Not long after Christmas 2017 had passed, Linda Saunders already was thinking about Christmas 2018 and what kind of gingerbread house she would make for the annual contest sponsored by B&J Printing in Downtown Washington.
She had entered and won the contest five times before, and each year she looked for a new way to challenge herself.
For last year’s entry, Saunders created a castle that featured four filigree-style spires made entirely of icing and nothing else to hold them up. In other years, she had created detailed replicas of historic homes and buildings around Washington.
This year, Saunders found her inspiration in an unexpected location — Mexico City. She was there in March for a mission trip and on a visit to a local candy store, she spotted a package of thin, brightly colored wafer-like candies.
They looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, she thought, and her imagination took it from there.
“I had thought of Seuss already and then when I saw that candy, I knew,” she said.
Saunders’ Seuss-inspired gingerbread house set is a complete departure from all of her previous entries. The color alone makes it stand out. So too does the whimsy of the curved walls and leaning pine trees.
“I had to do that for Dr. Seuss,” said Saunders. “That was my challenge for this year — making curved walls and completely covering it in color, which I’ve never done before.”
She also re-created several Seuss characters, including The Grinch, Thing One, Thing Two and the Cat in the Hat. Each of them is made with fondant icing, which she had never worked with before either, their faces drawn on using an edible ink marker.
(One of the rules of the contest is that everything has to be edible.)
Before she began designing and building her Seuss houses, Saunders studied his artwork to get ideas.
“Some of his (houses) are so crazy, like on the cartoon side, that you could never really make them,” she said. “There are a lot of staircases going to nowhere. I actually made a bunch of tiny squares of gingerbread to make into steps, but when I was finished, I just couldn’t get them to work.”
The trees, of course, are a hallmark of Seuss stories, and the arched entryway is similar to the one in the Whoville village featured in “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.”
It took Saunders 30 hours to complete her Seuss houses. Last year she had more than 40 hours invested in the castle.
Each year, she works on the house a little bit each night for several weeks.
“It’s completely overwhelming otherwise,” said Saunders.
“Sometimes you can only do so much work on them at one time, because you have to wait for things to dry. I usually decorate the sides before I put them together, so that has to dry before I do that,” she said.
“When it’s all together, then I do the edging. If you just saw the raw edges, you wouldn’t think it fit together really well, but you can hide that with the decorations.”
Poster Board Pattern Pieces
Saunders’ building process begins with making a model first using poster board. Once she has the model just how she likes it, those poster board pieces become her pattern.
“I bake the gingerbread all in one night, because it needs to sit and get hard,” said Saunders.
She cuts the dough into the shapes she needs before they bake, although she cuts holes for the windows and doors soon after it comes out of the oven when the dough is still a little soft. The dough gets too hard too fast for her to do that for the walls and roof, she said.
“Although this year, some of my pieces were curved, so I baked them flat and then laid them over something so they would curve,” said Saunders. “You can’t bake it too long when you do that, because you want it to be a little soft, but then when you come back to put it together, sometimes a piece will be too soft, so you put it back in the oven to try to get it hard enough.”
Her family helps by offering suggestions on what candy to use where.
“The sidewalks, I found that (candy) at a Marshall’s store in Philadelphia. Those colors looked Seussish,” she said, noting it was her son’s idea to make footpaths with them.
Saunders uses royal icing to hold her houses together, and she has learned over the years that adding meringue powder works best if you want the icing to hold up for a long time.
“That was the trouble with some of my houses. The gingerbread would hold up, but by the time I brought them home, the icing was starting to disintegrate,” said Saunders. “But last year, it didn’t. I’m hoping that’s the same this year.”
In her gingerbread dough, Saunders uses rye flour to make it structurally strong and adds extra spices so it will smell good. The result last year was a gingerbread house that lasted so long, Saunders had to actually tear it apart just a couple of months ago to begin building her new house, since she uses the same display board each year.
That’s the longest one of her houses has lasted, said Saunders, noting she literally had to scrape icing off of the board.
For the contest, the gingerbread houses have to be submitted by mid-November so they can be displayed in the window during the annual Christmas parade in Downtown Washington and through mid-December.
After that, Saunders brings her gingerbread house home and puts it on display on a side table in her dining room for as long as it lasts.
The older it gets, the harder it gets, she said, but that never stops kids from saying they want to break off a piece or two to eat. Trying that, however, might break off a part of their tooth.
Love Since Childhood
Saunders interest in gingerbread houses goes back to her childhood. She was always drawn to a set of gingerbread house ornaments on the family Christmas tree.
She began making simple square gingerbread houses on her own, and as she got older gradually took on more complex designs. She used to have a special gingerbread mold that she would use to bake the pieces.
“When I look back at those houses now, they don’t look that good to me,” said Saunders, who has a degree in drafting.
Four Historic Buildings and a Castle
Back in 2011 when she entered the B&J contest for the first time, Saunders admits she was mainly just eyeing the prize money as a way to help save for a vacation. Now she enters entirely for the fun of it and says even if there were no contest, she would likely make a new gingerbread house each year.
“I like to do things with my hands that I can see the result of,” said Saunders, noting she also likes to do hand-quilting. “I know people think you have to be crazy to even want to do that. They are both very tedious and time-consuming.”
The contest includes four age categories (6-8, 9-12, 13-17 and 18 and older), and then there is a category for all ages to create a replica of a Downtown building.
For the 2011 contest, Saunders re-created the Waterworks building on Front Street in Downtown Washington. In 2013, she re-created one of Washington’s historic firehouses. In 2015, she turned her attention to the Armistead home on Second Street, and in 2016 to the Schneider home on Elm Street.
To be as accurate and detailed as possible in her re-creation, Saunders took photos of the buildings/houses to use as reference. She strives to make them accurate all the way around, not just on the front side.
Last year, Saunders decided to forgo the historic replica category for the first time and make her own creation. The result was a blue castle that just might be her favorite of all her creations.
In addition to the challenge of making the icing spires, there also was a challenge in creating round towers.
Looking back, Saunders said of all six houses she has made for the contest, the Schneider house may have been the most difficult because of a four-sided turret on top.
“I couldn’t hold all four sides at one time, and I couldn’t find the right things to hold it up,” she said, noting the roof is usually always one of the more tricky parts of building a gingerbread house, mainly because you need something to hold things in place as they dry.
“I start dragging out everything I can think of looking for the right size,” she said.
Saunders said her Seuss houses this year actually weren’t that hard to build, compared to some of her previous houses.
“If you get your icing right, it’s pretty easy to slap it together and they will hold,” she said. “This year, my icing was good enough that the only thing I had to prop up were the trees, because they were fondant. That takes a couple of days to get hard.”
Looking ahead to next year, Saunders didn’t give any hints at what type of gingerbread house she will create. There are only a couple of historic buildings around town that she is tempted to do — Frank and Kelly Wood’s house on Main Street is one, and the V.F.W. building on Jefferson is another.
“I don’t think anyone has ever done that, but it would be really difficult,” said Saunders.