The biblical wise man in his flowing robes looks like an acrylic statue. But if you were hungry enough, you could take a bite of the figure on Ann Baileys countertop.
Thats because its a prototype for the Cary womans grand-prize-winning piece of gingerbread. In one form or another, gingerbread made up nearly every bit of Baileys prizewinning nativity, which featured three wise men, a camel and a vine-wrapped archway.
Baileys innovative baking took top honors at last months national gingerbread house competition in Asheville. Granted, the nativity scene is not exactly a house but Bailey, 58, employed a groundbreaking gingerbread technique that may revolutionize the decorative holiday baking scene.
I think shes really kind of on the cutting edge, said Thomas Bailey, her husband. I knew she had a killer idea when she built the first gingerbread wise man last December.
Bailey spent hours in the kitchen gaming out the perfect technique to make rippling, finely shaped bread. The answer turned out to be a boiled slurry of gingerbread, gelatin, corn syrup, vinegar and olive oil.
To get the finely detailed look, she wrapped the putty-like bread around cores of traditional gingerbread, then allowed it to set in its form. She baked six wise men to get her final three, each taking about 40 hours of baking, carving, cooling and shaping. The camel alone took 80 hours.
I cannot begin to tell you the struggles we had with it, she said. It worked, its a beautiful piece, but the end result took a lot of time.
The debut of her five-piece gingerbread tableau raised eyebrows and questions at the Grove Park Inn, where about 200 artisans and thousands of visitors gather for its yearly competition, the kingpin of the gingerbread scene.
Several people asked whether the wise men were even made of gingerbread. Of course they were: Ann Bailey, a professional cake decorator and a designer, is an edible architecture purist.
I didnt want to do all this fondant and gum paste, she said.
And, amazingly enough, the building materials stayed not just edible but palatable through the entire process. Bailey quickly found the formula she wanted, but it was tedious work to shape her ginger gel into the complex contours of her gingerbread nativity. The camel took only one try, but quite a few wise men ended up in the trash can.
The reward for close to a year of planning and experimentation was a $5,000 prize, two nights at The Grove Park Inn and the coveted grand-prize ribbon that Bailey had chased since she first learned of the national competition in 2006. She hadnt made so much as a gingerbread cottage when she saw the architectural wonders on display on the Food Network, but the idea had instant appeal.
I had loved to bake, although I wasnt much of a baker at the time. My baking usually came out of a box, Bailey said. Her first entry, an over-iced birdhouse, was pretty crummy she said, no pun intended.
The next year she placed in the top 10 and by 2009 had taken first place with Santas library. By then she was starting work months in advance of the contest and teaching herself a range of new techniques.
The competition is usually held the week before Thanksgiving, and next years project starts right when we get home from that, Thomas Bailey said.
Baileys grand-prize win came in front of a packed ballroom of competitors and gingerbread fans. Her prize-winning work is expected to appear on ABC-TVs Good Morning America on Christmas morning.
For the admittedly competitive woman, its a sweet end to a long quest.
I was blown away, I was overwhelmed, she said. When youve sat up there for six years in the top 10, you dont expect them to call your name.
But they did indeed, and now shes planning to take a few years hiatus from the competition. Like an athlete retiring at her peak, shes ready for a break while the gettings good.
It was the best I could possibly do, she said of the wise men and camel. Maybe not. Who knows what will come?