December is when everyone else in the country is assembling gingerbread houses—but the students in Courtland High School’s German program are done with gingerbread by then.
You won’t find them fumbling with icing to glue a roof together or getting frustrated as gum drops refuse to stick to walls.
They’ve been baking sheet after sheet of gingerbread—not to mention shaping fondant, tempering chocolate and crafting elaborate sugar art—since the beginning of the school year.
And every year their hard work pays off, with a first or second place win at the National Gingerbread House Competition, held each November at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C.
The students brought home their fifth first-place win in the teen category last month with their entry, “Old Towne Trolley Tour,” which featured a red trolley in front of a small village complete with antiques shop, bookstore, bakery, post office and café—all of it 100 percent edible and handmade by the Spotsylvania County teens.
Students in Bettina Hoeninger’s German classes and Courtland’s German club—a total of about 12 people—came in before school, during lunch and after school to work on the house in addition to working on it in German class.
“Judges always say it looks like just one person made it instead of 12,” Hoeninger said. “Their work is always consistent in quality.”
According to PBS’s History Kitchen, gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century and became popular in the early 1800s, when the Grimm Brothers recorded and published the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” in which the siblings come upon a house deep in a forest made entirely of treats.
Hoeninger’s German students had been entering gingerbread houses in Ferry Farm’s annual contest and exhibit. It was the organizers of that contest who suggested her students should compete nationally.
“I laughed at them,” Hoeninger said.
But the students did enter the national contest and have placed consistently ever since.
This year, the group ran into trouble due to the summer’s excessive rain.
“We had to keep postponing and postponing,” Hoeninger said. “The weather was making everything soft and bendy.”
Finally, parents brought in a dehumidifier so the students could start baking.
Before that, they spend time brainstorming.
“Actually, we start planning for next year pretty much as soon as that year’s contest ends,” said junior Grant Davis.
They get ideas from seeing other entries and watching competitive baking shows. Once they have a plan, the group’s two engineers use graphing paper to draw the basic shape. They calculate the appropriate scale by holding rulers up to Google image pictures.
“They really apply what they learn in math class,” Hoeninger said.
The students make gingerbread dough from scratch, using a tried-and-true recipe for “construction grade gingerbread,” and bake it—small pieces at a time—in the school’s Family and Consumer Science program ovens.
This year they delved into chocolate art, sculpting a tree out of modeling chocolate.
They dried strings from a celery stalk to make a tiny hook to hang a sign from.
Each building in the scene is open so viewers can look into windows and doors and see tiny details, such as a spiral staircase, a basket of fruit, a water drop made out of crystallized sugar and roses complete with individual petals in window boxes.
The scariest part of the endeavor is always transporting the gingerbread creation—which weighed about 40 pounds when it was finished—by car 450 miles to Asheville.
“The only time you ever hear Frau [Hoeninger] curse is when we go over a big bump that she didn’t see,” said junior Annalise Henzler.
The morning the group of eight students and their parents left to drive to Asheville, they discovered that Hoeninger’s German shorthaired pointer Willi had eaten several of the fondant people. So the student who made them had to remake them in the car on the way south.
At the contest, the students were excited to meet Carla Hall, one of the judges, who competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The other seven judges included noted pastry chefs and the curator of drawing and prints from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The judges used drills and flashlights to examine every aspect of the entry, making sure it was made up of at least 75 percent gingerbread and was 100 percent edible.
The Courtland students’ $750 first-prize award will go towards making next year’s gingerbread creation.
The rough plan for next year is to create a miniature Christmas market with a merry-go-round in the center.
“It sounds ambitious, but they have never let me down,” Hoeninger said.
This year’s entry will be on display at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville through Jan. 4. The hotel raises its parking rates during the exhibition and donates the funds raised to local nonprofits.
In the past, once the gingerbread house returns to Courtland, it has been the “honor” of the AP German class to destroy it, Hoeninger said.
“One year, one of the students actually stood on it and it didn’t break,” she said. “That shows you how strong it was.”
The students said working on the gingerbread house each year lets them feel like little kids again.
“You get to be a kid and a grown-up,” Henzler said. “I always get a warm feeling in my chest.”
“There’s a whimsical feeling about gingerbread,” Grant Davis said. “You might make a gingerbread house as a kid, but now we’re seeing it transformed into much more of a piece of art.”