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Good enough to eat: Creativity finds a home at annual Gingerbread House Exhibit

Bonforte kids
Amy Bonforte/Special to the Town Crier
Tazio and Tessa Bonforte, ages 9 and 5, are regular participants in the Los Altos Gingerbread House Exhibit. Their current interests inspire their projects.

During the holidays, local artists young and old plan out fantasylands and dream homes of gingerbread and candy. They’re making lists and gathering materials, eager to turn on their ovens and get to work. Whether they’ve been at it for years or are attempting their first gingerbread house, they’re ready to get creative and have some fun.

This year marks the 31st annual city of Los Altos Gingerbread House exhibit. Beginning with general themes such as gingerbread, “Candyland” or “Toyland,” participants put on their thinking caps to come up with a personal vision. Last year’s creations ranged from candy-trimmed houses and fairy-tale scenes to farm, beach and camping themes – even an elaborate gingerbread Stonehenge. An average of 40 creations are on display each year, some with multiple makers.

Inspiration and technique

Bullis Charter School students Tazio and Tessa Bonforte, ages 9 and 5, respectively, have participated for the past four years. Their mother, Amy, said they’re usually inspired by their current interests.

“Tazio loves video games and he’s done a Mario theme two years now,” she said. “Tessa’s usually involve a lot of pink candy.”

Longtime participant Mary Feibusch said the projects her daughter Megan, 13, has chosen over the years reflect her growing up.

“When she was younger, we did ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’ ‘Tinker Bell’s Tea Party’ and ‘Scooby-Doo,’” she said of their evolving themes. “Now that she’s older, we did ‘Stranger Things.’”

Megan said her “Stranger Things” project was inspired by her favorite TV show of the same name, only with an alternate ending.

“In the last episode, they’re closing the portal. … The idea (was) if the portal hadn’t closed, what would have happened,” Megan explained.

Feibusch’s favorites include a nativity scene and a Charlie Brown display, where “each of the Charlie Brown characters had decided to sponsor a worthy cause.”

It’s a multigenerational affair for the Feibusches, one that involves serious artistry. One year, with help from Feibusch’s mother, who then worked at the Children’s Discovery Museum, they replicated the front of the museum and adorned it with Christmas lights.

“Grandma will watch every cake-decorating competition show so that we can learn new techniques and try out new ways of making our houses look better,” Feibusch said. “One year Sandy (Ogaz, a longtime family friend and exhibit participant) even gave me an airbrush for Christmas specifically with the gingerbread house display in mind.”

“Aunt” Sandy’s twin boys, Patrick and Christopher Ogaz, also have been involved with the event for more than a decade. Now in college, the twins first joined the event at age 9.

Two of Patrick’s favorite projects were their tribute to Disneyland’s 60th anniversary and their Peanuts’ theme. Inspiration for the former included a trip to Disneyland, and family and friends provided many helping hands.

“This is a fun event, as we tend to have festive Christmas music playing and using our imagination to make anything we want that … relates to the theme,” he said.

Mishaps and learning curves

Lest the elaborate creations of some of the culinary artists intimidate potential new participants, they shouldn’t. There are beginning exhibitors each year, and as the more experienced are happy to admit, mishaps are inevitable – but it’s all about fun.

Candace Avina, who works for the city of Los Altos and has overseen the exhibit for the past few years, participated with her family for the first time last fall. Coming up with an idea early in the year, she said that “after a week of trying to create a cylindrical shape with gingerbread,” they ended up creating a more traditional house, “along with regular gingerbread cookies that my daughters and I got to decorate to show off in the exhibit.”

Undeterred by last year’s logistical difficulties, Avina said they’ll try again this year to implement her vision.

“My family has a better feel for how to work with the gingerbread and a different idea on how to make the shape we are looking for,” she said.

Feibusch said they’ve had experienced mishaps as their “learning curves increased.” Their first house had hard-candy walls, “clear like lollipops,” that absorbed water and became brittle and began to crumble just before the exhibit.

“I had to quickly repour them all,” she recalled.

Another mistake involved the nativity scene to which several kids contributed: “One of them put pigs in the nativity scene,” Feibusch said. “My husband laughed and laughed because there would have been no pigs in a Jewish manger.”

Yet another year, the Feibusch’s Children’s Discovery Museum replica “kept tipping over and crushing all of our characters,” Feibusch said.

But missteps can sometimes beget even more creativity. Feibusch said that one of her favorite displays over the years, by another exhibitor, was “a beautiful house from Disney’s movie ‘Up,’ and its roof had collapsed. Originally, I think the entrant intended to have the ‘Up’ house by itself, but after the roof collapsed, they (added) a toy wrecking-ball and labeled it ‘What would have happened if he had sold the house.’ It was so clever.”

Feibusch said frustration occasionally creeps in: “If we’ve had a difficult build, sometimes we look at each other and say, ‘Never again,’ and then next year we do it all again because it’s become a family tradition. It starts Christmas season for us,” she said.

Patrick Ogaz said that when things don’t go as planned, such as their Eiffel Tower made of wafer crackers – “We had to build it three times and it still was leaning at the end” – they embrace their imperfections and keep trying.

The bottom line, Avina said, is fun – not perfection.

“Don’t worry if it’s not perfect,” she said. “Even if the roof caves in when you’re on the way – still bring it. All of us know what it feels like. We know how much time and effort and energy goes into it. … It just has to come from the heart. It’s something that brings people together.”

Getting creative with materials

Rule No. 1 is that all materials be edible (edible items in a nonedible form, such as dried pasta or beans, may be used).

Feibusch said they’ve gone from Rice Krispie treats and fondant to pasta, cinnamon sticks, fresh rosemary stalks and “super strong” gingerbread from a recipe provided by Megan’s teacher. She said a “Finding Nemo” display one year “was so much fun because we poured molten hot isomalt sugar over ice cubes to make coral.”

For the spider-like monster hovering over her “Stranger Things” creation, Megan said that “instead of flat gingerbread, we used rolled gingerbread, like a pipe. Then we glued (the parts) together with modeling chocolate, covered it in fondant and added coloring with an airbrush.” A bit of trial and error was involved; Megan said they didn’t know if it would work, and that it fell over on their first attempt.

The Bonforte kids use gingerbread for the main structure and embellish with royal icing, ice cream cones, marshmallows, sprinkles, licorice, gumdrops and a variety of other candy.

“If you leave it without supervision,” said their mother, Amy, “the candy magically starts disappearing.”

Avina advised exhibitors to get creative when they’re deciding on their edible materials: “Think outside the box – there have been extraordinary uses of different types of candy and different food types to create awesome gingerbread houses.”

Voices of experience

Feibusch’s advice for newcomers is to go for it: “My skills have improved over the past 12 years. You can buy just about anything you need at Michaels. It’s so much fun to see what everyone comes up with. … Even if our houses look terrible, we had the fun of getting together every year trying new techniques and making our gingerbread house for the display.”

Megan suggested trying “not to limit yourself to the classic gingerbread house – go out and do whatever you want. It doesn’t need to be perfect – it’s more about the experience.”

Patrick Ogaz recommends trying new things and unconventional foods, as well as watching the Food Network for ideas and techniques.

“It becomes so fun when you have a theme you love, get creative and don’t worry about it looking perfect,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to fail. The more the merrier – invite friends to help out!”

Amy Bonforte advises entrants: “Stay creative and try your best. And eat the candy! … The Los Altos exhibit is a special tradition for our family and we all look forward to it.”

She added that they’ve had so much fun, they now host an annual gingerbread house-decorating party at their home.

Patrick Ogaz echoed the theme of tradition: “We first did it with family and friends, and it has been a hallmark of the holiday season ever since.”

As for Megan, she predicts that someday she’ll be doing it with her own kids.

This year’s gingerbread houses are scheduled for display 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays Nov. 27 through Dec. 6, as well as 10 a.m. to noon Dec. 1. at Hillview Community Center, Room 2, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos. Comment cards are provided for exhibit viewers to write notes to the creators.

To participate in this year’s event, call Candace Avina at 947-2790 or visit losaltosca.gov/recreation/page/gingerbread-house-exhibit as soon as possible. Applications will be accepted until space is filled.

Gingerbread
(from Megan Feibusch’s teacher, Mrs. Lawhorne)

• 2 sticks of butter
• 1 cup dark brown sugar
• 1/2 cup dark corn syrup
• 2 tablespoons cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons ginger
• 3 teaspoons cloves
• 2 teaspoons baking soda
• 4 cups flour

Bake on cookie sheet covered with parchment paper at 400 F until edges are browned – 8-20 minutes, depending on thickness.

Feibusch said that “if it distorts during cooking, you can straighten it back out by cutting your straight lines while it is hot. A pizza cutter works well. It will burn if you are not careful.” She also advises using an electric mixer rather than trying to mix by hand.

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