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Gingerbread-house contest blends history, baking, humor

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When is hard candy more than just something to eat?

Perhaps when you make it from 15 pounds of raw materials, stir in blue and green food coloring, add miniature "waves" as the mass hardens, and let the giant aquatic-looking entity surround the tiny lighthouse you've already crafted from other edible objects.

"The Thomas Point Lighthouse," the scenic-but-sugary creation of Don and Marlena Dillenbeck of Hanover, is a contender this year in a gingerbread house competition sponsored by the Historic Annapolis Foundation, a contest in which creativity, technical skill and awareness of local history are as important as ingredients to a recipe.

"We live in a town with a unique architectural heritage," says Carrie Kiewitt, an official with Historic Annapolis and an organizer of the event. "But too few of us take the time to look up from what we're doing every day and see it. [Historic Annapolis] does all we can to draw attention to our historic buildings, and [for the past few] years, this contest has done that in a really fun way."

The idea was born three years ago, when foundation staffers took note of the gingerbread house display that the Annapolis-Eastport branch of Long & Foster Realtors had been hosting since 2007. They saw it as a potential way to engage the public with the glories of local architecture.

Partnering with the company, they turned the show into a contest, inviting artists of all ages and backgrounds to make not just traditional gingerbread houses — a staple of Christmas-season celebrations, some historians say, since the Brothers Grimm first described one in their folk tale "Hansel and Gretel" in 1812 — but replicas of notable local buildings.

Contest officials required some use of the ginger-based pastry, but creators improvised from there. They made scale-model versions of the Maryland State House, St. Mary's Church and more, using gingerbread slabs as walls and chimneys, jelly beans as bricks, corn kernels as cobblestones, hard candy as stained glass, and everything from Necco wafers to shredded wheat as roofing materials.

Nearly always, they used royal icing — a form of pastry decoration made from sugar and raw egg whites that hardens quickly — as both mortar and decorative element.

"To do one of these requires [a contestant] to look carefully at the buildings and think about how they're put together," Kiewitt says. "Of course, it helps if you're creative and know how to bake."

Some contestants fit that description beautifully, others less so, which is why organizers divide the artists into two categories: professionals (bakers, architects and other self-identified experts) and non-professionals (musicians, naval officers and families have all taken part).

The professionals, who may work on a base as large as 30 inches by 30 inches, are required to create the historic lookalikes. The amateurs, limited to an 11x14-inch base, may make any kind of edifice they choose.

This year's professional entries, seven in all, are on display through Jan. 1 on the third floor of the Historic Annapolis Museum. The nonprofessional pieces can be viewed during the same period at seven businesses downtown, all within walking distance of the City Dock.

A map pinpointing those locations is available at the museum site.

Professional works this year include flavorsome facsimiles of the Governor Calvert House, a onetime governor's residence that is now a boutique hotel; the William Paca House, the English villa-style mansion that was built in the mid-1760s; the Aaron Lee Goodman Building at the intersection of Main and Market streets, and a street scene incorporating six buildings that evokes what Main Street might have looked like two centuries ago.

Alison Trainor, head chef at Historic Inns of Annapolis, crafted the faux Governor Calvert House, placing chocolate-wafer steps in front of a gingerbread-cookie front porch. The effect mimics the Victorian-style veranda builders added to the mostly Georgian structure after several decades.

The Paca House replica, made mostly of gingerbread by Rachael, Faye and Jessica Powers of Tracys Landing, uses frosted cookies turned on end to represent the symmetrical twin chimneys typical of many Georgian public buildings, and fellow professional Fiona D'Agostino, owner of Fiona's Cakes in Severna Park, sought textural variety in making her Annapolis tableau, giving each of her six buildings a unique roof.

One is made of Sun Chips (it has the look of tin), one of straight pretzels (wood), another covered with crumbled turbinado sugar (sand or snow).

"My goal was to make it more visually interesting, and I figure that during 'historic' times whatever materials were around were used to build structures," says D'Agostino, who has been making gingerbread houses every year since the sixth grade, when she saw one made by her best friend's mother, a German native.

In terms of creativity and charm, the pros have little on this year's amateurs. Cross Main Street and visit Zachary's Jewelers, where store owner Steve Samaras has "Santa's Workshop" — the handiwork of Savannah Richards, Ashley Bowan and Mize Slenker, all 8, and Grace Smith, 9 — displayed under a spotlight as lovingly as he might show off a diamond pendant.

St. Nick's place, an assemblage of cookies, stands behind an ice-covered pond. "It's icing, and the girls were pleasantly surprised that it set so smoothly," says Jennifer Richards of Annapolis, Savannah's mom.

Next door, Buddy's Crabs and Ribs features a whimsical barnyard scene created by two families — Tracy Leonard of Bowie and her children Hannes, 8, and Anna, 3, and Jody Bose of Glenn Dale and her daughter Sophie, 7.

It's sturdily made, including a barn with seamless joints, but it's also the kind of work that rewards one's attention. Among the highlights: Two marzipan horses stand inside a fenced pen, one with a trail of droppings behind it.

"Hannes and Sophie added bits of Andes chocolate chips," Tracy Leonard says.

Two independent judges selected a first-place piece in each category, basing their decisions on creativity and technical merit, and were scheduled to announce the result Saturday. Members of the public are also asked to stop by the museum to cast their votes for "People's Choice" champions in each category, with winners to be announced Jan. 2.

The judges praised the originality of this year's pieces.

That includes the work by the Dillenbecks, longtime amateur bakers who lavished their seaside scene with details like two beer cans and a McDonalds wrapper (both of fondant icing) that have washed ashore below their six-sided Thomas Point Lighthouse (gingerbread, royal icing, more hard candy).

"The judges seem to like a sense of humor," Don Dillenbeck says.

Another entry, this one made by five students in the Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute at Anne Arundel Community College, shows a greenish-blue Chesapake Bay (hard candy) surrounding a gingerbread-and-icing Eastport Bridge, white waves (more icing) lapping against its pilings.

Such work leaves an impression.

"I've seen plenty of traditional gingerbread houses over the years," says Karen Koch of Miss Nancy's Fancy Bakery, a judge since 2009. "One thing you don't see much is water. That's not easy to make, but these people are creative. And after all, we're talking about Annapolis."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Historic Annapolis' Gingerbread House Competition

WHERE: Works are on display at the Historic Annapolis Museum, 99 Main Street, Annapolis, and in seven businesses in town, all within walking distance in the historic district (maps available at the museum)

WHEN: At the Historic Annapolis Museum, Monday through Saturday 9:30-5 and Sunday noon-5 through Jan. 1; in the designated shops, during business hours through Jan. 1.

ADMISSION: free

FOR MORE INFORMATION: call (410) 267-7619 or visit annapolis.org.

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