Have you ever received a 4 a.m. text message from your boss, asking “Are you looking for a project for your day off?”
Neither had I, until a few weeks ago.
The project Alex had in mind was a gingerbread house to decorate the window of El Quinto Pino. If I had been in a conscious state when I received this message I might have gone along and made your standard Brothers Grimm-style gingerbread house. But instead, my sleeping brain plunged into free associations, and when I awoke I had settled on a more Iberian model for my gingerbread house.
Part of my trip to Spain in April was a three-day stay in Barcelona with my traveling companion Andrés and his friends Bernardo and Yolanda. While we were there, Andrés and I enjoyed an afternoon exploring Parc Güell. This park was supposed to be a gated community for Barcelona’s wealthy, hidden up in the hills and vegetation above the city. It was designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí between 1900 and 1914, and like his well-known Sagrada Familia, never finished. The wealthy fish didn’t bite, so only a few of the planned houses were actually built. One of these, and the only one Andrés and I were able to enter, was meant to be a “modest” house for the gatekeeper. The floor plan may actually be modest, but the same cannot be said about the ornamentation.
I knew I was being pretty ambitious, since I had never made a gingerbread house before, but by the time I was pitching the idea to Alex there was no going back. I started sketching like crazy, trying to dilute the crazy Gaudi design down to the essentials. I planned to use icing and candy for the ornamentations.
I turned to the Joy of Cooking for my gingerbread recipe. Since the gingerbread house in Joy was only about a third of the size of my planned house, I proceeded to make 4 or 5 batches of gingerbread–a very sticky project, and one that uses an astonishing amount of spices.
As soon as possible, I started rolling out the dough on parchment paper and cutting out the pieces according to the patterns I had made the night before.
Right away, I was amazed by how strong the gingerbread was. I baked huge pieces, 1 foot by 1.5 feet, and they weren’t even that fragile!
After the front and the back of the house were baked, it was time to tackle the curved walls on the sides of the house. I realized that, due to the molasses in the dough, gingerbread doesn’t slouch down on the baking pan the way that other cookies do. So my dad and I made a mold out of chimney flashing over which I could drape the dough to bake. The resulting curved walls were probably stronger than the flat walls.
Once the baking was done the meticulous and patience-testing part of the process began: decorating. I had suspected that decorating is best done while the pieces are still flat and separate; this hunch was confirmed by an experienced gingerbread house architect, Mary Farrell. After some brainstorming I headed to Economy Candy on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side.
Windows were to be made from sheets of gelatin, gleaned from the kitchen of Txikito.
Even as I began icing the whole thing together, I still didn’t know exactly how the roof would go on. When I got down to it, though, I realized I had to support it somehow. A cardboard tube came in handy here, and in a last-minute shopping trip to CVS I found tiny LED lights to string up the central column. With these in place, I was ready to cement the roof tiles on and start the mosaics.
At that point, all that was left to do was to create the central turrets that give the Parc Güell building its impressive height and interesting proportions. Here I decided to once again turn to cardboard tubes, the only non-edible pieces of the gingerbread house (other than the Ukrainian-decorated egg that I used to top it all off.)
The finished product made it safe and sound all the way from Brooklyn Heights to the west side of Manhattan. It’s still up in the window of El Quinto Pino; stop by and see it!
El Quinto Pino: 401 W. 24th Street at 9th Avenue in Manhattan.