the table, Megan Owens is remembering her own fun with her aunt and how similar her experience was.

“It was really fun doing something together,” Owens recalls. “When I was really young, I was consumed with the candy. The houses looked like a Griswold house (after the movie Christmas Vacation). As I got older, I used less candy and liked the more sophisticated designs.”

One year, Owens and Smith created a church, complete with steeple and stained-glass windows (melted Lifesavers). It remains Megan’s favorite creation, although it imploded three nights after its creation. Megan was sorely disappointed, and even falsely accused her mom of destroying their creation. Rain turned out to be the culprit. Gingerbread does not harden properly if made while it is raining. Lesson learned.

There have been other lessons as well, according to Owens. Patience is a big one. “We watch movies and do our hair while the icing sets up,” she says.

Family values is another.

“Lanie (Megan’s nickname for Elaine) has always been like a second mom to me,” she says. “I always looked forward to spending time with her. Making the gingerbread houses brought us even closer than we already were.”

Smith would add a third lesson: the impossibility of perfection. Regardless of how simple or how sophisticated the structure you build, Smith cautions that perfection in gingerbread houses, like in the rest of life, is not attainable.

“In all the years I have been making gingerbread houses, I have never made a perfect house,” she says. “That’s just part of the character. But I love this because there are no limits. You can do anything your imagination can create.”



POPULAR DECORATOR’S TIPS FOR MAKING GINGERBREAD HOUSES

You’ll want to invest in a cake decorator’s tip set. There are some inexpensive ones as well as more expensive professional sets.

Tips #1, #2, and #3 are great for small dots, smooth straight lines, and writing. Tip #1 is very tiny and it takes a lot of pressure to squeeze the icing out of the bag.

Tips #4 to #12 are plain tips used for straight lines. Tip #10 is great for the walls and attaching the gingerbread to the board.

Tips #13 to #22 and #32 are open star tips. They are used to make star or flower shapes and are great for roofs, borders, wreaths, window frames, etc. Tips #23 to #35 (except #32) are closed star tips. They are great for petals.

Leaf tips #65 to #70 produce small leaves. Tips #71 to #75 produce large leaves, and tips #112 to #115 produce extra-large leaves.

The wreath tip #235 is great for mak-ing little green wreaths. Add a bow and small red dots with tips #1, #2, or #3.

For more information on gingerbread kits, frosting, and decorator’s tips, go to www.wilton.com and type in �gingerbread� in the search box.



GINGERBREAD RECIPE

6-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1-1/2 teaspoons ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups light corn syrup (or dark if you want darker gingerbread)
1-1/4 cups packed light brown sugar (or dark if you want darker gingerbread)
1 cup margarine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

Combine corn syrup, brown sugar, and margarine in a 2-quart saucepan. Stir constantly over medium heat until margarine is melted.

Stir the liquid into the flour mixture. Mix well either using a heavy-duty mixer or by hand to mix as dough becomes stiff.

Refrigerate dough until it is easy to work with (30 minutes to 1 hour). It will be a little sticky when you first make it.

Roll the dough according to pattern.

Bake from 12 to 20 minutes depending on thickness of gingerbread or until golden brown.

Royal Icing

1 lb. powdered sugar
3 egg whites at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Sift the entire pound of sugar to remove all lumps. Place egg whites in mixer bowl. Add sugar and cream of tartar to whites while stirring. When all the sugar is incorporated, turn mixer on high and beat mixture until thick and very white. Mixture will hold a peak. This should take 5 to 7 minutes.

Tips:

* When not using icing, place a damp towel or damp paper towel over the bowl to keep it from setting up. You can also place it in an airtight bowl with lid.

* You do not need to refrigerate icing.

* Use paste food coloring to color icing; it usually takes just a small amount. Use a toothpick to get coloring out of bottle and add a little at a time until you have the desired color.

* This icing becomes very hard when it dries.



USEFUL ITEMS FOR GINGERBREAD HOUSES

* cake decorating bags

* icing bag couplers and decorator tips

* cooling racks

* heavy-duty stand mixer

* mixing bowls

* small bowls for mixing color icing

* rolling pin (wood is okay, marble is best)

* parchment paper

* paste colors for coloring icing

* shiny, heavy-duty, level aluminum pans (dark pans tend to absorb too much heat and can over-brown the gingerbread)

* spatulas

* toothpicks

* pizza cutter

* X-acto knife or sharp knife

* yard sticks, rulers

* cookie cutters

* pencil

* scissors



KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: GINGERBREAD TIPS FROM ELAINE SMITH

For more tips on making gingerbread houses from Elaine Smith, go to gingerbread.

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