Pastry chef and teacher David Diffendorfer of Portland is fast at work recreating Mad King Ludwig’s castle-that-never-happened in Bavaria, but he’ll be done in plenty of time to judge The Daily News’s second “Gingerbread Haus” contest at the Merk building Dec. 1.
“I was blown away,” said Diffendorfer about judging the local contest last year.
“In a small town, you know, I assumed there’d be 10 gingerbread houses,” he said. “And there were, what? Forty or more? It was very impressive.”
Diffendorfer was delighted, he said, by a local youth’s rendition of a gingerbread squirrel bridge, and “by people’s creative use of candies I hadn’t even thought of — like rock candy in walls and sidewalks.
“I’m always looking for stuff like that.”
He’s looking forward to scrutinizing all the entries this year, he said, applying again the expertise he has amassed in 17 years of building elaborate, marzipan-coated gingerbread models of castles for the lobby of the Benson Hotel at Christmastime.
This year, Diffendorfer “stumbled on” evidence of the plans for a second castle Ludwig the Second was set to build on the ruins of the Falkenstein Castle, high on a pinnacle in Bavaria, in 1883.
The King’s first castle, the massive, many-turreted Neuschwanstein Castle, endures as a motif of Bavaria and inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella castles.
But Ludwig wanted an even fancier one, Diffendorfer said.
“He hired the same architect, had the road built up to (the Falkenstein ruin), and got water to site,” the pastry chef said. “Then he died.”
The project died, too. But plans and drawings were stored in an archive, and years later, a porcelain company used them to create a figurine of the castle.
“I stumbled across photos of it, with a front view, two side views and a back,” Diffendorfer said. “It was enough imagery for me to duplicate it.”
That challenge should get him revved up to judge the local contest in December.
He had these tips for local contestants planning to build a gingerbread “haus” — or Longview landmark, or spun-from-fantasy edifice.
“I always look at the overall composition,” Diffendorfer said. “Does it make sense? Does it fit the theme — when you look at it, can you read what the theme is?”
The other standard he judges is “consistency” in construction, he said.
“Does one window look like it was cut out with a laser beam, with precise 90-degree corners, and the other window look like it’s been hacked out with a can opener? ...
“Everyone has different skill levels, but are the windows and doors even? Are they the same?
The “third tier” of Diffendorfer’s judging will be the “color palette,” he said. “Do all the colors work right? Are the hues right” I look for consistency there, too.”
He cautioned gingerbread builders to beware of the size trap.
“Just because something is really big, it doesn’t make it better,” Diffendorfer said. Large constructions “amplify all your issues. There’s more areas you have to keep track of.”
Creativity always matters, he added. He looks for “the use of things that don’t scream ‘gingerbread’ yet can work.”
He reassured young entrants that he uses a “sliding scale” for children, and said he can usually detect when a youngster has gotten too much help from an adult.
“I hope parents let the kids do it,” Diffendorfer said. “The truth of the matter is, it’s all about the fun.”
There are many recipes available online, but here are a couple of examples, including one shared by the First Place winner in 2011, Gail Wells of Longview. The local teacher is not entering the contest this year but serving instead on the committee overseeing the contest.
GAIL’S GINGERBREAD DOUGH
(Work with this dough when it’s cool)
- 7 1/2 cups flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup brown sugar (packed)
- 1 cup margarine
- 1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
- 2 eggs
Mix together 3 cups flour and the next 7 ingredients (sugar, spices and baking soda). Add brown sugar and margarine; mix well.
Add sour cream (or yogurt) and eggs, mixing well again. Mix in the rest of the flour, kneading to make a soft dough. Put it in an air-tight container and refrigerate until ready to use — at least one hour.
After the pieces have been cut, bake them at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes.
— Gail Wells, Longview, First place winner, Daily News 2011 Gingerbread Haus contest
(Work with this dough while it’s still warm)
- 1 3/4 cups dark corn syrup
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 3/4 cup margarine
- 8 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
In medium saucepan, combine corn syrup, sugar and margarine. Heat until margarine is melted, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Add syrup mixture to the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until blended.
Knead dough lightly until smooth.
To make house, roll dough while warm. If it cools and is difficult to roll, microwave on high for 10 seconds or warm in a conventional, 150-degree oven for 5 minutes.
After cutting shapes, chill them in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before baking. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 15 minutes.
— Ladies Home Journal, December 1986
DECORATOR ICING WITH MERINGUE POWDER
Combine 2/3 cup water, 4 tablespoons meringue powder, and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar in a mixing bowl and beat until stiff peaks form.
Add 2 pound of powdered sugar, mixing until stiff. Cover and store as with regular decorator icing. Some recipes suggest adding 1 tablespoon of gum arabic to this recipe for added strength. If you do, mix it with the powdered sugar before adding that the meringue mixture. NEVER used plastic bowls or utensils.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 cup water
In an 1-quart sauce pan, bring sugar, corn syrup and water to a boil, stirring constantly. Put candy thermometer in pan.
Continue boiling (do NOT stir) until thermometer reaches 300 degrees (hard crack stage). Carefully pour into cooled gingerbread window holes, about 1/4-inch thick. Let cool completely, then peel foil back from back of gingerbread and window.
Note: David Diffendorfer makes “stained glass” by melting Jolly Rancher candies and pouring the 325-degree liquid into window holes.