How do they build the giant gingerbread house at the Biltmore Estate?

By Jennifer Brantley 

November 17, 2015

If you have ever visited Biltmore Estate during November or December, you are well aware of just how decked out the house is for the holidays. Fresh Fraser fir trees, decorated to the tee in just about every room of the house, along with all kind of other fresh greens and flowers make the entire house smell just like Christmas. That cinnamon/sugar/nutmeg aroma that hits you as you make your way down the stairs to the main kitchen in the basement stems from the absolutely massive gingerbread house that is on display every year.  I found myself wondering what exactly goes into making a gingerbread house that size, and set off to find out.

I was able to corral Biltmore pastry team members, Tara Lumley and Emily Gustafson, to help me figure things out. No easy feat since during the holiday season the two chefs easily work between 70 and 80 hours each week. Tara and Emily gave me the gingerbread house basics first; the ingredients: 20 pounds of gingerbread dough, seven pounds of chocolate rocks, 10 pounds of gumpaste, eight pounds of royal icing, 18 pounds of white chocolate fondant and 45 sheets of gelatin. A total of seven pastry chefs work roughly five hours a day on the house for a month straight, working on it after they finish shifts at their full time jobs baking in the restaurants on the estate.

Biltmore gingerbread 2
Photo courtesy of Biltmore Estate

A different team from the estate’s culinary staff is in charge of making the house each year, following a theme chosen by the floral department. This year the task landed in the lap of the crew from Lioncrest/Deerpark, where chefs Emily and Tara work. The two chefs were quick to point out that the entire gingerbread process is a team effort that begins with stencils and templates just like any other design/build project. From there the gingerbread dough is made, all 20 pounds of it, from scratch. The first part to be constructed is the house roof, followed by the sides and finally detail work including gutters and shingles. Itty bitty windows are created from gelatin to give them extra shimmer so they look like actual glass.

Next up: transport. The team has to get the gingerbread house via van to the basement kitchen of the main house at Biltmore, where finishing touches, including tiny lions made of gumpaste that will sit at the entrance, are applied. I asked if moving the house was nerve wracking for the chefs and got a quick response of “Yes – just as much as a wedding cake!”

biltmore gingerbread 6
Photo courtesy of Biltmore Estate

It tends to be humid in the basement at Biltmore; which led me to ask just how exactly the house didn’t just collapse, or at the very least have icing running all over it while sitting on display for two months. Little known fact: the carpenters at the estate actually construct a wood frame that sits inside of the house to support it.  The pastry chefs check on the house daily, keeping it touched up as needed. According to Chef Tara, “glue, and tons of it, is what really keeps the house together.”

Now that I had the basic facts down pat I had to ask the question I was dying to know the answer to: does the gingerbread taste good? Chefs Tara and Emily quickly tell me it is edible, yes, but it’s very strong tasting and just might make you sneeze. Why? The chefs put tons of extra spices in the dough to make the gingerbread house and the kitchen smell like just like a Christmas wonderland. It’s all about creating that Christmas ambiance throughout the house. Your best bet if you want to try gingerbread is to buy a decorated gingerbread person at the bakery in the courtyard by the stables– the staff at The Stable Café bakes and decorates over 3000 of them during the holidays.

Insane amounts of baking means an insane amount of hours for Biltmore’s culinary team. It’s not just gingerbread in their ovens, either. Other customer favorites at the estate are giant cinnamon rolls and freshly baked pumpkin rolls, served by the slice with a scoop of ice cream.

Biltmore gingerbread 1
Photo courtesy of Biltmore Estate

Biltmore Estate expects more than 300,000 visitors over two months this holiday season.  Interested in visiting the estate and getting in on the holiday spirit? Find out more at www.biltmore.com.

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