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A Childhood Memory Inspired Him to Become a Gingerbread House Artist

As a child, he built a gingerbread house with his mother; now, he builds them with his daughter.

Gingerbread artist Matt Maley; photo courtesy Matt Maley
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Not many people have thought as much about gingerbread as I have. Making cookies with Mom’s special gingerbread recipe was always a Christmas tradition. One year, for something a little different, she and I made a simple gingerbread house for dessert.

It was the centerpiece of our Christmas table. My cousins eyed it throughout the meal. “We can’t eat that,” my aunt said. “It’s too pretty.” I was the first to help myself to a chunk of roof. Eating it was the whole point.

Gingerbread house; photo courtesy Matt Maley
One of Matt’s gingerbread creations

Well, eating that one was. When my daughter, Lianna, and I made one of those gingerbread house kits many years later, eating it was definitely not the point. But we had a blast, adding a few touches of our own. Then my wife, Adrienne, mentioned an annual gingerbread house contest held at Mohonk Mountain House resort in the foothills of the Catskills, not far from where we live. “First prize is a two-night stay,” Adrienne said. “Why not enter?”

I’m an artist by trade, mostly graphic design and illustration, but I’ve also done quite a bit of sculpting. And what was a gingerbread house if not a type of sculpture? Only every part of it had to be edible. The challenge! The creativity! The fun!

I considered digging out my mom’s gingerbread recipe, but her cookies were a little too soft for what I had in mind. I needed the industrial strength stuff that would taste like something right out of The Flintstones. My aunt had been on to something with her comment about a house that was too pretty to eat.

In the fall of 2017, I worked feverishly on the project. Educating myself, testing out ingredients—but first I built a cardboard and foam core mock-up of my vision: a spiral staircase and flower tower with a gigantic candy cane as the central load-bearing rod. I worked out the kinks in the model, so rebuilding the whole thing with gingerbread pieces wasn’t that hard. At the end I went nuts with icing for the ivy and flowering vines.

On the day of judging, Adrienne and I walked around the grand hall at Mohonk. More than 100 gingerbread houses were on display amid the Christmas finery. “It’s like the Academy Awards,” Adrienne whispered as the winners were announced. I took first place. I was hooked.

In 2018 I was sure that the candied stained-glass windows on my gingerbread treehouse would give me the winning edge. I nabbed fourth place. In 2019 I crafted a three-story grist mill with a water wheel and a stream. I pulled an all-nighter trying to get the water to look like it was flowing. I woke with a start, surrounded by bits of chocolate and gingerbread crumbs, when Lianna put a steaming cup of coffee in front of me. “Keep going, Dad,” she said. “You’ll figure it out.”

I won third place. But my real reward came when I noticed a little boy carefully studying the mill. “Momma,” he said, “I want to live in there.”

Maybe that’s what my crazy hobby was all about. A way to recreate the wonder I felt the year Mom and I made our first gingerbread house. That, and the camaraderie that comes along with it. Last year, a college friend and I participated in a national gingerbread competition on the Food Network. We didn’t win, but I did get invited to the Gingerfriends Facebook group. (Who knew?)

One late night I posted about my frustration: “The chocolate melts down my fingers faster than I can sculpt it!” Ten minutes later: “Dude, I keep a glove in the freezer for that.” What a game changer! Each year I design and build a different house. None of them last more than a single Christmas. But the gingerbread house tradition is fixed in me forever.

Adrienne recently surprised me with an out-of-season request. “I have a craving for gingerbread,” she said. “Nothing fancy. Maybe some cookies?” We pulled out Mom’s recipe. I really did intend to make only the cookies. But I found myself sculpting a little log cabin to slide into the oven alongside them. Despite the softer texture, that house was as strong as anything I’d ever made. Delicious too. This year, I’ll use Mom’s recipe in competition, and the family tradition will reach a new height.

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