Tim Stewart wasn’t much of a baker, he said the other day. He didn’t cook all that often, either. The reason he and two other Phoenicians took top honors in the 28th annual National Gingerbread House Competition is that they worked as a team.
“This is not something I would have tackled on my own,” Stewart admitted. “You wouldn’t believe how much time goes into a sugar art project. It’s time-consuming, it’s tedious. I have a new appreciation for people who build edible houses.”
Stewart’s winning project wasn’t a house so much as a teeny holiday boutique filled with candy shoppers browsing spruce pines and baskets of Shiny Brites. “St. Nick’s Christmas Décor Shop” is made up of more than 5,000 individual pieces that took more than 1,000 hours to assemble. For his part, Stewart figured his contribution ate up 150 hours over a six-week period.
Every square inch of the bitty shop is edible, he said. “It’s a rule of the competition. We used cinnamon sticks and dried pasta to hold things up. I had no idea there was such a thing as edible paper and ink. We used it to make the wallpaper.”
Stewart’s road to sugar-art fame began on his birthday earlier this year, when instead of a cake, his friends Ted Scutti and Adam Starkey baked a gingerbread tiki bar for him. Remembering his interest in the edible structure, the pair invited him to join their gingerbread team, The Merry Mischief Bakers.
He said yes because he needed a distraction.
“2020 has been an interesting year,” Stewart said. “At first, I filled my free time during quarantine with a lot of binge-watching. But by August, I’d seen everything on television and I needed something to do.”
There were five on the team, Stewart explained. A teammate in Los Angeles created the figurines, while another in San Diego made all the wee ornaments and the tiny gingerbread houses displayed inside. Ted and Adam led the group with a foam-core dummy and what Stewart called “some incredible piping work.”
Stewart was in charge of confectionary mortar. He made 3,000 individual bricks from ginger clay for the exterior of the building.
“It’s a new form of gingerbread that you bake and then dry and sand into flour,” he explained. “Then you use that to create a clay to make bricks with.”
There were casualties along the way, he admitted. A cat named Quincy, made entirely of sugar, lost a paw and had to be shipped back to California to be mended. And somebody’s kitchen flooded, ruining an entire tray of tiny Christmas tree bulbs.
Once their edible ornament store was completed, Stewart and friends hand-delivered it to gingerbread headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina. Traveling with a house made of cookies was nerve-wracking. “We had to buy a seat on the plane for the finished piece. We seat-belted it in place. This isn’t the kind of thing you want to check as luggage.”
There was a certain amount of secrecy about the competition, which was judged by a group of famous pastry chefs. “We had to sign a nondisclosure agreement,” Stewart said. “And we weren’t allowed to post pictures or talk about the contest with other people. So none of my friends or family knew I was building a gingerbread shop.”
Stewart learned of his team’s victory on December 12, which is National Gingerbread House Day.
Winning was sweet. The prize he was most interested in was a three-day class with chef and sugar artist Nicholas Lodge. “He’s going to teach us how to make sugar flowers,” Stewart exclaimed. “We also got a cash prize, a Kitchenaid mixer, and a weekend stay at the Inn.”
It will be another year before Stewart and his friends lay eyes on their cookie house, which will become a lobby fixture at Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn, the host of the competition. Meanwhile, Stewart and his baking buddies are gearing up for next year’s gingerbread race.
“We’ve already got some ideas for 2021,” he announced, then lowered his voice. “But I’m not allowed to talk about them just yet.”