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Building a wonderland of gingerbread

The cookies are ready, the stockings are hung and Santa Claus has arrived—at a life-size gingerbread village inside the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. Designed and built by the school’s students and chefs, its Gingerbread Wonderland is an annual tradition for countless local families who come to marvel at the intricate, whimsical facades and participate in holiday activities.

This year’s Gingerbread Wonderland will be open, free to the public, on weekends from Nov. 30 through Dec. 22—but planning began last January, almost immediately after the previous village was taken down.

“We have six different buildings we decorate every year, and in January, we at least start brainstorming ideas for our themes,” explained Cathleen Barron, assistant professor and coordinator of the Baking and Pastry Arts Program at the Culinary Institute.

Last winter, students also began creating fondant decorations, like snowflakes and holly, as well as pastillage, an icing that’s firm and lightweight when it dries, making it perfect for the roof tiles.

Magic in the making | Buffalo Magazine

It's all hands on deck to bake and build the Gingerbread Wonderland, which is entirely edible, save for the doors (though they don't recommend taking a bite). (Marlee McCabe)

During the fall semester, work ramped up again as students began mass-producing gingerbread in 50-pound batches to ultimately create at least 5,000 bricks of various sizes (more stats on this gigantic gingerbread village to the right). Meanwhile, other classes continued mixing pastillage and creating additional decorations for each building theme.

Once the village’s wooden frame goes up in late October, it’s all hands on deck to lay the bricks, secure the roof tiles and decorate the houses. By opening day, almost everything you see—except for the doors—will be edible, all created by hand by students and chefs in the Institute’s kitchens (though, Barron stresses, because so many people handle the materials, you shouldn’t eat it). This year, in addition to Santa’s house where Kris Kringle himself will visit with children, the village will include a bakery, ugly sweater shop, sleigh wash and more.

“It’s pretty amazing to see,” said Ryan Wilson, a pastry arts student who worked on the village this year and last. “Every time I walk in, even when classes are still going on, I’m amazed by all the detail that goes into this structure. It’s a great community piece.”

Throughout the baking and construction process, students learn valuable skills and techniques, such as how to roll, cut and bake a massive amount of cookies, pipe icing and create many types of decorations.

Magic in the making | Buffalo Magazine

“One of the biggest things they learn is teamwork, how to work with one another in collaboration to create something people can come and enjoy,” Barron said. “We’re the hospitality industry—that’s what we do.”

Students also get to connect with alumni and area professionals, who often help out with construction during alumni weekend.

“I would have loved to do this when I was in school,” Barron said. “I was in the industry for 27 years before I became an instructor, and I never had an opportunity like this.”

Her favorite part is seeing former and current students at the event, proudly showing their loved ones the village.

“I brought my family over, my grandparents and my cousins,” Wilson said, recalling last year’s event. “There was a little naughty-and-nice list up on the front wall of one building with the volunteers’ names and the chefs’ names, so I got to show them that I was a big part of this. It was amazing.”

Magic in the making | Buffalo Magazine

On top of the magnificent gingerbread village, the annual Gingerbread Wonderland event features performances and family activities.

There’s also a gingerbread competition, during which community members show off their own gingerbread creations. Entries are divided into five categories—professional, amateur, college, high school and children—and judged by past winners and industry professionals. Winners in the children’s division take home pastry and culinary gadgets, while the others collect cash prizes. Barbara DeSimone, director of public relations and event management for the school, said some of her favorite past entries include a carousel with working lights inside, a log cabin and Noah’s ark.

“It’s become a holiday tradition for so many people, who tell us they come here every year,” Barron said. “There’s such a nice vibe and the building is decorated so beautifully. What a great way to celebrate (the season) and bring your family to a nice event.”

Gingerbread Wonderland by the numbers

To create a life-sized gingerbread village, it takes, well, a village—more than 200 volunteers to be precise, not including the staff, volunteers and community members who coordinate and host the rest of the event each weekend.

Sweet stats:

  • 11 months of planning
  • 5,000+ gingerbread bricks
  • 2,000 pounds of royal icing
  • 525 pounds of pastillage
  • 50 pounds of fondant
  • 4,000+ cookies baked for children to decorate
  • 8,000+ tickets sold in 2018

What to do in Wonderland

Magic in the making | Buffalo Magazine

Each year, the event gets a little bigger, with more family-friendly activities for you and your little ones to enjoy after exploring the gingerbread village.
View the full schedule here. Some of the holly jolly highlights include:

  • Weekends from Nov. 30-Dec. 22: Visits with Santa, cookie decorating, face painting, writing letters to Santa and holiday crafts (5-8 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays)
  • Nov. 30: Breakfast with Santa (9:30 a.m.), Matt’s Music Group (1 p.m.)
  • Dec. 1: Niagara County Community College Choir (3 p.m.)
  • Dec. 6-8: View entries in the Gingerbread Competition (all open hours)
  • Dec. 6: Matt’s Music Group (6 p.m.)
  • Dec. 7: Friends of Harmony a cappella choir (3 p.m.)
  • Dec. 14-15: Train Show (all open hours)
  • Dec. 21: Paul Antonio Magic Show (2 p.m.)

In addition, on Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec. 14, the Gingerbread Wonderland coincides with Jingle Falls USA, a celebration on Old Falls Street with activities, a maker’s market, candlelight stroll and outdoor tree lighting.

Build your gingerbread house like a pro

Magic in the making | Buffalo Magazine

A favorite from the 2018 gingerbread competition: Noah's ark.

If your family is anything like mine, gingerbread houses usually involve an afternoon of trial and error as walls cave in, candy falls down and all of us erupt in laughter. To help, Chef Cathleen Barron shared her advice for creating a stellar—and sturdy—gingerbread house:

Start early
If you’re starting from scratch, bake your gingerbread at least two days before building. “The drier, the better,” Barron recommended.

Use royal icing
Whether you use a kit or plan to DIY, royal icing is a must. “We call it baker’s glue,” Barron said. “It will make a nice, hard, secure seal so the house stays up.” Barron’s go-to recipe is simple: Combine 1 pound of powdered sugar, 4 tablespoons of meringue powder and 6 tablespoons of lukewarm water using a mixer for 6-8 minutes. Adjust the sugar or water to your desired firmness and keep a damp cloth over the mixture as you work so it doesn’t dry out.

Take your time
Barron recommends securing the sides first and letting them dry overnight, using cans to prop them up. Then, put the roof on, and again, let it set overnight before adding anything else.

Get creative!
“The fun part is putting the decoration on,” Barron said. Once the house is set, use a variety of candy and colors to finish off your holiday masterpiece.

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