By Cara Strickland
Once upon a time, before “The Great British Baking Show” and Instagram accounts filled with elaborately decorated treats inspired a generation of amateur bakers to construct confectionary showpieces, there were two friends with a passion
They had long hosted an annual fundraiser for their sorority, featuring a gingerbread decorating competition and a station to decorate graham cracker cottages of their own. The friends were ready to retire, so in 2004 they called Jan Martinez, founder and then-director of Christ Kitchen in Spokane, to see if she was interested in taking over the event.
Immediately, Martinez thought of her friend Patty Rogers (née Seebeck) who had spoken of the large and intricate gingerbread houses created for the American Diabetes Association at the Sheraton Hotel in Seattle. She accepted, called Rogers, and then got to work with Rogers on the first Gingerbread Build-Off, which would become an annual tradition.
The first event took place at Spokane’s Riverpark Square. Rogers, a culinary nutrition educator, took on the formidable task of putting together a team of chefs to serve as contestants. She recalls one contestant made a large red barn out of gingerbread, which wouldn’t fit in the mall’s elevator. Rogers called her son’s high school football coach and asked for four players, who together carried the gingerbread structure up the escalator, stopping to adjust as needed.
That big red barn was crafted by Marcel Kopplin, cake designer and owner of Marsells Cakes and Desserts. With a background as a commercial baker and baking instructor at the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy, Kopplin brought great precision to her entries in the bake off. She remembers watching in a panic as the barn went up the escalator.
Helping Kopplin was a friend and fellow baker, Kathy Skomer, who has been decorating cakes professionally for over 40 years and just celebrated her retirement as bakery technical support for Yoke’s Fresh Markets. Though Skomer had participated in cake-decorating competitions, they had always been solo, and she’d been able to do everything in advance. The fun of competing in real time along with a team captured her imagination.
Later she joined a team made up of mostly Yoke’s employees, coming on the scene with a gingerbread replica of Cinderella’s castle, complete with fondant pumpkin coach. They won the competition.
When Skomer saw the work that went into assembling the gingerbread house kits for kids to make, she offered her services. Skomer would cut the graham crackers into peaks at home with her band saw, and Yoke’s employees volunteered to help assemble the kits. “We got it down to a science,” she says. “We could do it in about two days.” In 2004, they made 1,200 kits. Now, 6,000 graham cracker cottages constructed by volunteers are ready ahead of 2019 Gingerbread Build-Off.
Tom McArthur, then of the Davenport Hotel, also stumbled across the event. Immediately, he wanted to display them at the hotel. Everyone put their creations on rolling carts for transport from the mall up Post Street, inflicting some structural damage, but eventually landing the creations on the hotel’s mezzanine.
The event had been hosted at the Historic Davenport, then the Davenport Grand. Now, in its 15th year, the Gingerbread Build-Off will be held at a new home—Northern Quest Resort and Casino. As the date approaches, teams around the city are readying their constructions for the December 8 event based on a super-secret theme. Though they can’t decorate ahead of time, they can make sure all the pieces are ready to go. Once competitors arrive at the venue, they have three hours to put everything together following a specific set of rules. The display must be at least 65 percent gingerbread on a plywood board between nine and 15 square feet. Each structure needs to be a minimum of two-and-a-half feet high. And of course, everything visible has to be edible.
While many of the teams are made up of professional bakers, teams and individuals without baking or decorating experience have entered the competition to try their hand at gingerbread engineering. Skomer is returning as a competitor after taking off a few years. In September, she and her team were already well into their preparations.
“We got the team together, set up a group text, and met a month ago,” Skomer says. “Everybody got a piece of paper that was three-by-five, and we told everybody to lay out their vision. We’ll probably combine them all. We use a lot of fondant, a lot of candy clay, a lot of royal icing. We’ve used gelatin to make things and candies. Baking our main structure will probably take us four or five nights. But it’s those little details that really make it.”
For Skomer, it’s all about watching the looks on the kids’ faces. “We’ve found if there’s some whimsy in it, it’s much more appealing to the kids,” she says. No wonder she’s chosen subjects like Aladdin, complete with palace, Jellystone Park, the story of Snow White, and Gotham City with a little Batman for the kids to find.
The tiny pieces aren’t causing her any concern. “You can have almost everything prepared, all your little people, all your little buildings—can all be made and in boxes, so then it’s just assembly and adding details,” says Skomer. “The most stressful thing is transporting your board to the venue.”
Every competitor has a story about transporting their gingerbread house. Once, Skomer’s team didn’t realize until the last minute that the house would not fit into the truck they had arranged. Someone went home and got a pickup, and they drove slowly, trying not to hit the brakes on the way to the venue.
Kristina Stephenson, pastry chef at Northern Quest Resort and Casino, purchased her current vehicle with the gingerbread house in mind. “I told the guy at the dealership I needed a tape measure. It has to be able to fit the gingerbread house. He thought I was joking. There were two cars I didn’t get because they weren’t big enough to fit the gingerbread house.”
Stephenson landed in Spokane after training at Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas. She loves to make chocolate sculptures, and the bake-off appeals to her artistic side. “I try to think of it as just another medium,” she says. “Instead of a clay pot, a gingerbread house.”
Though the event itself is all about food, so is the organization it supports. Christ Kitchen was founded as a way for Martinez to provide work to women in poverty and recovery. The first products they made were packaged beans and lentils. For Martinez, who is also artistically inclined, cooking and developing recipes was a way to spend time with her kids. In the beginning, she wrote all the recipes herself and her home phone number was on each package. She started getting calls with recipe questions and tips and tricks, sometimes late at night.
The women would put together the packages of food and share a meal together, often what they were making that day. As volunteers joined the circle, and the Kitchen gained momentum, it became a place for women of varied backgrounds, bank accounts, races and circumstances to connect, all around food. “I don’t know of other places where women sit together at a table together from all walks of life and chat,” says Martinez. For her, that’s where so much of the mission of Christ Kitchen is fulfilled.
Consider going to the Northern Quest Pavilion December 8 to experience three hours of fast-paced gingerbread assembly and precision decorating. If you can’t make the event itself, the assembled houses are on display all month.
Looking on, you might not know who had a close call at a red light, or how many countless hours went into each tiny, whimsical piece. But that’s all part of the magic.
2019 Gingerbread Build-Off
Northern Quest Hotel & Casino
Sunday, December 8
Kick off the holidays with the 15th annual gingerbread competition, benefiting Christ Kitchen. Watch local culinary teams create sweet masterpieces, vote for your favorite, and even create mini versions of your own.
There’ll be holiday music, photos with Mr. & Mrs. Gingerbread, plus snacks, beverages and raffle tickets available for purchase.
Gingerbread on display until December 22 unday