Make Your Gingerbread House Dough Now, and Other Tips from The Ivy’s German Pastry Chef
In the little over two years since The Ivy Hotel opened in Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, its Holiday Tea has already become a classic. The beautifully restored 19th-century mansion transforms each winter: poinsettias and boughs of fragrant greenery fill the conservatory, library and other common spaces in the luxury hotel, white light-trimmed trees sparkle from the windows of the turret and the usual afternoon tea service is replaced with a delightful holiday version. And thanks to the property’s new German pastry chef, this year will also include a festive new addition. Chef Hans-Jurgen Sund is building a gingerbread display inspired by of his own childhood traditions.
“As a kid, my grandfather made two gingerbread houses out of wood,” says chef Sund, who hails from Berlin. “And the tradition in Germany is that the Christmas tree and decorations go up on the 24th, and that’s when you can eat the candies off the gingerbread house.” The chef plans to deck out his creation with real lights, stained-glass windows, chocolate Santas, praline-filled snowmen, piped-icing icicles and more classic accoutrements. “It’s an old fashioned-style village,” says Sund. “I’m kind of old-fashioned.”
The custom dates back to the early 19th century in Germany, inspired by the Grimm fairytale Hansel and Gretel, in which two kids lost in the woods come upon a house made of gingerbread and candy inhabited by a witch. While the duo’s adventure was harrowing, guests at the Ivy can expect a more relaxing afternoon, with tiers of treats like chocolate snowmen and moose, miniature fruit cakes (chef Hans says the fruit has been marinating for those since August), holiday cookies (including lebkuchen) and sweet pumpkin tarts, as well as an assortment of savory tea sandwiches.
Chef Mark Levy, who helms the kitchen at Magdalena, the Ivy’s on-site restaurant, says he knew Sund was the real deal the first time the two met. “Not only does Hans make apple strudel, but he uses a certain technique,” says the English-born chef with Austrian roots. “He makes the dough, then hand-stretches it until it’s about four feet long. It gets cut in half, and then baked. It’s really a sight to behold, and it smells incredible. I don’t know any pastry chef who I’ve worked with in the last twenty years who still makes it that way.”
The Ivy’s Holiday Tea kicks off on December 3 and goes through the end of January, but read on for chef Hans’ tips on creating your own traditional gingerbread house.
Make the Dough Now
Like the marinating fruit for his fruitcake, chef Sund has also already made his gingerbread dough. He stores it in the refrigerator until he’s ready to bake it, which allows time for the spices to really soak in, he says.
The Perfect Parts
Once you roll out the dough, place it on the baking sheet before cutting it to avoid any tearing. Chef Sund uses a paper template, a ruler and an exacto knife to ensure he has the precise pieces for his sweet structure. Any imperfections can be corrected after it’s baked with the icing.
When It Comes to Icing, Consistency Is Key
Chef Sund uses royal icing to glue the house together, as well as for decorations like icicles and adhering candies. When mixing the icing, the chef cautions to make sure it’s not runny, but also that it’s not super stiff, “so whoever pipes it doesn’t break their wrist.” He also suggests investing in a professional icing bag, since plastic bags will tear because of the icing’s thicker consistency. After assembling the house, let it sit overnight so everything sets before adding the decorations.
While he says it’s really up to the decorator’s imagination, the chef prefers to create the traditional gingerbread house reminiscent of his own childhood. “Get a toy like a Santa on a bicycle and stick that on top of the house,” he says. “It should also have a chimney.”