During the holidays, Palestine resident Kristi Starr's kitchen table is filled with edible housing decorations that make her home look like Candyland.
Carrying down a tradition her mother started years ago, Starr enjoys making graham cracker gingerbread houses and scenes during the Christmas season and giving them away.
This year, she made a gingerbread house for the children staying at East Texas Hospitality House in Tennessee Colony, the children at her church at First Congregational Methodist Church in Elkhart and a local family. She also plans to make a special fire truck and fire station gingerbread house for the Westside Volunteer Fire Department in her neighborhood.
“I enjoy making them and giving it to whoever I feel led to give it to and God blesses you back,” Starr said. “You can't buy a toy in a stocking that brings that much excitement when children see one for the first time.”
Her mother, Lola Brinegar of McGregor, started making graham cracker gingerbread houses using a recipe from a Dec. 3, 1985 Family Circle article.
“My mom is 53 and has dementia. Because she can no longer make them, my sister and I have made them to carry on her tradition, using the same recipe,” Starr said. “Making the houses is our way of carrying on things she taught us and remembering the good times.”
It isn't unusual for Starr and her sister, Tiffany Sanders of Waco, to converse over the phone while shopping the leftover Halloween candy at local stores — looking for just the right candy to make something special for the gingerbread house scenes.
“We try to do something different every year and add to them. We share ideas back and fourth,” Starr said.
The key to success in her gingerbread houses is the icing — which serves as a “glue” for the pieces staying together.
“The recipe has cream of tartar in it. You can't make it if it's humid or raining, it's got to be the right temperature. It works like glue. It puts everything together, sets in seconds,” Starr said. “The recipe calls for three egg whites at room temperature and they need to be medium-sized eggs not large eggs or it won't be the right consistency. I will take three eggs, break them and separate them and leave the bowl of egg whites out in the kitchen for four to five hours.”
Starr makes her gingerbread houses assembly-line style, getting all of her ingredients and parts out all at once. She generally makes a gingerbread house scene on one to two boxes that would typically hold a case of canned vegetables. She turns the box upside down and covers with foil, taping it to the underside.
Her first step is to cut the graham crackers (using a small serrated steak knife).
“Cut them and decorate them while they are laying down flat versus standing up. It makes it a lot easier,” Starr said. “Then put it all together.”
“It takes a lot of candy and it can get expensive. That's why I try to catch candy while it is on sale,” Starr said. “The kids love it. It's like Candyland. And when I mess up or break a piece of candy by accident, they get to eat the broken pieces.”
And even though Starr has made the gingerbread houses for years, her work is not without errors.
“That's the great part about the icing. It covers up all of the inconsistencies. As long as it looks good on the outside, that's all that matters,” Starr said.
Once the icing is made, you will also use food coloring to make other icing colors: green, red and blue, for example.
Starr uses mini M&Ms to decorate the houses (her mom used Red Hots). Pretzels can be used to make many things. Starr and her sister can make monkey bars, slides (use piece of gum for the actual slide), swing sets and fences out of pretzels.
To make a Christmas tree, turn an ice cream cone upside down and cover with green icing and decorate with star sprinkles. Make a snowman out of large marshmallows with pretzel arms and star sprinkles for the face features. Tootsie Rolls can be fire logs.
Make a sled from one piece of a graham cracker and two small candy canes. Top with gummy bears.
Gum drops and peppermints can decorate the sidewalks.
Gummy bears not only are children's favorites but Starr likes using gummy bears for her gingerbread house scenes, including making them hang upside down from the pretzel monkey bars or sitting on the swing. Recently, she even made a river (blue icing) and had gummy bears floating down the river on red and white lifesaver candies. She made a bridge over the water with a Payday candy bar, but said rock candy works better.
“It's all about what kind of candy you can find and experimenting to see what works best,” Starr said. “I've used Laffy Taffy and old-fashioned ribbon candy, whatever works.”
Starr uses a set of Pampered Chef cake decorating tips to put the finishing touches on the gingerbread house and scene.
She made a mailbox from a colorful peppermint stick with a large square peppermint candy on top. A piece of gum was cut to look like the mailbox flag. While most things stay in place, she had trouble with the mailbox, having to use a salt and pepper shaker to keep it in place until the icing took hold.
“I tried making a chimney in the past and using cotton candy for the smoke, but it doesn't stay afloat for long,” Starr said.
Once your scene is completed then comes the final step — filling with powdered sugar.
“Put the powdered sugar in a bowl and fill one spoonful at a time — that's how it works best. It's slow, but it looks better that way,” Starr said. “Then drop in some dessert sprinkles.”
While Starr can make a two-box gingerbread house scene in one hour, it would take most people a couple of hours.
“My husband (Brent) helped me with one recently and it took two afternoons because I was working more slowly to show him how to do it,” Starr said. “It's a detailed process.”
The best part of making the gingerbread house is eating it.
“It really does taste good — sweet and salty. Everything is edible,” Starr said. “The gummy bears are the kids' favorite.”
When Starr was 10 or 11 years old, she remembers her mother making72 miniature gingerbread houses that would feed 100 people at a special Christmas party. Because no one wanted to take it apart to eat, Starr's mother made her be the first one.
“They all thought I was crazy, but I broke one of the houses and started eating it. Then everyone else finally joined in,” Starr said.
Some of the more elaborate scenes she or her sister have made is a choir of teddy bears, a huge animal cracker carousel, a school and a log cabin. She has lots of other ideas she hopes to try out in the future, but enjoys making spontaneous creative changes to make it look different from in the past.
Meanwhile, her children, Kylie, 11, and Jaden, 10, enjoy the leftovers from their mother's gingerbread house creations.
“They love eating the ones we make,” Starr said. “When I make one, I want people to not only enjoy the scenes, but eventually, enjoy eating them.”
From Family Circle's Dec. 3, 1985 magazine:
GINGERBREAD HOUSE ICING
3 egg whites (medium-sized eggs, at room temperature)
¾ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 pound sifted powdered sugar (confectioners' sugar)
Combine ingredients in bowl and beat on high speed for 7 minutes with standard mixer, 10 minutes with handmixer or until very fluffy (it won't hurt to overbeat the mixture). If the consistency is a little runny after beating time has elapsed, beat in a little more powdered sugar until you achieve a fluffy volume. Store at room temperature in airtight container. Keep lid on when not in use. To save time, make all houses at once, assembly-line fashion.