Rachel Peterson, former director of Norway House in Minneapolis, lived in Norway for almost 10 years. While there, she visited the city of Bergen where locals have been constructing gingerbread replicas of their beloved city during the holidays since 1991. Thousands of bakers, sponsors and volunteers help build an entire gingerbread town every year including homes, boats and cars to local landmarks and internationally recognized buildings. This attraction known as Pepperkakebyen is claimed to be the largest gingerbread city in the world. It’s also the inspiration for Gingerbread Wonderland at Norway House.
The bright-blue building of Norway House opened its doors in 2015 though the organization has been around for over 10 years. The space serves as an education center that seeks to be a bridge between Americans and contemporary Norway. Norway House hosts exhibits, meetings and presentations, as well as a coffee shop, art gallery and gift shop. From November through January, visit Norway House to check out its festive gingerbread reproductions of many local landmarks. Gingerbread Wonderland, or Pepperkakeby Twin Cities, is sure to become a Norwegian-inspired holiday tradition you won’t want to miss.
Beginning in 2015, Gingerbread Wonderland attracted 70 contributors, three or four of whom were professional bakers. In 2016, the event doubled its number of professional bakers and Peterson hopes to see even more professional bakers make contributions this year. Some of the creations are sponsored. Others are donated by volunteers. The display mirrors a map of the Twin Cities as closely as possible. In 2016, Gingerbread buildings were mounted on banquet tables with an aisle down the center dividing the east and west metro areas. Foam-core was cut into shapes and set along the tables to give the perception of snow and a rolling landscape. Blue table skirting represented the Mississippi River and Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. A smaller table was used in 2016 to display suburban or “out of town” buildings like a gingerbread version of Paisley Park in Chanhassen. “We want to encourage out of state and suburban bakers to participate,” Peterson says. “All are welcome.”
Although the professionally created gingerbread masterpieces are certainly impressive, Peterson hopes amateur bakers might be inspired to participate in Gingerbread Wonderland as an annual tradition. “It’s about community,” Peterson says. Like how “a baking group from Christ Church Lutheran got together to create a [gingerbread] house” for the show. For added encouragement, Peterson hopes Norway House will include more online tips for amateur bakers in the future, possibly even patterns and recipes. For example, one baker says she lets her gingerbread sit for up to three days before attempting to construct her building—a tip beginners might find useful.
For more behind the scenes baking know-how we talked to a few of last year’s gingerbread bakers:
Among the impressive and almost 100 percent edible creations on display last year were gingerbread versions of U.S. Bank Stadium sponsored by the Minnesota Vikings and created by professional pastry chef Gary Hjellming of Hy-Vee grocery and the Mill City Museum created by Edina’s own Stephanie Kissner, owner of Sweet Retreat Cupcake Boutique on France Avenue. Colette Bartkowski of Edina also contributed with her 2016 ice castle. She’s an amateur baker although you’d never have guessed by her castle’s beauty.
Gary Hjellming, president of the American Culinary Federation Minneapolis Chef Chapter, has been a chef for 44 years, most recently as a pastry chef because he says it better suits his creative personality. His first gingerbread house for Norway House was of the Minnesota State Capital building for their 2015 Gingerbread Wonderland. In 2016, Hjellming got a call from Norway House asking if he’d be interested in making a gingerbread version of U.S. Bank Stadium sponsored by the Minnesota Vikings. He agreed.
“I built it out of foam-core first to get a pattern,” Hjellming says. Then he baked sheets of gingerbread with the texture and color based on the needs of the project. “I cut the sheets with a band saw and assembled them with royal icing. There were lots of challenges with this one,” Hjellming says about the different angles and details. “But it was quite fun to do.”
He used gelatin sheets for the windows. The center girder was the most challenging. Hjellming was concerned if it would hold the weight of the roof but still wanted to mimic the girders inside the stadium.
The glass roof half and the large glass doors of U.S. Bank Stadium were made from chocolate and gelatin sheets. Edible images were used for the jumbotron inside the gingerbread stadium as well as for the outer logo. Hjellming made the iconic “horn” from gum paste. All of the bleachers were made of gingerbread and covered in fondant sprayed purple. After this huge undertaking, we asked Hjellming if he’d keep making gingerbread buildings. “There are a few things around town I’d be interested in making,” he says.
What about tips for newbies? “Get over your fear of doing it,” Hjellming says. “Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. You do get better. Some of the amateur submissions to Norway House are quite spectacular.”
Stephanie Kissner created an incredible gingerbread version of the Mill City Museum for the 2016 Gingerbread Wonderland. “The purpose of the event is to try to recreate the Twin Cities,” Kissner says. “I wanted to think of something iconic and unique to Minneapolis,” and pondered “how cool to have both a structure that is still functioning but has ruins, too.”
Kissner gives a nod to Google Maps for photos that helped her visualize the building from many angles. With a background in graphic design, she used an illustrator to help her lay out a plan. She would then make patterns out of giant sheets of paper for each wall structure. She says, “I had to make sizes based on the fact that my sheet pan is only so big.”
For the dough, Kissner uses “dead dough” with no leavening because it gets hard and helps the structure to stand up. “You can still eat it, but it’s very hard and crunchy,” she says. The baking takes half a day. “We use Isomalt (a modern sugar that doesn’t get foggy or sticky) to glue the pieces together,” Kissner says. She then pours melted sugar to create the windows. “It takes another person to help me when working with scalding hot sugar,” Kissner explains.
Then comes the fun part—decorating. Kissner added “snow” using edible glitter and royal icing. “We decided to do the décor in pink because our store is pink.”For the Mill City ruins, Kissner broke off sections of her gingerbread walls before baking and used a knife to carve off little portions afterward. Then she used a blowtorch to give a charred effect and continued to chip away at sections that represent the broken brick area of the actual ruins. The result was incredibly realistic and impressive. But Kissner isn’t new to gingerbread houses.
For the past two years she’s made one for Lord Fletcher’s and another for her Sweet Retreat shop window. She even made a gingerbread replica of her dad’s gas station when she was younger. As for potential future creations—Kissner says she did suggest the Edina Theater. “As an Edina native, I’d love to do something Edina.”
For those hoping to dip their toes into the shallow end of the icing pool this year, Kissner says the number one thing is to use a really good glue. “If your glue softens, your structure won’t hold up. Build it like a building so it holds up. Mine even had some [extra gingerbread] support inside that you maybe didn’t see.”Amateur baker Colette Bartkowski took to gingerbread building quite naturally. She likes to experiment in the kitchen. So when a friend who is on the board at Norway House asked her to participate in Gingerbread Wonderland, Bartkowski wondered what to make. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it,” she says.
She notes building gingerbread houses is no different than quilting, just three-dimensional. “In quilting, you must be exact,” Bartkowski says. “If you’re off a quarter of an inch, it ends up being a big difference.” When building gingerbread houses, she says, “If you have a pattern, it must be exact and fit precisely together. Accuracy is important even though there is some fudge room you can cover up with frosting.”
For her second entry to Gingerbread Wonderland in 2016, Bartkowski wanted to make something she thought kids might like and so she imagined creating the castle from Disney’s Frozen. “I watched the movie and wondered, ‘how am I going to do ice?’ Thank goodness for Google.” She found an ice castle made from hard candy but thought it would melt too easily. She found another recipe that wouldn’t melt but could dissolve. Her version broke twice while she assembled the parts—all of which must be edible, including any sub-floors and supports.
What she’s discovered is that many people fail to realize making a gingerbread house is a process. You need a pattern and never throw your patterns away until you’re completely done. Temperature and humidity can cause your house to break. But a few cracks can add charm and strategically placed snow on the roof can cover a collapse.
Bartkowski also says it’s much easier to decorate any exterior walls before assembly. After the walls are up, the icing should be completely dry before putting on the roof. Then go crazy and have fun with design elements using ice cream cones, candies, pretzels, jelly beans etc. When decorating with icing, Bartkowski notes you can do a lot with simple little dots of icing. “I did swirls and dots,” she says. “I learned by doing and that less is not more when making a gingerbread house.”
When we talked last year, Bartkowski already had an idea for her next gingerbread house but it was top secret. “Everything is fair game,” she says. “There are so many amazing houses and buildings around the Twin Cities.” She prefers more ornate architecture because it fits well with the gingerbread theme. “But I’d love to ginger-fy a modern building—make it over the top!”
Be sure to check out Gingerbread Wonderland at Norway House going on now through January 7, 2018.
Open 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun. General admission $5, free for members and kids under 12.norwayhouse.org
Tips for newbies:
Get over your fear of doing it. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. You do get better. Some of the amateur submissions to Norway House are quite spectacular. -Gary Hjellming, President of the American Culinary Federation Minneapolis Chef Chapter