Cary woman’s groundbreaking technique takes national gingerbread prize

Groundbreaking baking takes top prize

akenney@newsobserver.comDecember 22, 2012 


  • Four keys to gingerbread success 1 Find your idea. Ann Bailey says she doesn’t put any limits on her concepts, which have included a scene in Santa’s library, a collection of musical instruments and gingerbread deer. Of course, a simpler shape will be easier, but if you’re willing to experiment, Bailey says, you can transform your baking into any form. 2 Build a prototype. Bailey uses wood or paper to hash out her ideas’ aesthetics and structure. She also uses the early design to make stencils, which she uses to bake walls and pieces into the right shapes. 3 Do your homework. Bailey likes to experiment in the kitchen to perfect her methods, but a quick Google search can also turn up a plethora of baking and construction techniques. The blog “Kitchen Table Scraps” offers a comprehensive guide to gingerbread art at 4 Bake, carve, assemble and glue. Ensure that you’ve got a stable base, and don’t start working until you’ve got your royal icing glue, gingerbread, decorations and base ready. It can be helpful to decorate gingerbread walls before putting them together, and to have some helping hands nearby. The key to a real winner, Bailey says, is persistence: “I have thrown a lot of them upside down in the garbage can. My husband can attest to that. A lot of gingerbread has been slung over the years.”

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 Bailey’s countertop.

That’s because it’s a prototype for the Cary woman’s grand-prize-winning piece of gingerbread. In one form or another, gingerbread made up nearly every bit of Bailey’s prizewinning nativity, which featured three wise men, a camel and a vine-wrapped archway.

Bailey’s innovative baking took top honors at last month’s 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 she’s 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, it’s 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 wasn’t 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 Santa’s 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 year’s project starts right when we get home from that,” Thomas Bailey said.

Bailey’s 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-TV’s “Good Morning America” on Christmas morning.

For the admittedly competitive woman, it’s a sweet end to a long quest.

“I was blown away, I was overwhelmed,” she said. “When you’ve sat up there for six years in the top 10, you don’t expect them to call your name.”

But they did indeed, and now she’s planning to take a few years’ hiatus from the competition. Like an athlete retiring at her peak, she’s ready for a break while the getting’s good.

“It was the best I could possibly do,” she said of the wise men and camel. “Maybe not. Who knows what will come?”

Kenney: 919-460-2608

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