A gingerbread campus: MUW's front campus has never looked so ... delicious

December 4, 2013 10:08:36 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Advanced baking students at Mississippi University for Women's Culinary Arts Institute have recently added some new skills to their resumes -- like architecture, engineering and construction. That is, if working in gingerbread counts. 


Twelve bakers under the instruction of Chef Shannon Lindell have been busy since September planning a gingerbread replica of a portion of The W's front campus. The finished display will be exhibited Friday night in the Hogarth Student Center's W Room, during the university's Wassail at The W from 8-10 p.m., following Wassail Fest in downtown Columbus. 


On Monday, Lindell and senior culinary arts major Brook Reece surveyed a vast work surface in Shattuck Hall covered with shallow pans. Each pan held baked "pieces" of historic Callaway Hall and the school's signature clock tower. Surrounded by cardboard templates, rulers, fondant, paint brushes and cookie cutters, Reece and Lindell experimented with two of Callaway's walls, testing how they would fit together when assembled Friday. They talked about the gingerbread project, which is so involved it serves as the students' final semester exam. 




Sizing things up 


The endeavor has been approached in phases. Instructor and students had to first come up with a master plan. One of the most important initial tasks was to determine the desired scale. 


"We decided how large the clock tower would be -- 28 inches -- and then did everything else to that scale," said Lindell, a 2001 graduate of the MUW culinary arts program. She returned to teach in 2010. "We had to figure out how many pieces it would all be and how we would put it together." 


Next came testing gingerbread recipes: All dough is not created equal. Structural gingerbread needed to replicate 150-year-old buildings isn't the stuff of yummy gingerbread cookies, even though it's created with edible ingredients. Made without leaveners, structural dough is firm enough to stand up and support roofs and decorations. 


"We made a lot of gingerbread houses and let them sit to see what they would do before we decided on our recipe," explained Lindell, adding that the class has used jigsaws and Dremel power tools on some of the baked sections. "We've used the phrase 'structural integrity' more than we ever dreamed possible," she said. 


The process has been eye-opening. Like many of her classmates, Reece had never made a gingerbread house before, so all the steps, like learning how to determine scale, have been valuable to the culinary arts major from Decatur who wants to work in a bakery after graduation and perhaps some day open her own business. 


"And I was really interested to learn how certain ingredients can really change the properties of gingerbread, how sturdy it is," said senior Melissa Ellis. The Walnut Grove native would like to one day attain Certified Master Chef status from the American Culinary Federation. 




Sugar forest 


Ellis and senior Rachel Rigdon of Quitman spent part of Monday afternoon pulling sugar to make approximately 50 trees to decorate the gingerbread campus. It's a hot process, and timing is everything. 


After bringing isomalt (a sugar substitute) to a temperature of 330 degrees on the stovetop, the gloved bakers poured the green, gel-like liquid onto Silpat -- a silicone rubber mat. They immediately began manipulating the mat to repeatedly fold the hot blob into itself. As moisture evaporated, the translucent gel thickened until the sugar, while still flexible, was just cool enough to handle. Before it could cool to cracking point, Ellis and Rigdon wasted no time shaping and twisting chunks of it into peaks to form whimsical trees that look sweet enough to eat. 




Ready, set, assemble 


Friday is expected to be a marathon of first transporting gingerbread pieces to Hogarth Student Center from Shattuck Hall in covered, rolling carts and then transforming them into a model of the front campus for the holidays. 


"It'll be like a 'Food Network' challenge -- they'll have 12 hours to put it all together," laughed Lindell. The key, she emphasized, will be having each piece correctly numbered and organized.  


The bakers hope the public will stop in Hogarth to view their version of front campus. It's one of many highlights planned at The W Dec. 6, between 8 and 10 p.m. Others include visits with Santa, carolers, carriage rides, tree lighting and cookies, wassail, hot chocolate and coffee for visitors.  


Earlier in the evening, downtown Columbus' Wassail Fest will feature more than 20 merchants competing for votes for best wassail from 5-8 p.m. MUW Culinary Arts Institute Director Chef Erich Ogle's wassail recipe will be served at Rae's Jewelry. Festivities downtown include holiday activities, music, store specials and the lighting of the city Christmas tree at 300 Main St. at 6 p.m.  


"The W and downtown Columbus used to do so many things in partnership; we thought it would be great to make Wassail Fest an even bigger event by extending it to The W campus," said Angela Ferraez, MUW's director of major gifts and special events.  


Editor's note: Should weather necessitate any changes to Wassail Fest, information will be announced in The Dispatch, at cdispatch.com and on our Facebook page as soon as possible. According to Angela Ferraez, Wassail at The W events will take place regardless of weather.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.