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Photo: Kristen Hartke/NPR
For the 2018 grand prize winner in Asheville, the judges were impressed by the intricate, working gingerbread gears of the clock inside Santa’s workshop.

Following up on last week’s post about extreme Christmas cooking, I’ll just say that whether the labor is for love or business, for fun or for cutthroat competition, it’s a treat to see what sorts of edibles our cooks turn out for the winter holidays.

Kristen Hartke reported at National Public Radio (NPR) on Christmas Eve last year, “Nadine Orenstein never expected to judge gingerbread houses. But several years ago, the curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art happened to see a program on the Food Network about a competition in Asheville, N.C., and was intrigued. …

“Fourteen years later, Orenstein is still a judge for the National Gingerbread House Competition. … ‘In a way, it’s very similar to what I do as a career and, in some ways, completely different,’ she says.

“The biggest difference, of course, is that each entry must be entirely edible — although it’s fairly rare for the judges to actually eat the sweet creations — and must consist of at least 75 percent gingerbread. …

“The competition didn’t originate as a contest in 1992, but as simply a display of gingerbread houses made by Asheville locals. … This year, there were 195 entries from across the U.S. and Canada, which means that judging this contest is no cakewalk.

“Other than Orenstein, most of the eight judges come with a serious pastry pedigree, like Mark Seaman, master sugar artist for Barry Callebaut chocolate company, one of the world’s largest cocoa producers. Seaman has been judging the competition for over a dozen years.

” ‘It is a long and somewhat complicated process,’ he says. ‘Some people are literally spending hundreds of hours creating their entries, so we want to pay attention to the work they’ve put into it, but we also have to do all the judging in one single day.’ …

“Using specific criteria — creativity, difficulty, overall appearance, consistency of theme, and precision — each judge starts the morning by spending two hours choosing 10 favorites in each category. The competition staff collects the information, plugs it into Excel, and tabulates the first round of results, narrowing it down to a universal top 10 entries. Then the judges really get down to business, parsing the technical difficulty and design elements in half-points — numbers that go back into the spreadsheet for the final result.

“But while the competition relies on numbers to achieve fairness — sometimes the grand prize winner isn’t even selected by all the judges as one of their initial top 10 favorites — it’s ultimately a combination of technique and creativity that determines the winners. …

“For Seaman, craftsmanship is a key element, particularly when he sees something especially innovative, like this year’s

grand prize winner, which depicts Santa’s workshop with a clock made of functional gingerbread gears. The gingerbread was baked by creators Julie and Michael Andreacola, of Indian Trail, N.C., for several hours, then precision-cut with lasers. …

“While Orenstein finds the technical elements impressive, she is also looking for a compelling story, … ‘Sometimes, the lack of perfection is key in art,’ says Orenstein, ‘but what I’ve learned over time is that perfection in these gingerbread houses matters.’ …

“Those details might be the tiny copper Moscow mule mugs that grace a table where a group of reindeer are playing a game of poker, the labels on the cans lining the walls of a general store — all edible, mind you — or realistic-looking candles made of white chocolate that stand next to a gingerbread clock. …

” ‘You don’t enter a competition because you want to win,’ says Seaman. ‘You enter because you want to do the best work you can possibly do. The people who win are attached to the piece in some personal way. Even though the technique is really important, you shouldn’t learn how to do hot sugar just for the purposes of entering this contest.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

Noncompetitive gingerbread displays involve less pressure and may be more fun. Here are a few local efforts: one at the library, two at the Colonial Inn.

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121219-Frozen-movie-as-Gingerbread

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