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The Queen of Gingerbread Tells Us Her Gingerbread Secrets

Bon Appetit / December 2016

A Q&A with Gingerbread Champ Beatriz Müller

Beatriz Müller started thinking about gingerbread in April, the exact time of year when no one else is thinking about gingerbread.

But by November, she had put in 340 hours building her “Dream House” and drove her cake van 870 miles to Asheville, North Carolina. There, 150 gingerbread enthusiasts gathered to show off their elaborate, once-edible creations for the 24th Annual National Gingerbread Competition. Judges from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Sugar Collection ranked creativity, difficulty, and precision to choose the grand prize winner of $8500, classes with Nicholas Lodge’s prestigious sugar arts school, and a year’s worth of priceless baker’s bragging rights.

Competition was fierce from all corners of the country, but Müller, from Innisfil, Ontario, stole the show with her two-foot-tall “Dream House.” Müller, 53, is a high school teacher turned professional cake decorator and Certified Master Sugar Artist. We asked her what inspired her, how she did it and just how many hours it takes to be a gingerbread champ.

Bon Appétit: You’re already a cake professional; does that mean you’re also a gingerbread expert?
Beatriz Müller: Not at all! I’ve made gingerbread before, but this is my first gingerbread competition piece. I heard about this competition 5 years ago and told my son, ‘One day I’ll enter.’ This year I actually did.

Why now? What finally inspired you and “Dream House”?
I was inspired by the work of painter Daniel Merriam. He does the most beautiful, magical architectural paintings. I see his art and always wonder, ‘Could I do that in a cake?’ I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see. But pieces like this take a lot of time, which you have to find and set your mind to. I started in April and worked on it whenever I could. It took about 340 hours.

340 hours?! Where do you even start?
With a rough sketch on a piece of paper. I make a pattern and cut each piece by hand to build a cardboard model to show where supports should go. Then I roll and cut the dough on top of wax paper to match the pattern [underneath]. I go piece by piece, using a pizza cutter for the bigger pieces and an Xacto knife for the little ones.

Is there any margin for error? And don’t the cookies expand in the oven?
It has only the tiniest margin of error, so I use a recipe for gingerbread without butter. Butter in any dough makes it spread, so I use shortening instead. Also I need the cookies to be harder than usual, so I cook them at a lower temperature for longer: 325 and from 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the dough.

And then it’s gingerbread go-time? How do you start building?
First, every piece is painted with [brown] royal icing, especially the back of the cookie, because these are showpieces that have to last a long time. Gingerbread in particular absorbs a lot of humidity, which means crumbling. Once the pieces are dry, it’s constructed just like a real house: You start at the base, use beams and joints, then you add the walls—all made of gingerbread, of course.

And is the decorating the fun part?
Actually piping is tedious. You have to a lot of patience and a steady hand. I draw it first on paper for a visual, but once you’re on the cookie, it’s freehand. I mark the spacing with pins. I knew I wanted to do a lot of moulding and trimming, which is all done with piping and royal icing [egg whites and icing sugar]. The lace table is all piping, as is the hanging balcony: After ten times, hopefully it won’t break and you can put it up.

What about the more meticulous details then?
The stones are gum paste, which is like fondant but it dries faster. I lay them like floor tiles, only the “grout” here is [colored] royal icing. The grass and flowers—hundreds of them—are hand-piped and placed with special tiny tweezers. The stained glass is wafer paper, which is like Asian rice paper, hand-painted with food coloring. You can order printed patterns on them if you want, but I don’t do that. It’s cheating.

And then you’re done! All you have to do is transport it to another country.
I drove it 1,400 kilometers [870 miles] in my cake van. At the border, they made me open the box to show him. Then the agent called the other agents and they all came over to see it.

After all that, did you at least get to eat it?
No, the cake stays [in Asheville] for a whole year. If I want it back, I have to go pick it up. By then, it’ll be too old to eat.

Will you go back next year to defend your title?
I’m thinking about re-entering, and I have a few ideas, but we’ll see. If I go again, it’s going to have to be even better. I could hardly believe when I finished this one. When you’re working on it, pieces keep breaking and breaking, or you do something wrong and it doesn’t fit. You sometimes have to leave it and come back, otherwise you’ll cry. I’ve cried before, but not during this one.