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Sweet success: Bike shop operator wins national gingerbread contest — again

Evonne Darby, left, and Sachiko Windbiel
Evonne Darby, left, and Sachiko Windbiel celebrate after assembling a gingerbread carousel base.
(Ted Scutti)

The National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, N.C., is the Olympics of gingerbread artistry, the crème de la confection.

Evonne Darby is a newcomer to sugar arts, but she has embraced it with unrelenting passion. The corporate PR specialist-turned-Escondido bike store co-owner, is part of a team (which includes a Santa Monica sugar artist) that captured the 2021 gingerbread house title Nov. 22 at the historic Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville.

The Merry Mischief Bakers’ triumphant “Christmas ’Round the World” gingerbread carousel was inspired, in part, by the carousels at Seaport Village and Balboa Park, which team members visited and studied last May.

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Their winning confection will be on display in the Omni hotel during the holiday season and throughout next year — a drool-worthy attraction drawing sightseers from near and far. “It is such a huge honor,” Darby says.

From Nov. 28 to Jan. 2, all the gingerbread creations will be on display throughout the inn, which installs a gingerbread model of the hotel that visitors can walk through in its Great Hall.

The gingerbread carousel replaces the same team’s grand prize winner last year — a diorama of Santa’s workshop on the day after Christmas.

That confectionary depiction of teeny ornaments for sale and tiny, mischievous elves is on its way to Darby’s Rancho Bernardo home to live out its retirement life in her family room.

After stepping away from corporate life and co-opening a cycle supermarket, the Bike Bling shop, Darby began taking cake-making lessons. She had been bitten by the sugar bug 30 years earlier when she created a wedding cake for a friend.

A detail of one of the grand prize-winning carousel animals with mischievous elves.
(Courtesy of Omni Grove Park Inn)

She began traveling around the world to attend culinary events and take cake-decorating classes from well-known pastry chefs. During the San Diego Cake Show, she begged visiting high-end cake artists Ted Scutti and Adam Starkey to give her a private lesson at her home. And they did.

Soon, she began hosting other sugar art instructors, turning her family room into a classroom filled with cooking tools and supplies. Darby’s Sugar Prep Studio was born.

“I initially wanted to do my own birthday cake for my grandkids,” she says.

Darby joined with Scutti, the gingerbread team captain, and Starkey, who work corporate day jobs, for the contest. The team also includes Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant manager Tim Stewart and Sachiko Windbiel, the only one who makes sugar art for a living.

Their assignment was to make a 100% edible piece no taller than 24 inches that tells a story. Judges included Food Network’s Carla Hall and chef Nicholas Lodge, who teaches at the International Sugar Art Collection school in Georgia.

Darby’s team members began exchanging ideas in January. Each had an assignment and started their work at home. Darby and Windbiel, who lives in Santa Monica, joined their three teammates in Phoenix to begin assembly.

A nearly 7-foot-tall monolith made of gingerbread mysteriously appeared on a San Francisco hilltop on Christmas Day and collapsed the next day.

Their sugar carousel project was beset by engineering challenges:

A mold had to be created for the 1,000 1/4-inch-wide ginger clay planks that form the carousel floor.

Darby commissioned acrylic templates to hold her piping and mini-rose designs in place until they could be transported and added to the gingerbread carousel.

One member designed special foam core packaging to pack the delicate structures and support hanging pieces on the flight to North Carolina.

They had to buy two extra plane tickets to hold two boxes, one containing the top and one cradling the bottom of the carousel.

One box caught the attention of TSA inspectors who instructed them to take out the carousel sculpture and put it on the X-ray conveyor belt and through the plastic flaps, causing a 45-minute delay for re-packing.

The team of five checked 10 suitcases and carried 10 more bags to get all the gingerbread components to Asheville.

They rented a nearby house with a large kitchen for three days to complete assembly.

For many of us, gingerbread houses are as much a part of Christmas as decorated trees and candy canes.

The humidity sent the bakers scrambling to find a dehumidifier to keep their gingerbread from absorbing moisture and warping.

Their finished creation held 66 handmade sugar sculptures, including 15 animals representing all seven continents and 44 elves from around the world. There were 1,000 wafer paper boughs.

“I love that each figure has different facial expressions,” says the Omni inn’s marketing director, Susan Rotante. “The level of detail was insane.” She says the 360-degree design tells the story from every direction.

Windbiel’s two cats, Quincey and Phoebe, were among the figures, and hidden in the roof as lucky charms were some pieces from their grand prize-winning entry of the previous year. Five gingerbread cookies, one representing each team member, lined the carousel stairs.

Scutti estimates they spent 2,000 hours on the project, which has 2,500 individual parts and took four months to design. Five full-scale 3-D models were built in foam core before construction to ensure the design would work in gingerbread. Over 100 custom templates were required to produce the carousel, he says.

“We’re only the second team that’s won two times,” notes Darby.

The Merry Mischief Bakers received $5,000 and various gifts, classes and pastry tools. “We easily spend way more than we make,” says Darby. “We’re not doing it for the money. We’re doing it to enhance our skill sets.”

The bakers will be back next year. They’ve already reserved the same rental house. It will be the 30th year of the contest, and the team hopes to be the first one to win the grand prize three years in a row.


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