For most people, decorating gingerbread houses is a fun activity assigned to kids so that the adults can put their feet up for an hour.
But for some, it’s serious business. Even competitionworthy.
This November was the 30th annual National Gingerbread House Competition, which is the largest gingerbread competition in the world. Competitors from all over the country gathered at the Omni Park Grove Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, to vie for the title and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
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To find out, I chatted with Ted Scutti. Scutti is a member of the Merry Mischief Bakers, a team of bakers that formed in 2019. That was the first year they entered the National Gingerbread House Competition, and they placed in the top 10. They were even more successful after that: They won the competition’s Grand Prize in 2020 and 2021.
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What is your culinary background? How did you get into making gingerbread houses?
Funny enough, nobody [on the team] has a professional culinary background. I’ve . . . had an interest in baking [since] a young age. Over time I [became] interested in cake decorating. I worked in IT consulting, decorating cakes as a hobby. Eventually I left my job and opened up a cake decorating business.
I quickly learned that cakes are very physically demanding, so back I went into the corporate world doing cakes on the side. But my husband and I competed in a National Wedding Cake competition—serious stuff.
Cakes turned into gingerbread, where we competed in 2019 at the National Gingerbread Competition. We built a mid-century modern house which got us into the Top 10.
Do you really transport your pieces to the competition?
Yes! If you’re within driving distance to the competition you can (carefully) drive your pieces. We’re in Arizona, though, so we fly our pieces and then drive them.
So consideration of how your pieces travel is essential. Once we get to North Carolina, we rent a vacation home to utilize a kitchen. One year we thought we could operate in our hotel room, but you really need a kitchen.
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Do you have any unusual tools and/or decorations that you use?
I’d say so. We use a lot of woodshop tools: table saws, sanders, etc. Gingerbread works similarly to wood. We spend as much time in a hardware store as we do in a grocery store.
Everything on your gingerbread house needs to be edible, but there’s no rule about how to get it there. Table saw it is!
We also use a ton of sandpaper. Sandpaper is a great tool for smoothing the edges of the cookies.
Decorations play a major role in competitions. We’ve really been working on getting more and more royal icing work. This year we’re presenting the icing in a more fun, modern way. Kinda like royal icing 2.0.
Which gingerbread house are you the most proud of (so far)?
The carousel we won with last year. The collaboration that went into that to make it work was insane. It took us four months to design it!
Our carousel had 68 handmade sculptures. Over 1,000 floor boards. Turns out octagons are really hard to make.
Though, this one we’re working on [for this year’s competition] might become our new favorite.
Does the competition room smell as incredible as I imagine it does?
Yes . . .
Are you sick of it?
Very much so, yes. Remember we’re working on these for months prior. The warm smell of gingerbread on the 4th of July is not the best.
Okay, last question. Any advice for a novice baker looking to improve their gingerbread-house game?
Start by tackling smaller projects. It’s a great way to improve skills. Don’t start with a 4-foot mansion. Start by adding details to a smaller thing.
Also, remember you can build beyond Christmas time. Use a project to focus on royal icing and practice your piping.
And for true beginners? Buy one of the kits and decorate it. Gotta start somewhere.
Piping SetsWe tried five sets, priced from $11.63 to $29.95, each containing between nine and 12 pastry tips and either cloth or plastic bags.
Photo credit: Michael Oppenheim Photography