BARRETT TWP. - Before crafting their own edible creations, several of tomorrow’s pastry chefs gained insight and met the man in red at Skytop Lodge Resort. The kindergarten class from Wallenpaupack South Elementary School traveled to the Monroe County resort before the holiday, where they talked with pastry chefs about a life-sized gingerbread house that was on display to help prepare for their upcoming project.
Kindergarten Teacher Liz Conklin said the trip was an opportunity for the students to gain “background knowledge” about gingerbread houses, before they made their own in class. This project is larger than normal, because the students incorporate lessons from class with information taken away from the trip, all the while using their senses to make their houses and work with their peers.
The first question from the students was how the house was built, so large. To that, Executive Pastry Chef Christa Sapone explained that the house starts with carpenters building a wooden frame, because without the frame, the dough would break apart due to the weight. Then, with the gingerbread in place, the icing was added to act as a form of cement.
To create the life-sized gingerbread house, about 14 batches of gingerbread dough was needed, and each batch weighed 200 pounds. An additional aspect to the trip, was that it gave the students an idea of a career they may not have otherwise been aware of. Each spring, the class walks around Newfoundland, stopping at the various businesses and meeting the professionals in their community.
By meeting the various creators and learning how the house was built, Conklin said it became a STEAM lesson since science, technology, engineering, art and math were all presented in the construction of the house and what is done in a bakery.
Before they took the trip, Conklin said the students understood what was needed to make a plan and how steps had to be followed for the plan to be completed; but by smelling the gingerbread, tasting the cookies combined with the lights of the kitchen and smalls, they would remember the experience as they made their own houses.
This was the second year for the trip, in part because it’s in the school’s backyard. Afterwards, Conklin said the fun part is seeing what the students remember when they talk about the trip and then transferring that information to their own projects. Conklin believes Christmas is about imagination and the spirit of the holiday, which made the trip all the more special because they would be involved in the creation of their houses.
From the large bowls used to the food coloring added, Sapone explained the process and the tools used to make gingerbread. Each batch of gingerbread consists of different food coloring. For the house at Skytop, the chefs start making dough in August and then, bake the pieces throughout October. Come November, the actual house starts to come to, with the chefs placing the gingerbread on the wooden frame. Sapone told the students the process takes time, because they are also making many other desserts as they work on the house. If they were only building the house, she figured they wouldn’t have to start until October.
The cement, or the icing, totals about 100 pounds, which the children were surprised to learn. Sapone went as far as explaining how an edible pathway was made, that started with laying the icing and then using egg whites and powdered sugar. While the sugar was still wet, the gingerbread pieces were placed. On the side of the house, there were chocolate pebbles. Sapone explained that the gingerbread pieces are “smooched” onto the house because the icing acts as cement, and additional icing is used to ensure they stay in place.
A student noticed little characters on the house, which Sapone explained how they were made, with another recognizing the rectangular shapes and others noting the candy leaves. The leaves which were made of fondant, Sapone said is a sugar dough that is rolled out and shaped by a leaf cutter. Another child informed Sapone that the gummy lifesavers were his favorite.
Going back to the construction aspect of the house, Sapone told the students how some pieces were so heavy, that actual screws were needed in addition to the icing. Observant of the details of the house, one student saw a clock that was said to be made from a wooden box with edible clock pieces.
As for the roof, it was made to resemble slate Sapone said, with black gingerbread dough cut into 150 rectangular shaped pieces. Looking inside of the home, it was made to look like the Skytop lobby.
Sapone was honest with the young chefs, telling them that there were details she wasn’t pleased with, but a challenge to every project is the need for more time and as for this house, it had to be done before Thanksgiving.
Handling the gingerbread pieces themselves is a task Sapone said, because they had to dry before they could be placed. The drying process takes at least a week, and they are baked to be made even harder.
Considering the initial plan, Sapone said she draws Skytop and then the details of the rocks and everything comes together, with the sugar windows. For Sapone, her favorite part of the project is decorating the house. All total, Sapone has made eight life-sized gingerbread houses, but she told the students before going big, she started by initially making small houses.
The house could last a few months after Christmas, but the interior starts cracking because it dries and breaks apart. To take it all down, a hammer is taken to the gingerbread, causing it to crumble to the floor and shoveled into the dumpster. Come next year, the entire process starts all over, because the gingerbread can’t be reused since its so dry Sapone told the students.
About four people take part in building the house, some working at night and others in the morning, each with different jobs. Noticing each aspect of the display, a student mentioned the presents, to which Sapone said staff from another department create, meaning teamwork is key since other departments help make the house.
Despite the initial ideas when the project begins, Sapone said her original ideas always change and the house is quite different than her original plans; stepping back and seeing the final product, she called “calming” because it turns out nice and people enjoy the “awesome masterpiece.”
In the bakery, Pastry Chef Jessica Keegan showed the students the equipment and tools she uses to make her pastries and desserts. Keegan compared a bowl the children may use to what she needs and explained how much more can be made with such a large bowl.
The ovens were noted as being larger than what the children had at home, each able to hold 10 trays that fitted 24 cookies, allowing for numerous cookies to be made at a time. At the end of a busy day, Keegan figured 500 cookies may be made. Each child sampled a cookie of their choice to their delight. Connecting what they were seeing to what they know, a teacher asked the students if the 50-pound bag of flour Keegan was using, could be found in their local grocery store.
With three large recipe books, Keegan told the students why knowing how to read and do math is important, since all of the treats at Skytop are made from scratch and multiple cakes are made at a time, requiring 24 pounds of sugar, 17 pounds of flour with 13.5 pounds of butter and shortening.
The students’ trip ended with each talking to Santa and telling him what they wanted for Christmas.
Connor Weber said the trip was “fun” because of the different aspects of the day, but he especially liked the gingerbread people on top of the house. But the m and m cookie he sampled was “very good.”
Logan Toth was surprised to see how large the gingerbread house was, since he had only seen “tiny” houses before. But, talking with Santa was his favorite part of the trip, because he told the man in red how he wanted power wheels and Legos.
Dominic Carrube learned how candy hardens and once that happens, it can’t be eaten. He called the gingerbread house “cool” because of its size and that it was made of gingerbread.
As for Travis Bayer, he was surprised to learn how there were screws used to build the gingerbread house, but it was the bakery that he especially liked because it was where he sampled an “awesome” chocolate chip cookie.