The challenge we put to a fourth-year class at the USC School of Architecture was: Reinvent the gingerbread house. We would supply the gingerbread, the students would draw the plans, buy the candy decorations and assemble their creations at The Times.
But when the students began suggesting the spidery “Theme Building” at Los Angeles International Airport, the Bonaventure Hotel and the new Los Angeles Cathedral, we ix-nayed the ideas as too complex and braced ourselves for failure.
Even their professor was worried. “I had no expectations,” confessed Doug Noble. “There was every likelihood that they would be doing a story about how hard it is to do a gingerbread building.”
When the students began to arrive at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning for the build, there was good news and bad news. The good news was that at least two of three groups had settled for buildings that would not require a master pastry chef: Pierre Koenig’s 1960 minimalist classic “Case Study 22” and the Downtown Los Angeles Public Library.
The library might seem an ambitious choice, but there were no tricky domes or arches to replicate in gingerbread, and the group came well prepared. The students had taken dozens of photos of the building to guide them. To decide the scale, they had borrowed a model from the city engineer’s office.
The third group had stuck tenaciously to the extravagant idea of rendering the Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles in cake and candy. But the students had also come armed with detailed blueprints, and a clever cheat: a balsa wood model to serve as the railway’s elevated track.
But the bad news was awful. There was no gingerbread. Our bakers had let us down.
Baking as fast as we could since early that morning, we were still hours behind schedule and braced for failure. (We had even brought dozens of cardboard boxes and were wondering how the students would react if we asked them to render their buildings in Pampers cartons salvaged from a Ralphs dumpster.)
This was not necessary. The students grabbed rolling pins and dough scrapers and went right to work. By mid-afternoon, the third floor of The Times smelled like a sweet shop. We had baked 52 batches of gingerbread, using 13 pounds of butter, 18 pounds of flour and 18 pounds of sugar. A student from the Koenig house team was virtually on permanent duty at the mixer making royal icing, and the three teams were hard at work assembling the houses.
In the end, working with super-fresh bread was a boon. Using sharp knives, the students were poised to score it as soon as it was cool enough to handle but warm enough to cut without breaking. Getting structures to stand was trickier. Cries of “Get the base! Get the base! Someone get the base over here!” carried from the photo studio.
The buzz was such that even hardened reporters found excuses to wander through the photo studio next to the test kitchen. Each left wearing a delighted grin.
What tickled them was the sight of a swimming pool being filled at the Koenig house with blue icing, the library’s cypress trees being fashioned from sour apple candy straws and the pillars of Angels Flight ticket booth appearing from glued stacks of LifeSavers.
Against all odds, the students met their 6 p.m. deadline. While the library and Angels Flight teams raced to the finish, the Koenig house group had so much time and gingerbread to spare that its members laid in a surrounding vista as an afterthought.
“The Gummi Bears can be the sparkling houses in the distance,” said student Marios Kazamias.
Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes
From “Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Cookery” by Anne Willan (Dorling Kindersley, 1989).
1 cup flour, plus more for kneading
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, plus more for greasing
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
* Sift together flour, ginger, allspice, cinnamon and baking powder.
* In bowl of electric mixer, cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy.
* Add flour in 3 batches, stirring until thoroughly mixed. If dough seems dry, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Press dough into a ball with your hands. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead it until smooth. Roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick (12x10-inch) rectangle.
* Line a baking sheet with foil and grease foil with butter. Set dough on baking sheet and bake until golden, 7 to 9 minutes.
1 (12x10-inch) sheet gingerbread: 141 calories; 99 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 1 grams protein; 0.34 gram fiber.