Gingerbread architecture’s sweet smell of success

Executive pastry chef Jean-Francois Houdre proudly stands by his Sugar Castle, part of the annual holiday display at the hotel.
(Westin St. Francis)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Once the realm of family holiday projects, gingerbread architecture has outgrown storybook cottages, gumdrops and marzipan. Tourist attractions and hotels, including the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco and the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad, stage tremendous, sweet-smelling displays to draw holiday crowds. Some host gingerbread-making and house-decorating classes and teas. In the case of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., doghouses get decorated.

Competitions, such as those at Santa Ana’s Discovery Science Center, the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, and the Palace Hotel in San Francisco test the creativity and engineering abilities of professional bakers and hobbyists.

The Palace Hotel invites local celebrities and members of the community to participate in its annual Gingerbread Decorating Competition, which began Nov. 26. Each of about a dozen participants pairs off with a member of the Palace’s culinary staff. Together they design and decorate their gingerbread structures, which remain on display in the lobby through Dec. 31. Hotel guests can vote for their favorite gingerbread design, which makes them eligible to win a weekend stay for two at the Palace.

“The Gingerbread Competition has turned out to be an important and much anticipated event at the Palace each year,” said general manager Clem Esmail. “Thousands visit the hotel to see the display and vote for their favorite design.”

The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay also heightens the holiday spirit with a Gingerbread House Competition and Silent Auction, now in its seventh year.

Children, home cooks and culinary professionals bring their creations to the resort around Thanksgiving weekend. They remain on display until Dec. 4, when the winners are announced during the resort’s holiday tree-lighting celebration. Many of the creations, which have included castles and cathedrals, go on the auction block to benefit a local children’s charity.

At the Santa Ana museum, the “Science of Gingerbread” exhibition features hands-on activities, interactive learning stations and a gingerbread competition, from Nov. 26 to Jan. 2.

More than 100 individuals and businesses enter the annual event. Past entries have included a gingerbread Zamboni, surf shack, cathedral cabin and crèche. Visitors cast their vote for the People’s Choice Award.

On weekends throughout the exhibition, the science center hosts gingerbread decorating demonstrations, a measure-and-mix learning station, toy exhibits and stage shows.

It takes the Westin St. Francis crew 400 hours to erect its Sugar Castle each year. The cost-effectiveness ratio, however, registers in the “priceless” category when you factor in goodwill, publicity and the fact that gingerbread architecture is darn near irresistible.

The Westin pastry team unveils its magical creation in the historic main lobby in late November. The 12-foot-tall masterpiece, which rotates, grows larger and more spectacular each year.

Inspired by châteaux in France, executive pastry chef Jean-François Houdré's homeland, the 100% edible castle weighs more than 1,200 pounds and features more than 20 circular towers, about 30 rooms, illuminated pulled-sugar windows and, this year, an orchard of silver sugar trees made of pastillage (powdered sugar, egg whites and gelatin dough).

As one would expect, Disneyland does gingerbread with a heavy helping of drama.

“Every year the design team at Disneyland Resort creates a wonderful, unique gingerbread sculpture inside our Haunted Mansion attraction,” said park representative Michele Himmelberg. “The attraction is transformed into Haunted Mansion Holiday… with the ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ theme....”

This year’s confectionary creation, which will remain on display through the first of the year, is a 5-foot-tall tombstone gingerbread cookie decorated to look like Jack Skellington’s haunted mansion in the popular animated Tim Burton movie.

From Nov. 29 through Dec. 31, the Park Hyatt Aviara presents its completely edible gingerbread village set on 10-foot-high Gingerbread Mountain. In its third year, the display will include an assortment of gingerbread houses, plus Santa’s Workshop, Mrs. Claus’ Bakery and Rudolph’s Coffee Shop.

Also in Carlsbad, La Costa Resort & Spa displays its giant gingerbread house during December. Standing 7 feet tall, this year’s whimsical, Seuss-esque house will be covered in 120 pounds of house-baked gingerbread tiles.

On Dec. 18 and 23, the resort welcomes guests to its hands-on gingerbread house-making workshops. The $5 fee includes all the supplies and a take-home gingerbread house.

The Schulz Museum puts a new spin on gingerbread construction by hosting Snoopy Gingerbread Doghouse workshops on Dec. 18 and 19 for children 4 and older. Kids design a doghouse, covering it with colorful candy and a marshmallow Snoopy on top. Cost is $25 for nonmuseum members.