Gingerbread masterpiece graces hotel, minus a bite or two

December 24, 2011

"Nibble, nibble, little mouse - Who's that nibbling at my house?"

Luckily for one stealthy youngster, executive pastry chef Kaleen Deehr of the Columbia Gorge Hotel isn't related to the witch who originally spoke those words in the tale of Hansel and Gretel.

"As soon as I put out the completed gingerbread hotel, some little one sneaked in and took a bite out of one side," said Deehr.

Luckily for us, that tiny taste didn't mar the beauty of Deehr's work - which took two months to complete.

The fully edible scaled model of the famed local hotel is on display in the hotel's lobby; all 100-plus pounds of it.

"I honestly can't tell you how much went into it. But at least 30 pounds of flour, plus all the sugar and Rice Krispie treats ... Well, it's a lot!" said Deehr.

Pastry chef Deehr is a graduate of the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, where she earned a degree in patisserie (pastry making) and baking.

This year, she put that training to the test while constructing the super-sized gingerbread hotel replica - based on the original Mission-style architecture of the beloved landmark, built in 1920.

"I began in October, building a model out of white board. That way I could work on the scale and adjusting the size of the roof line or walls and getting everything sized right before doing the baking," said Deehr.

The sweet stuff for the build was brought out right after Thanksgiving weekend, when Deehr cordoned off a section of the hotel's kitchen to create her masterpiece.

"I didn't let anyone near it," said Deehr, who had a real vision for the project, based in part on her prior work as a roofing contractor for nine years.

"Doing the roof was fun and a real challenge. I had to get those roofing tiles as close as possible to the real thing. I got to mix my pastry chef side with my construction side. It was a lot of fun," said Deehr.

When asked what the plans were for the sweet sculpture, Deehr was quick to point out she would not follow her male staff's desires.

"They wanted to blow it up or drop it over the waterfall," said Deehr with great chagrin. "I'm not blowing it up!

"I mean, no way. I put so many hours into this. But, they're boys - they are all about destruction!" laughed Deehr good-naturedly.

When it came to the details, Deehr did put in the time to make them right.

Once she built the white board model to the correct proportions, she then deconstructed it to create a pattern for her gingerbread dough panels.

Once the baking began, Deehr had to shave and adjust baked panels into level, even surfaces so they would fit together well.

"I had to use a zester to shave off edges. There was a lot of time spent in fitting pieces together."

Each section was "glued" together with edible royal icing - which dries into a super-hard material.

The roof was constructed with carefully crafted fondant icing. The grounds are formed with homemade Rice Krispie batter that was made with homemade marshmallows. That was later slathered with royal icing.

"I constructed a model of the green gate at the entrance, but someone put their finger through that on the first day. It was pretty fragile. I'll maybe reconstruct that next year."

And, that is the plan; the "Columbia Gorge Gingerbread Hotel by Deehr" is slated for storage after this season, to be brought out next year for some new additions.

"I made it for the hotel, not for me. It's something different that I hope will be here year after year. Hopefully it's a new tradition."

Deehr left the little nibble of her first admirer in the display - perhaps because she has a 3-year-old son herself.

Maybe, like the famous story of the Velveteen Rabbit, Deehr's gingerbread hotel has been made especially "real" with that little bit of extra love from a child.

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