December 5, 2012 8:57:03 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
There was plenty of construction going on in Starkville Sunday afternoon, but there was nary a nail gun or sawhorse in sight. Instead, this project required gumdrops, candy canes and chocolate kisses. And, oh yes, imagination.
Under the guidance of Viking Cooking School Chef Instructor Mary Helen Hawkins of Columbus, eight houses "went up" in quick order during a gingerbread house decorating workshop at Thyme, the kitchen and tabletop gift shop opened in March 2011 by Ann Bell and her daughter, Foley Holditch.
"We had such a big time," said Hawkins, who will teach at Mississippi University for Women's Culinary Arts Institute next semester. She will also direct MUW's 2013 summer culinary camp.
"I absolutely love decorating and love seeing the children get so excited," she continued, referring to the eight participants -- four boys and four girls -- who turned their creativity loose in Thyme's demonstration kitchen.
There's more than one way to go about creating a gingerbread house, of course. Making one from scratch is an involved process that may require several days and, let's be honest, a good dose of patience. For those just starting out, there are pre-fab kits you can pick up at any number of big box stores. It's a good way to begin. (Hawkins recommends getting a kit with metal house -- cookie -- cutters.)
For Sunday's young decorators, Hawkins pre-assembled all the gingerbread houses.
"When making one, you have to be so exact, just like you're building a real house, to make sure your structure measures up," she noted.
Participants were shown how to make Royal icing, which is the glue, or mortar, that holds the house together. (About.com cautions against overwhipping royal icing, or it will crack as it dries and your project may collapse.)
"We showed them different things to enhance the houses and gave them some ideas, but then just let them be creative," Hawkins remarked. Plenty of colorful candies were provided so that everyone could execute her or his personal design. Parents were even allowed a little input from time to time. And while no one was looking, a few memories were made.
"Aside from eating a lot of the inventory, Mary Cameron had such a wonderful time," laughed mom Meredith Martin, who attended with her 4-year-old daughter. "It was a great family experience, and she's so proud of her gingerbread house that we've now got on the kitchen table."
As with almost anything else imaginable, even gingerbread can be taken to extremes. Around the world, annual competitions inspire elaborate creations assembled by teams of professional pastry chefs. Detailed replicas of the famous domes of Russia, of the White House, of Britain's Big Ben, have been designed. The Mohegan Sun casino and resort in Uncasville, Conn., hosts a life-size gingerbread house that's 28-feet high and weighs 20,000 pounds. Several luxury hotels feature intricate large-scale creations during the holidays.
As grand as some of these are, there's still much to be treasured in the simple art, the one we can enjoy on a smaller scale. There's something mighty Christmas about the aroma of gingerbread in the oven, the icing lumpily applied by small hands, the joy of having fun with people you love.
"It's a holiday tradition for us," said Haley Woodward of Starkville. She attended Sunday's workshop with her 4-year-old daughter, Anna Kate.
She recalls baking and decorating homemade gingerbread cookies with her grandmother and wanted to start a gingerbread habit early with her own children.
"I do it with my kids every year," said the mother of two. "When I saw there was going to be a workshop, I thought what a great opportunity to do something as a mother-daughter with Anna Kate."
And, as soon as they got home, Woodward helped her son, 7-year-old John Davis, build a gingerbread house from a kit.
"I have fun, too," she freely admitted.
As the pleased participants left Sunday's two-hour workshop with their finished projects, Chef Hawkins knew it had been a day well-spent.
"I'm all about getting the family together and making memories," she said.
The gingerbread workshop was one in a series of diverse how-to sessions Thyme has hosted throughout the year. To learn more about other classes, follow them on facebook, or call the shop at 402 Lampkin St., Starkville, at 662-323-5979.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.