GREENVILLE — Nikki Nealeigh has been making gingerbread houses for nearly 15 years and this year is no exception.
“I was working at KitchenAid Experience and looking for a new holiday baking challenge,” she said, recalling how she got started. “I had no idea that I would get hooked.”
She went on, “I find that the micro-focus is relaxing. It is really just a series of small, doable tasks that, when put together, make a very rewarding result for me. I like the creative process of thinking of a project and then making the pattern and then bring it to fruition. I think it helps me to practice patience and embracing imperfections. I have learned that, much like life, the plan is going to change as I move through the project, so it is a waste of time to overthink it. Time is better spent and more enjoyable just diving and making a little progress. Solutions present themselves along the way. I also like to eat candy and there is a lot of that involved.”
What are done with them once she’s finished?
“When my boys were little they used to like to dip the pieces in milk and eat them, but the gingerbread cookie walls are incredibly stale after a few weeks of sitting out, as you can imagine,” Nealeigh said. “So now I make a few cookies as I go and we enjoy them fresh. It makes the house smell so good when it is baking. We also eat a lot of the candy along the way. There are always Cherry Sours on the roof and I have learned to buy them the day that I will use them or they always disappear into someone’s mouth.”
When asked how much time is involved in making a gingerbread house, she responded, “It depends on if the project is of an imaginary building or of a landmark. Landmarks take longer because I visit the site and take photos and then work out the pattern on the computer. The imaginary ones take about a week less because I don’t have that step. I work on them for about three weeks on and off and try not to get started before Thanksgiving or at least until the first snowfall. The steps are: Make pattern; make dough; roll, cut and bake walls; decorate walls; make fondant characters; put lighting in base; assemble walls on base; assemble roof; decorate roof; and put in landscaping.”
She said she makes them from scratch and that almost everything is edible.
“The exceptions are any wood skewers I may need to make trees, the Styrofoam base it is built on and the foam core boards that are used for the roof,” she said. “These elements are too heavy to be made of gingerbread. Gravity is your worst enemy. Patience is on my side. When I get frustrated the best thing is to just walk away for a while and the next day, it seems much easier.”
The ingredients in one of her structures are flour, sugar, butter, spices, molasses…the usual ingredients for gingerbread cookies. The icing is royal icing.
According to her, creating one of these is not that expensive.
“But if depends on how much candy I buy that I don’t actually use,” she said.
Anyone else help her?
“My kids, Max and Hayden, help me to knock it down on New Year’s Day,” Nealeigh said. “It is one of our favorite traditions. My family will help me to transport it if it goes on display. My husband Dusty says nice things while I’m working on it and gives me advice on structure, which really does help.”
She said she has displayed a few local landmarks in the places that have inspired them: St. Clair Place, Bear’s Mill, Garst Museum, DeColores Montessori School, Wayne Hospital (before the last renovation), and now Memorial Hall. YMCA of the North Pole was displayed at the YMCA Child Care Center.
“When I did the Court House, it was displayed at A&B Coffee across the street and when I did the Fasnacht Dairy Farm (where I grew up), it was displayed at Village Green, which stands where the farm once was.” she said. “I display them at Oakley Place because I am executive director there and I think that people enjoy seeing it. For the last four years, I also built a second Gingerbread House with the senior citizens I am blessed to work with.”
Where does she get her ideas?
“I alternate between landmarks and things from my imagination,” she said. “The imaginary ones are a lot of fun because they kind of morph during the process.”