Gingerbread houses bring joy to season

Considering that sugar plums are just about obsolete these days, odds are that the visions that are dancing in holiday-inclined heads are more akin to gingerbread. In fact, gingerbread is all over the place at this time of year, showing up in cookies and coffee and candles and home-fragrance thingies. But perhaps no version of gingerbread is more beloved than the gingerbread house.

Clark County School District students have been feverishly working on their own versions, which will be judged between 4 and 5 p.m. Friday at M Resort and will be displayed through Dec. 21 at the hotel-casino at 12300 Las Vegas Blvd. South in Henderson.

If you'd like to try your hand at creating a gingerbread house, you have a few options. Roy's Restaurant at 8701 W. Charleston Blvd. will offer its Keiki Gingerbread House Event at noon Dec. 8. "Keiki" is the Hawaiian word for "child," and this is clearly an event for kids, but if you don't have one, maybe you can borrow one in return for chaperoning duties. At any rate, it's $25 per person, which includes lunch and gingerbread supplies, and you can get $5 off if you donate a new, unwrapped toy. For reservations, call 838-3620.

You also can buy one of the gingerbread-house kits showing up in local craft stores and kitchen shops. Chandra Hasselbalch, general manager of Sur La Table at Fashion Show mall, said the company's Gingerhaus Gingerbread Chalet kit is a popular item these days.

"We had a customer who was actually asking for them in October," Hasselbalch said. "We've had some people waiting for them. We sell a lot of them. We sell out every year, and we have a huge stack."

Hasselbalch said Sur La Table's kit, which sells for $29.95, is popular, in part, because it offers a few different plans, and the gingerbread panels fit into an armature, so construction is easier. Also, she said, it comes in a fairly flat box, so it's easy for customers to buy one to take home, wherever that may be.

"We have so many international customers ­- customers from all over the world," she said. "So many people are traveling, and they can't get them where they're from."

You also could create a gingerbread house the old-fashioned way, from scratch. That's what Judy DuCharme of Las Vegas has been doing for 34 years.

DuCharme said her construction career got started when a neighbor called her one day and invited her to come over to learn how to make a gingerbread house.

"Oh, I could never do that," she remembers thinking. "But I just had to try it. That was the birth of it.

"She had some ideas and I just started working with my own ideas and came up with this cute little house that everybody seems to like."

"Everybody" isn't much of an exaggeration. DuCharme figures, over the years, that she's made about 300 gingerbread houses.

"One year, I made close to 40," she said. "My hands were numb."

Originally they were gifts for family and friends. After frequent requests, she sold them for a while.

"That was my way of not getting in trouble doing too much Christmas shopping," she said. "It was a nice way to make money, too. I didn't charge a lot. The orders just kept coming and coming. I could never turn anybody down."

Higher food costs during the past few years put an end to that practice, because she didn't want to charge as much as would have been required to cover costs. But she still makes them for friends and family.

Following 9/11, the houses became a therapy of sorts. DuCharme said she had a group of six or seven close friends, and that year - with the thought, "We've got to rise above this, guys" - she surprised each of them with a gingerbread house, presented at a Christmas brunch.

"They were so tickled," she said. "It's just been a labor of love. It really has been close to my heart."

Over the years, she has modified her design somewhat. One of the latest changes was the addition of candy inside the house, with a window so kids can peek inside to see it.

"Little kids love to look into them," she said.

She had started with just a house, but one year added a tree. That was too time-consuming, so she modified the design to use a decorated waffle cone to represent a tree. She also has added a sleigh and a mailbox, and personalizes them with gingerbread people bearing the names of everyone in the household.

She's had only two disasters among all of those houses, she said.

One was last year, when she visited the class of granddaughter Marissa, then 5, at Bright Horizons School. The weather was bad (humidity is hazardous to gingerbread-house construction) and she let the kids put on all the candy they wanted.

"It got heavier and heavier," she said. After she left, she got a call from the school office: The roof had caved in. Marissa offered to give up her own gingerbread house, but DuCharme was able to return and make repairs.

Marissa may be a little too young for her own project, but DuCharme has taught several friends, and most recently her 15-year-old niece, Rachel Howell.

"She wants to keep up the tradition," DuCharme said.

She stresses that each house is individual.

"If there's a lot of candy, that means I'm covering up a lot of little sins," she said. "That's kind of how it developed into me putting so much candy on them."

Here is her gingerbread recipe:

2¾ cups sifted flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ginger

2/3 cup light or dark molasses (she prefers dark)

1 egg

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

½ cup oil

Mix all ingredients well; flatten into a disc and wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled. Roll out on oiled aluminum foil on a large cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated 300-degree oven for 18 to 20 minutes.

Prepare your pattern ahead. DuCharme creates a house 5½ inches square. As soon as the gingerbread comes out of the oven, place the pattern pieces on it and cut them out. Let them cool.

She uses an icing of 1 pound powdered sugar, 3 egg whites and 1½ teaspoons cream of tartar. Two batches will provide mortar for construction, decorations and adhering the all-important candy.

And remember, DuCharme said to avoid damp days.

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review or 702-383-0474.