Gingerbread dreams: National competition at the Grove Park Inn spreads holiday cheer

SWEET SUCCESS: Linda Carney of Asheville won third prize in this year's National Gingerbread House Competition with "The Bakers." Carney, who has entered the contest nine times, says she spent about 270 hours putting this creation together. Photo by Leslie Boyd

Linda Carney got a late start on her gingerbread creation this year: An illness kept her from beginning until September. Nonetheless, the Asheville resident managed to pull off a third-place finish in the 24th annual National Gingerbread House Competition at The Omni Grove Park Inn.

Carney’s entry, “The Bakers,” features a gingerbread couple (Ginger and Bread) standing behind a house made of the same material. Of the nine creations she’s entered over the years, this was the first one that included an actual gingerbread house.

Usually, says Carney, she doesn’t sketch her ideas before going to work: “I just think it and start baking.”

Apparently, that approach works just fine: This is the third time she’s placed in the top three (she had another third-place finish in 2010 and came in second in 2012). This year’s entry took about 270 hours to complete, she reports. After the results were announced, chef Geoff Blount, one of the competition’s nine judges, told Carney he was charmed by the big gingerbread people looking at a gingerbread house.

Getting it right

Beatriz Muller, the first-place winner in the adult category, started working on “Dream House” back in April. Muller, a cake artist from Innisfil, Ontario, had been thinking of entering for several years, but this was the first time she actually took the plunge. Creating her entry took about 340 hours, and unlike Carney, she did prepare diagrams and plans.

Aidan Fuentes of Canton with his entry, "Blue Ring Octopus."
Aidan Fuentes of Canton with his entry, “Blue Ring Octopus.”

The brown Victorian house with white piping is surrounded by a white “flagstone” patio. The intricate, lacy white icing could well be what landed her the top spot, she says. When a young admirer of the piece asked for advice about piping, Muller said it all comes down to hours and hours of practice: “It’s the only way to get it right.”

Devil’s in the details

The competition drew 150 entries in four categories: child (ages 5-8), youth (9-12), teen (13-17) and adult (18 and older). In each category, 10 finalists were named, with the top three winning cash and other prizes. Prizes ranged from $50 (for third place in the child category) to the top adult prize: $5,000 plus a two-night stay for four at the Omni Grove Park Inn (dinners, breakfasts and other services included), plus a pastry-making class at the Nicholas Lodge school outside Atlanta.

Entries were judged on overall appearance, originality and creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency of theme. The base could be no bigger than 24 by 24 inches, and the height could not exceed 24 inches. Everything in the entry, except the base, had to be made of something edible.

But that doesn’t mean you had to be able to eat it. To bear the weight of the finished sculptures, gingerbread must be baked until it’s extra hard. Royal icing, the “glue” that holds it all together, hardens to the consistency of cement. Dried marshmallows turn into hard little nodules.

As the top 10 finalists in each category were announced, those entries were moved from the large tables in the center of the room to the winners’ tables near the podium, and the bakers collected their ribbons and stood proudly behind their creations.

Youthful contenders

Aidan Fuentes of Canton has entered the youth competition four straight times — and landed in the top 10 every time. This year, he cooked up Oscar, a yellow octopus with polka dots. He’s already thinking about next year’s entry: a Bengal tiger that he’ll name later.

Aidan decided to enter his first competition after his sister won first prize in the children’s category four years ago. “She won $100,” he said, squirming in his chair. “I thought, I can do that, too.”

In the teen category, four youths from Bettina Hoeninger’s German class at Courtland High School in Spotsylvania, Va., took home first prize. Hoeninger had never made a gingerbread house when, several years ago, the mother of a student asked her to help her students make one. That request turned into an annual project. “I’m just the team leader,” she says, sweeping her arm toward her students. “They do the work.”

One of those students, Sophie Holmes, says the most distressing part of the entire monthslong process was the ride to Asheville with their entry, “Once Upon A Time,” in the back of the car. One good bump, and it would all have been for nothing, she says.

Nerve-wracking

Carney, however, says that’s probably true for everyone who enters the competition, noting, “Even my 13-mile ride is nerve-wracking.”

But perhaps the best part of the whole thing, she continues, is the connections she’s made over the years. Friends cheered when she was announced as a top-10 finalist, and again when she was awarded third place.

“We’ve formed a group on Facebook where we offer each other support and advice and tips; we all support each other,” she explains. Gingerfriends is a closed group, but administrators can add people to it.

And if contestants find the competition challenging, judging the entries isn’t easy either, says Tina Haldeman, the inn’s executive pastry chef. “People spend so much time and energy,” she explains. “But we have to look at details like color coordination, piping, textures. We have to look at the use of gingerbread: 75 percent of each entry has to be made of gingerbread.”

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