CHARLOTTE – Top pastry chefs from across the region have flipped the script on the traditional gingerbread house by creating extravagant works of art that almost look too good to eat.
The far-from-ordinary gingerbread creations will be displayed at Community Matters Cafe and auctioned off until Dec. 14 at the Christmas at the Cafe holiday celebration, which is free and open to the public. There will be a photo booth, cookie decorating, ornament making and s’mores roasting at the event.
All proceeds from the gingerbread silent auction will go toward the Community Matters Cafe Life Skills Program, an extension program of Charlotte Rescue Mission.
After completing the 120-day core recovery program at Charlotte Rescue Mission, graduates have the opportunity to apply for the Life Skills Program offered by Community Matters Cafe. The 120-day extension prepares Charlotte Rescue Mission graduates for getting back into the workplace and teaches them a variety of essential life skills in both a classroom and cafe/restaurant environment.
More than 10 pastry chefs made gingerbread houses for the cause, including Brigitte Oger of Craft Cakes CLT; Laney Jahkel-Parrish of 300 East in Dilworth; Miranda Brown, North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s 2018 Pastry Chef of the Year; Jossie Lukacik of Sweet Spot Studio; Justin Fry of The Club at Longview in Weddington; McKinzie Spence of La Belle Helene; Mary Jayne Wilson of Amelie’s French Bakery; Maris Ochoa of Copain; Hannah Woociker of Barristers at The Esquire Hotel in Gastonia; and Seless Lautzenhiser and Bo Southivorarat of Southminster.
Ashley Anna Tuttle, the executive pastry chef at Community Matters Cafe, came up with the idea. She also participated by making a gingerbread house with her assistant Emily Williams.
“I was just looking for a way to get all the local pastry chefs together and give back,” Tuttle said. “A lot of us are stuck, in a sense, making what we do every day in the kitchens where we work, so this allows a fun time for us to step out of our comfort zones.”
It took Tuttle and Williams about 10 hours to make their two-story Victorian-style gingerbread house, which features a greenhouse and walkway lined with candy canes. Tuttle said they used gelatin sheets for the greenhouse windows and pretzel rods for support throughout the entire house.
“It was interesting with structure and weight and figuring out how it was going to support itself,” she said. “The two stories kind of threw us for a loop.”
The shingles are made of slivered almonds. Tuttle said they toasted and then placed them on the roof one-by-one.
Jahkel-Parrish, pastry chef at 300 East in Dilworth, looked to her childhood for inspiration when making her gingerbread house, which features Snoopy and Woodstock ice skating on a pond in front of Charlie Brown’s house.
“The Charlie Brown Christmas special has been one of my favorite Christmas things that comes on ever since I was a kid,” she said.
The entire design is edible except for the little Charlie Brown tree and the windows of the house, which are made out of sheets of gelatin that Jahkel-Parrish said are crunchy and don’t taste very good.
The trees around the house are made of crispy rice treats and the lake is a sugar substitute called isomalt. Jahkel-Parrish said using isomalt is one of the best ways to create the look of water because as it boils, it stays clear and can take on any color.
“Nothing stays shiny and pretty as isomalt,” she said. “I actually haven’t used it since culinary school.”
Jahkel-Parrish spent about 20 hours on the design, noting that the hardest part was the damp weather outside that prevented the royal icing and many of her structures from setting properly.
“I learned a lot about construction from this whole thing,” she joked. “I feel like I could build a real house now.”
Her favorite part of the entire creation is Snoopy and Woodstock. Jahkel-Parrish said she originally made them out of cookies and was planning to do little silhouettes, but the icing wasn’t setting right. She decided at the last minute to mold the characters out of fondant and gum paste instead.
“I really like how they came out,” she said. “I like Snoopy’s little crooked halfway smile and that Woodstock is kind of being drug behind him.”
Fry can make almost anything out of chocolate, and does so as the executive pastry chef at The Club at Longview in Weddington, but he’s never made a gingerbread house before.
He likes the idea of the traditional house but wanted to stand out amongst the other chefs submitting their creations to Community Matters Cafe, so he made a violin.
“I’m always trying to do something a little different and music is really important to me,” he said.
It took Fry eight hours to make the 28-inch tall violin out of a combination of chocolate and gingerbread. He said the front and back are gingerbread, but the sides, tuning pegs and fingerboard are all chocolate.
The entire instrument is also painted with a thin layer of chocolate and wrapped in an “ugly Christmas sweater” Fry made using SugarVeil and a mold.
He said he hopes whoever bids the highest on his violin eventually eats it and that it tastes as good as it looks.
“As long as the temperature is OK, it can last for at least a month,” he said. “The chocolate is actually protecting the cookie and saving it from the elements.”
Tuttle said the initiative received so much positive feedback from the chefs involved that she is planning to make the gingerbread houses a yearly tradition at Community Matters Cafe.
“Seeing everybody’s creativity and their take on it is so exciting and I’ve already heard people talk about their ideas for next year,” she said. “It’s fun to see that the pastry chef community can come together and give back to the recovering community.”
Want to bid?
Community Matters Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays at 821 W. 1st St., Charlotte. You can bid on the gingerbread houses online at https://events.handbid.com/auctions/christmas-at-the-cafe-gingerbread-house-auc tion/items.