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Gingerland is back

The last year has seen some big changes in our life (and a resultant diminishing of regular postings here). One thing isn’t going to change any time soon, though, and that’s the festive tradition of making Professor Plum ever more elaborate gingerbread house advent calendars. So, following on from the same thing in the last two Christmases, here’s this year’s grand gingerbredifice.

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The success of last year’s gingerbread York Minster suggested a pattern that was worth following this year: a miniature baked take on an iconic local monument. Those big changes I mentioned have revolved around my taking on a PhD in Victorian Studies and our move to Leeds (something that doesn’t give me so much time for either cooking or writing about it), so it made sense to go with a gingerbread version of a Victorian Leeds landmark. And what could be a better image of Victorian Leeds than the jewel in the crown of the city’s nineteenth century urban renewal: the Town Hall.

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Built in the 1850s, the new Town Hall came at a time in which Leeds (as ever competing with Bradford to be the most impressive Yorkshire metropolis) was willing to splash an enormous amount of cash on giant, impressive public buildings. At the same time as the likes of Leeds General Infirmary and Kirkgate Covered Market, the building of the Town Hall helped to give the Leeds cityscape the look that it has today, with its architect Cuthbert Brodrick also responsible for the Corn Exchange, Leeds Mechanics Institute (now the museum) and the church just up the street from us.

Brodrick’s love of classical architectural forms make his buildings perfect for confectionery construction as their essentially rectangular shape augmented with decorative features gives an easy starting point to work from. Meanwhile, the preponderance of columns around the walls can easily be rendered via the medium of chocolate fingers.

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The architect was not, however, particularly responsible for the building’s defining feature (and the real reason why it makes a good gingerbread house): the clock tower. Despite the enormous cost of building an edifice of this magnitude (and while the Crimean War had taken many potential builders overseas), the Hall was felt to lack a star feature, so the Leeds Corporation slapped on an enormous clock tower (apparently local government didn’t really feel very accountable to the people in those days). It’s a good thing that they did, though, when it comes to the iconic nature of the building, because it’s the tower that people recognise. At over 200 feet tall, it remains one of the tallest buildings in the city (and certainly the most familiar).

With the clock tower being the standout feature of the Town Hall, all that I really needed to do to make my gingerbread structure recognisable was to replicate this and the columned classical portico. A couple of white chocolate buttons, some piped royal icing decoration, more chocolate finger columns and a window made of crushed boiled sweets is really all it took to create the image of the clock tower (not really all that different from the clock tower in my gingerbread village two years ago). The only issue was that, because that’s the only part of the building that is really recognisable, it was kind of hard to picture what the rest of it looked like. What does the back of Leeds Town Hall look like?

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I decided that the only solution to this question was just to go down to the Christmas market in Millennium Square and have a look. Even from that lesser seen side, the view is dominated by the clock tower, but it did at least show that behind the small corner towers at the back of the Hall there is a small half domed roof. That was kind of worrying, because every other bit of gingerbread architecture that I’d done here and in my previous efforts was flat, square walls. Curves are a new kind of challenge.

I moulded my gingerbread dough around a bowl, but it took a couple of tries to get it to set without cracking (and even the one that I did use in the end had some imperfections in texture, things that I covered by piping lines of royal icing around it. There’s also a dome on top of the clock tower, which I made from moulding the dough around half a lemon, which should give a citrus-y taste to the dome when we eventually come to eat it.

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Compared with the 86 pieces of gingerbread that made up my ginger Minster, the Town Hall only required a “mere” 73 gingerbread pieces, but it still made a much larger and more complex structure than the Minster, from the domed roofs to the various levels and columns on the clock tower. As such, it turned out that the whole process of baking all the biscuits and sticking them together spread out across three days, a lot more time than I’d anticipated. (Especially as it was supposed to be an advent calendar ready for December 1st).

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Speaking of being an advent calendar, the much larger size of this gingerbread build compared to every other I’ve done before actually made it much easier to ensure that there were twenty four melted boiled sweet windows around the Hall’s walls (even if it did leave Professor Plum removing the first chocolate shutter a couple of days late).

Overall, apart from its time consuming nature, I’m very pleased with this year’s gingerbread house. I think it’s the best one I’ve done, my gingerbread building skills have definitely come on since my first house four years ago. It looks almost too good to eat. Almost.

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Plum Professor Plum in the Dining Room: This is an incredible feat of engineering! I thought a shorter, squarer building might be a bit easier than the Minster, but I hadn’t considered how much would go on under the snowy rooftop. I’m excited by the domes (especially the one baked on a lemon – is it going to have picked up the taste?), and Mustard’s piping skills always impress me. I can just about splob it on. I love the clock faces and the piped railings especially. And it’s enough gingerbread to last us until the new year!

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