Annual gingerbread house under construction

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published December 2, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 30, 2012 at 11:16 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Cecila Mendez works on the Arlington Hotel’s gingerbread house. The hotel creates a large gingerbread house in the lobby every year for Christmas.

— It is not your usual construction job when those who stop to watch ask to taste a sample.

However, it is a regular occurrence when bakers from the kitchen of the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa are building the hotel’s traditional gingerbread house.

“We have been asked for a sample several times while we have been working,” said Executive Chef Richard Davis, who is building his first Arlington gingerbread house.

The chef was having to refuse the requests for a taste Tuesday as the gingerbread was being plastered onto the frame set up in the lobby of the hotel.

“This is construction-grade gingerbread,” Davis said. “It is a lot more dense and has very little flavor. There is a lot more baking powder and baking soda in it to make it sturdy.”

Vanda Lynn Gates of Lake Village was one of the spectators asking for a bite. She was staying in the Arlington to attend the Arkansas Farm Bureau Convention with her husband.

“We saw our first Arlington gingerbread house years ago when we brought my husband’s mother up to see it the year his father died,” Gates said. “We wanted to change up the season for her, and my sons were little.”

Now a visit to the gingerbread house is often part of the season for the family, she said.

“It is never the same, and we love to guess how many pieces of candy are used on it,” Gates said. “We have been here more than a dozen times. It is always fun.”

The bystanders watched as two bakers, who have worked on the house more than five Christmas seasons, added and replaced pieces of gingerbread under direction of the chef.

The planks of the bread are hard to cut and will stand up through the holiday season. The frame of the huge doll house was built around six years ago. It is made of plywood and was constructed by the hotel’s engineering department, said Bob Martorana, general manager of the hotel.

The hotel has displayed a huge gingerbread house since at least 1985. The current model stands more than 8 feet high, a two-story structure with several rooms of sweet-tooth treasures all covered with gingerbread siding and shingles and far too many pieces of candy to count.

Holding everything in place is a meringue made with the usual ingredients of egg white, cream of tartar and just a little sugar as a binder.

“Then we just whip it like crazy,” Davis said. “When we are done, it is a lot like drywall mud, which is what we need.”

The chef said most people think frosting would be better, but he said all the sugar in frosting makes it susceptible to heat and humidity.

In all, the house will carry more than 400 pounds of flour, brown sugar and powered sugar, along with the egg whites and some ginger.

“We do add ginger,” Davis said. “We want people to be able to smell it in the atmosphere. It is gingerbread, not just cake.

The gingerbread is made in the kitchens and mixed in a large mixer that may be one of the oldest in existence, Davis said.

“It came off of an old ship in the Navy,” he said. “It used to have a plaque on it, I am told, but it has been repainted over and over again. It has a transmission and throttle; it is a big machine.”

Chef Davis is new to the Arlington, having joined the hotel Oct. 4. A native of Tucson, Ariz., he moved to Arkansas 10 years ago. He came to the hotel after being the executive sous-chef at Oaklawn Park.

“I’ve always enjoyed coming and seeing the decorations at the Arlington on my own, with my family,” he said. “Now it is great to be a part of the making of this gingerbread house.”

Davis said he is improvising on the design this year as he finds out how the construction materials hold up and how the environment of the large hotel lobby affects the house.

He said one change he is making is to use gingerbread-men cookies as shingles on the roof of the house.

“I knew I didn’t want to just use sheets of gingerbread,” Davis said. “So, since I was making shingles, why not use the cookies?”

Between the baking, the building and the decorating, he said it will take more than 100 man-hours to build the house.

“I could not do it without the help of these two ladies,” Davis said, pointing to Cecila Mendez and Christina Serrerno, who were slicing gingerbread to fit as the siding and window frames.

“When it comes time for the candy, the children and families of the staff all come in and have a great time,” Davis said. “My wife and kids will be coming.”

As the new chef, Davis said, he wants to pump up the quality of the food he serves at the grand hotel, built in 1927.

“I want our guests to experience historic meals in this historic hotel,” he said.

The decorations will be up and the gingerbread house finished starting this weekend, and they will be on display through December at the Arlington on Central Avenue in Hot Springs.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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