‘Tis the season … for making gingerbread houses—or museums! 🤷♀️
My name is Caitlin and I’m the Curatorial Assistant and Publications Manager here at The Aldrich. Before I started working at the Museum full-time, I worked at many bakeries in New York and Connecticut for several years as a sugar artist of sorts. This is how I made a living after undergrad and throughout grad school—and it’s still one of my favorite “mediums” to work with in my free time. Naturally, I jump with joy at any chance to combine my love of art with my love of baking, so when our Executive Director, Cybele Maylone, asked me if I would be interested in making The Aldrich out of gingerbread for a local event at the Lounsbury House, I almost fell off my chair in excitement. It’s worth noting that I also happen to be a holiday fanatic (to put this in perspective, my office desk is usually embellished with Christmas lights and a mini tree this time of year). Needless to say, I was thrilled to take on this project.
My game plan was this: make a replica of the Museum and Sculpture Garden—including some of Frank Stella’s star sculptures—solely out of gingerbread and candy. The gingerbread museum would be presented on a plywood foundation at roughly 5 x 3 feet, the windows would be made of sugar glass, and it would be lit inside and out with holiday lights. Sometimes my excitement, and consequent ambition, clouds the part of my brain where reality prevails. And then the curtain of fantasy is drawn, and I suddenly remember that I had never actually made gingerbread before.
After the countless hours of constructing custom gingerbread houses (shout out to Sweet Lisa’s!), the surprising first step was to find and test a gingerbread recipe. Luckily, the first recipe I tried was exactly what I needed—plenty of corn syrup made for extra sturdy gingerbread “walls,” which was great for structural integrity and support, but I would highly recommend not trying to eat it. The royal icing “cement” is very simple to make, the hardest part is finding meringue powder at the grocery store (Stop & Shop occasionally carries it, but Amazon and Michaels are your fail-safes).
After making an absurd amount of dough and royal icing, I moved onto the planning stage. This stage is also known as the headache-from-too-much-math stage. Here I must give many thanks to our Head of Exhibitions and Facilities, Chris Manning, who provided me with the Museum blueprints and a custom plywood base (which he had to re-cut after I had the delayed idea—again, ambition fog—to measure my door frame). In order to simplify the blueprints, I made small, very rough sketches of every front-, rear-, side-, and top-facing shape, then converted the measurements to the appropriate scale and created a template guide.
Due to the modern design of our Museum building—short and long—the gingerbread Aldrich would need a large footprint in order to gain enough height. Therefore, the gingerbread museum (measuring 26 x 32 inches) needed a large base to accommodate the front terrace, the building itself, and the Sculpture Garden (thanks again, Chris!).The Aldrich’s 17,000 square-foot facility was newly designed by Boston’s Tappé Associates in 2004 and includes a two-acre Sculpture Garden which has hosted outdoor works since the Museum’s founding in 1964.
Once I had my to-scale guide in place, I started creating stencils of each wall and roof on cardstock. Using my makeshift stencils, I cut out each shape from the gingerbread dough, rolled to ¼ inch thickness, and baked for 25 minutes. After all the pieces were baked, my next step was to create “glass” windows using hot sugar (I used isomalt which is a sugar substitute that hardens clear, unlike regular sugar which sets with a yellow hue). An important note to ensure success while working with isomalt (one that I figured out after my first failed attempt): invest in a candy thermometer and make sure to heat the isomalt to 320°F. Fun fact: a candy thermometer differs from a meat thermometer because it reaches a higher temperature and generally has a longer stem to prevent sugar burns (BE CAREFUL!). Once the sugar was heated to 320°F, I let it cool for one minute and then poured it into a glass measuring cup with a spout for easy use. While each gingerbread wall with windows was lying flat on a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet (you can also use a silicon mat), I carefully poured the hot sugar into each opening. If brought to the correct temperature, the sugar should harden within 10-15 minutes.
Once the sugar windows cooled completely, it was finally time to start assembling! I started “gluing” the right side of the gingerbread museum and grew the framework of the rest of it out from there. When the skeleton of the structure was fully adjoined, I inserted the interior battery-operated lights and structural supports (I used plastic cake dowels), then set on the roof pieces.
Now that the structure itself was complete, I was able to move on to the really fun part: DECORATING! (Although, filling a shopping cart with $100 worth of candy may have been more fun than the actual decorating.) I started off with the two long roofs because I knew what I wanted to do with them: create red and green shingles using sour strips cut into squares.
From there, I created a tri-color pattern made up of Sno-Caps and red and green M&M’s on two of the four flat roofs, and then used alternating rows of red and green Chiclets and Mike & Ike’s for the remaining two. The side walls were lined with chocolate mints and rainbow-hued Chiclets on one side, peppermint Hershey’s Kisses on the other, and punctuated with the occasional sugar reindeer, Santa, or gummy wreathe. The windows and roof overhangs were trimmed with royal icing snow, the building was draped with Christmas-colored Nerds garlands, and the entire compound was dusted with non-melting sugar.
But what would The Aldrich be without art? My next challenge was trying to create Frank Stella’s star sculptures—which inhabit our Sculpture Garden and will remain on view through September 7, 2021—out of some sort of edible materials. Considering the sculptures dynamic shapes and complex geometric forms, I had trouble figuring out where to begin.
I thought it would be awesome to have a sugar version of Fat 12 Point Carbon Fiber Star, 2016, in the gingerbread Project Space (the Museum gallery located in the rear of the right annex) and be able to see it looming through the illuminated sugar glass. I tried looking online for a star-shaped chocolate mold, but I only found traditional five-pointed stars that didn’t have much depth, so then I thought about deconstructing the star in the same way that it was created (see assembly photo below)—if I could find a mold with a similar shape to just oneof its pointed arms, then maybe I could conjoin multiples together to create the form. The closest thing I could find to this shape was a diamond mold (very popular for bridal showers and wedding treats). I melted down a bag of black candy melts, poured the chocolate into the mold, popped it in the freezer for about ten minutes, and VOILA! To my surprise, my idea worked, and it was actually relatively simple to build. I put some warm chocolate in a piping bag and used it as glue to fuse the rays together.
Since I didn’t have much room in the “Sculpture Garden,” I decided to only make one of the large stars. Because Jasper’s Split Star, 2017, had similar legs to Fat 12 Point Carbon Fiber Star, and because I had no clue how to make a latticed endpoint, I went with Frank’s Wooden Star, 2014. Our Director of Marketing and Communications, Emily Devoe, had the brilliant idea to use pretzel sticks. I honestly thought that this star was going to be easy (*laughs at my foolish, more naïve self*). Let’s just say that my first star combusted under pressure…or my hand. My second attempt proved more successful because I switched my “glue” from royal icing to chocolate to hot sugar. Hot sugar is an amazing fixative, but the thing about hot sugar is that, well, it’s hot. I had to be careful with this assembly process because hot sugar burns are no joke, especially because it’s basically glue that you can’t get off. I’m happy to report that no injuries were endured, and my method was a success!
Lastly, I wanted to make Stainless split star with truss segments, 2016, which is installed in The Aldrich’s inner courtyard. This sugar sculpture was shockingly simple to make and may be my favorite addition to the gingerbread museum. I found a star mold that was a bit more stylized than others I’ve seen but would have still been too flat to have used for Fat 12 Point Carbon Fiber Star. However, it worked perfectly for this piece. I used the leftover black candy melts and filled four stars in the mold. After the chocolate hardened in the freezer, I joined the flat sides of each together, creating two stable star forms. I adhered one of the stars on top of the other using warm chocolate, and then affixed chocolate-coated pretzels onto the conjoined body. Once the piece rested for a bit and the chocolate firmed, I painted the entire thing with metallic silver edible dust and placed it in the courtyard.
Now that the gingerbread Aldrich was finally complete, there was still one last challenge ahead of me: transportation. I am here to attest that after working with incredibly fragile desserts and tiered cakes for many years, orders are never truly finished until they arrive safely to their destinations, resulting in many anxiety-filled, sleepless nights. Lucky for me, our Registrar-extraordinaire, Mary Kenealy, had the idea to ask our trusted art transportation company, Crozier Fine Arts, if they’d be interested in transporting the gingerbread museum to the Lounsbury House. Crozier excitedly agreed and the crew came to my studio apartment to pick it up—a huge thank you to Crozier for alleviating my gingerbread stress! Their dedication to safely transporting the gingerbread house exceeded my expectations: they actually created a custom box with layers of foam that fit to the gingerbread museum’s dimensions perfectly. The guys agreed that this was not their typical cargo, and it was very funny to see the giant truck pull up to the Lounsbury House with this special delivery.
Below are some photos of the final product. You can see the gingerbread Aldrich for yourself on display in the Lounsbury House’s massive windows through December 20, and then at The Aldrich beginning December 21 through the holiday season. If you’d like to create your own custom gingerbread house, recipes for the dough and royal icing are downloadable below. We would love to see your designs! Post your most creative gingerbread buildings on social media and tag The Aldrich (@thealdrich)!