Disney World is fine, but at Christmastime it's Maria Springer's home that is the happiest place on earth.
Throughout the month of December, Springer hosts gingerbread-decorating workshops in her lovely Phoenix home. Her kitchen — transformed into a veritable Candyland with bowls and bowls of gumdrops, M&Ms and Hershey's kisses — is the stuff of kids' dreams.
Each Saturday and Sunday leading up to Christmas, about 15 children, from toddlers to middle-schoolers, all dressed in their holiday best, descend on Springer's home. After a short-story session by the fireplace in the living room, the children — each with one parent or grandparent — file into the kitchen, eyes wide, overwhelmed by the bowls of candy. The island and a nearby table hold one gingerbread house and one icing-filled pastry bag for each child. Houses that are fully constructed from graham crackers and royal icing, but otherwise unadorned, are ready for decoration.
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Ten-year olds Annie Grothmann and Holly Becker, both fifth-graders at Immaculate Conception School in Towson, have taken Springer's workshop together every year since they were in kindergarten. This year, they've come prepared with decoration strategies gleaned from Google and years of decorating experience.
"I like making my houses different every time," says Annie, as she carefully covers her roof with an impressive modern design of pretzel sticks and marshmallows. Holly nods in agreement as she adorns her house with candy canes and a green Christmas tree made with M&Ms.
As veteran decorators, Annie and Holly need little guidance, though their moms, Terry Grothmann and Blandy Becker, both of Towson, chime in occasionally with compliments. Becker's younger children, 5-year old Brynn and 9-year old Owen, as gingerbread-house newbies, ask for more help, especially with the frosting.
Overseeing the whole process, Springer chimes in with advice, her lilting European accent charming both parents and students. "It needs to be filled up!" she laughs, encouraging 7-year old Grayson Kennedy of Stoneleigh to pile more candy on a sparsely decorated roof panel. He obliges, gathering more M&Ms and pretzels for the roof, while Springer shows him how to make a light post out of a candy cane and gumdrop.
Springer has been hosting the gingerbread classes in her home since the early 1990s. Encouraged by friends, who knew of the houses she made with her son, Charlie, and his friends when they were boys in the '80s, her classes quickly became hot tickets in December. These days, based on word of mouth alone, they often fill up before Thanksgiving.
Springer was born into a culinary family in a small city in Croatia. Her paternal grandfather was a butcher and maternal great-grandfather was a pastry chef. Springer learned to cook from her mother's mother; she credits her grandmother with her love of the kitchen.
During and after World War II, her family lived in Austria; they emigrated to the United States in 1951, when Springer was still a young girl.
Like Springer, gingerbread houses have roots in central Europe. Gingerbread itself dates back to the 11th century, though gingerbread houses are slightly more modern invention. The houses were popularized by the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel," published in 1812, in which the title characters discover a gingerbread cottage inhabited by a wicked witch.
In Springer's kitchen, house decoration never veers into dark fairy tale territory. During decorating, the noise level waxes and wanes as the kids focus on their houses. It never stays quiet for too long, though, especially not when "The Candy Man," Maria's jovial husband, Dale, makes an appearance, chatting up the children and grabbing a few pieces of candy as a snack. "One for the house, one for the mouth," he roars — a guideline the pint-sized decorators readily embrace.
After about an hour and a half of decorating ("It's all they can handle," Springer says with a laugh) the children and their parents make their way to her basement, down a curved set of red-carpeted steps, past a Santa tapestry on the wall. Downstairs, lit candles illuminate several dozen gingerbread houses, mostly made by Charlie Springer and lovingly preserved by his mother.
In the candlelight, the houses glow. "It's a beautiful wonderland," enthuses Terry Grothmann. She's not exaggerating. "It's magical."
In the basement, Springer serves tea for the parents and hot chocolate for the children, along with fruit and tea sandwiches — and a gentle etiquette lesson. "I'm always giving instructions," she notes with a laugh. Parents appreciate Springer's focus on simple, in-the-moment lessons like holding teacups still and walking slowly — and the children are so enthralled with the environment that they don't even mind the educational aspect of the afternoon.
During the tea portion of the day, Dale Springer, the boisterous "Candy Man," plays an unobtrusive role: he's the cleaning service. "When you go to the basement, this place is a disaster," says Blandy Becker, waving an arm around the candy-covered kitchen. "But when you come back up, it's spotless. Like a magic wand. It's like it never happened."
After the tea, the children gather up their houses to take home, where some of them are preserved but others are quickly eaten.
Like Holly and Annie, many children look forward to their annual visits to Springer's kitchen . Some even come back for special visits when they're older; Springer has hosted a 16th birthday party and instructed a post-college Peace Corps volunteer.
The children aren't the only ones having fun. "As the years go by, I enjoy it more and more," says Springer, who loves watching the children interact with their friends and the parents and grandparents who bring them.
But like the houses themselves, Springer's gingerbread classes won't last forever. She and Dale are preparing to downsize, likely to a condo in Mays Chapel, where her kitchen won't be large enough for the groups she's hosted for years.
Springer insists she'll keep busy, making pastries and the occasional wedding cake for friends. But this year may be her last gingerbread tea.
Fortunately for her — and for her many students — the memories will last.
"I think," she says, "children take away memories for life."
For more information about Maria Springer and her gingerbread house classes, visit majaskitchen.com.
Recipe: Lebkuchen (German Gingerbread) and Royal Icing
In her class, Maria Springer uses store-bought graham crackers for the gingerbread houses. However, for parents who want to make their own gingerbread — either for houses or gingerbread men — she recommends this, her mother's recipe for lebkuchen, the German form of gingerbread.
Once cooked, the gingerbread is very hard, she warns, "so it doesn't break when you cut out the gingerbread men and women. So you shouldn't expect a soft gingerbread, like in the United States."
For the gingerbread:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups honey
2/3 cup water
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
7 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cloves
Heat the butter, honey, water and ginger in a saucepan, until very hot but not boiling. Just before the mixture is about to boil, remove the pot from the heat and let steep for ten to fifteen minutes.
Mix the flour, sugar, baking soda and spices in a large bowl. Pour the water, honey, butter and ginger mixture through a strainer, discarding the solids. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients Mix well with a wooden spoon until a dough forms. Transfer the dough to a smaller bowl and cool in the refrigerator for about two hours. Before rolling the dough, bring it to room temperature. The consistency is hard, like play-dough.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough to about 1/4 inch thickness and cut out any shapes you'd like. Bake at 375 for about 10 minutes or until the gingerbread is lightly browned.
For the royal icing:
1 pound confectioner's sugar
2 large egg whites
Using an electric hand mixer or standing mixer, mix the egg whites into the sugar until the combination becomes a fluffy paste, like a thick marshmallow cream. Use a disposable pastry bag with a Wilton Star Tip #18 or a plastic freezer bag with the tip cut off one of the corners. Be careful not to cut the hole too big.
This icing can be refrigerated for about two days. Before use, it should be brought back to room temperature.
Maria Springer's Tips for Gingerbread House Decorating
Gingerbread house decoration is a blast and every house is a masterpiece. With Maria Springer's expert advice, the process can be even more fun for both kids and parents.
Fill up first: Candy and icing are too tempting for children (or parents) to avoid, says Springer, but the sugar rush damage can be minimalized by feeding children a filling meal before passing out M&Ms.
Pipe it: One of Springer's first lessons — probably the most challenging — involves the pastry bag. She helps her students hold the bags with the dominant hand on top, gently squeezing, while the other hand guides the bag across the gingerbread. Younger children sometimes have difficulty mastering the process — but they enjoy licking up the mess.
More, more, more: Springer subscribes to the "more is better" philosophy, often chiming, "You need more color on the house!" as she helps children pile additional candy on their roofs and "yards." Children, especially those who are politely hesitant to take too much candy to start, love the approach.
Cede control: As tempting as it may be to take over for shaky small hands, Springer encourages parents to let their children, even young ones, design and decorate the houses themselves. It's not the parents' "day out," she gently chides. When children take the lead, they have a great time and learn to trust themselves; and though the final products may be imperfect, they are adorable.