Return to gingerland
You may remember last year when I decided to try and make an advent calendar for Professor Plum from a gingerbread house, or rather a village of gingerbread houses. (You can see it on the left here). Well, the festive period has come round again, which means that my mind has turned once more to gingerbread masonry and Christmas countdowns. Having progressed from the single house of two years ago to the small community of last year, I needed to up my game further with my latest advent gingerbread house. After featuring a simple church (basically a gingerbread house structured like the previous year, but with a square tower on the back) as part of my village, I suggested to Professor Plum that I could do a gingerbread church for her advent calendar this year. She responded with the suggestion that doing a gingerbread York Minster would be more of a real challenge.
At Easter I had decorated an egg by dying it with cabbage and scratching an image of the Minster into its surface, so there would be a nice bit of symmetry to the year in having the same design for Easter and Christmas food decorations. Nevertheless, York’s iconic Gothic cathedral presented a far greater challenge in terms of gingerbread construction than any of my previous efforts.
First of all, I would have to figure out just how much detail I could realistically achieve on a model made entirely of baked goods and no longer than the 35 cm board I had to put it on. To take one example, York Minster is widely renowned for having the finest original mediaeval stained glass in the country. In all it has 128 stained glass windows made up of two million pieces of glass. To function appropriately as an advent calendar my gingerbread version was going to have to reduce that 128 down to 24 boiled sugar windows and even that was going to prove tricky on a model of this size.
In seeking to reproduce this instantly recognisable building, the icon of our city, in biscuit architecture, I sought mostly to give an accurate rendering of the broad shape and structure of the building rather than the details. (There was no likelihood of structural integrity to gingerbread flying buttresses a couple of millimetres in width anyway). I wasn’t going to make an exact scale model, but getting a broadly accurate sense of the building’s dimensions were, therefore, important to making it recognisable.
So, I found a plan of the famous cathedral’s layout and drew my own equivalent. Assuming the whole length from end to end had to be less than 35 cm, I then scaled the other dimensions down to fit this, so the nave would be 13.75 cm long, the choir and the lady chapel at the building’s eastern end 5.1 cm each. In the other direction, that would then make the North and South Transepts both 4.75 cm long. Having an understanding of the size and shape of the building in a plan, I could then build up from there. So, for example, we know that the Minster’s central lantern tower stands at 200 feet and the building’s length is 173 yards (equivalent to 519 feet). Therefore if the ratio of the building’s length to the lantern tower’s height is 200:519, then on a 31.5 cm long gingerbread version the tower would be just over 12 cm tall.
Operating on a similar principle, I was able roughly to scale the rest of the dimensions of the building down to an appropriate size, draw up some plans accordingly and cut these shapes out as templates for my gingerbread. Just to make the increased scale of my ambition clear – while the house I made two years ago was made with a simple 11 pieces of gingerbread, and last year’s village used a significantly larger 49 pieces, the gingerbread Minster required 86 individually measured and cut gingerbread biscuits of varying sizes for its construction.
Even baking and cutting out this many pieces of gingerbread was a time consuming affair that took up the best part of an afternoon, especially as each piece had to be trimmed again after coming out of the oven to make sure it was a neat square edged shaped. As before, I cut out spaces in the biscuits and crushed up boiled sweets to make the windows. In order to fit 24 windows in and in some way replicate the look of the real thing, some of these windows had to appear in very narrow pieces of gingerbread. The two towers at the building’s West Façade were barely a centimetre and half wide and yet needed four windows in each. As a result a couple of them snapped during construction and I had to re-bake these towers as well as the main window on the building’s West front, the famous “Heart of Yorkshire” (here rendered as a simple heart shape).
The real Minster has often had issues keeping its roof up, with collapses after the arson attack of mad religious mystic Jonathan Martin (brother of the brilliantly apocalyptic painter John Martin) in 1829 and again in 1984 when the building was struck by lightning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, if the real thing struggles to stay up, fitting the roof to my Minster was always going to be one of the more challenging elements of the gingerbread construction. It’s at this point that it’s vital that all the walls are solidly stuck in place with royal icing that has set into a hard glue, otherwise trying to balance the roof on them may result in the whole building collapsing. Because of the varying heights of the aisles and the nave, I had 18 slanting roof pieces (and five flat ones, which are much easier to make stay fixed). At this point it became clear that the walls of the nave were inadequately baked and a little too soft. Fortunately the sheer number of walls and roofs actually conspired to keep the whole thing standing during this process. And if the building is a little wonky, well the same can be said for the real thing (being built around the previous Minster has left the real York Minster a little higher one one side than the other).
With the roof on, then came the long slow business of tiling it (with white chocolate buttons of course). There’s nothing tricky about this, it just takes a long time. And on a project that had already taken a couple of days, what with the time for baking so many biscuits and waiting for each joint to set. (Really, I don’t know how people manage to make constructions like this under a time constraint on the likes of Great British Bakeoff).
By far the hardest thing to build, and therefore the area that I left until last, was the Chapter House. The simplest gingerbread construction is four walls and a flat roof (i.e. the lantern tower that I began with). As an octagonal building with a slanting roof, the Chapter House is virtually the opposite of this (especially when each biscuit part was barely a centimetre wide). It took a couple of efforts even to get the octagonal walls to all stand upright at the same time. Meanwhile, balancing eight pieces of roof so they didn’t bring the whole thing down took even longer and a second baking of taller roof pieces.
Eventually I managed to get the whole thing to stay upright, albeit not looking the most presentable part of the whole. Never mind, it would look just the same as the rest when covered in chocolate buttons and royal icing snow. (Therein lies the advantage of making a winter gingerbread scene – snow hides all your construction sins). That was the last bit of building work I needed to do. The rest was just embellishing the finished cathedral with decoration in the form of chocolate fingers and sticks of pocky to give the towers extra little spires and turrets.
To finish the design I decided to add a little gingerbread man version of the statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine that has sat outside the South Transept since the late 1990s. Pistachio green macaroons made a set of festive trees and helped give the otherwise brown and white cathedral a little bit of colour.
Last year I had used the little gingerbread biscuits that I had cut out to make the windows as advent calendar doors for Professor Plum to take off each day. This year I decided that a tiny gingerbread biscuit probably wasn’t exciting enough as a daily treat, so instead I made numbered chocolate doors to cover all the windows. And then it was done. After over two days of building work, the gingerbread Minster was ready for Professor Plum to destroy in a way that would make Jonathan Martin proud. All that’s left is to ask for her opinion (and perhaps a suggestion for an even more ambitious construction next year!).
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I think that blueprint deserves a pages of its own and a donation button, for equally ambitious people to have a go. So far I’ve only eaten a few of the windows and one tree, all of which is very good, but not as good as being able to tell people, when they ask what Mustard has been up to since leaving work, that I have a gingerbread Minster to eat. It’s brilliant! And it’s going to be very hard to top next year, but who cares about next year when they have an entire Minster’s worth of gingerbread to eat?
PREVIOUSLY IN GINGERBREAD:
“Advent-ures in Gingerbread” – Gingerbread house history and my take on a gingerbread village
“The World’s Best Gingerbread Houses” – See some other, much more talented people’s grander gingerbread efforts
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