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 Royal Park Hotel executive pastry chef Mark Slessor adds  some character to a gingerbread man with royal icing for the hotel’s  “enchanted gingerbread forest,” which features a “Toy Story 4”-themed gingerbread train.

Royal Park Hotel executive pastry chef Mark Slessor adds some character to a gingerbread man with royal icing for the hotel’s “enchanted gingerbread forest,” which features a “Toy Story 4”-themed gingerbread train.

Photo provided by the Rochester Downtown Development Authority


Gingerbread houses go next level

‘I know that we’re making memories. Sometimes parents forget that part’

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published December 18, 2019

 On Donna Rorabaugh’s holiday gingerbread carousel, decorated with winter scenes printed on edible paper, you can ride the gingerbread reindeer  and enjoy some candy.

On Donna Rorabaugh’s holiday gingerbread carousel, decorated with winter scenes printed on edible paper, you can ride the gingerbread reindeer and enjoy some candy.

Photo provided by Donna Rorabaugh

METRO DETROIT — Gingerbread artist Donna Rorabaugh, of Rochester Hills, has been at her craft since she was 13.

What began as a simple holiday activity quickly evolved into a passion. Over the years, she has competed all across the country, placing fourth in the National Gingerbread House Competition twice. One of her creations was featured on “Good Morning America,” and most recently, she appeared on Food Network’s “Haunted Gingerbread Showdown.”

But building a gingerbread house from scratch can be tricky, even for experts.

Every successful gingerbread house, Rorabaugh explained, begins with a sturdy base.

“A lot of people don’t realize how heavy it’s going to be when they’re done, and they go to lift it and everything falls apart, so it’s really important to have a good, strong base to support the weight of the gingerbread, icing, candy and everything,” she said.

Royal Park Hotel executive pastry chef Mark Slessor has been turning his classic gingerbread recipe into gigantic, evolving holiday displays at the hotel for the last nine years.

From a small gingerbread house to a gingerbread lighthouse to a giant gingerbread train, Slessor has wowed the public with his transformations. This year, he created an enchanted gingerbread forest to tower over a small-scale gingerbread train inspired by the movie “Toy Story 4.”

With each gingerbread masterpiece, Slessor and his team put in well over 200 hours of hard, but sweet, work. So when the pastry chef heads home to bake gingerbread houses with his family, he brings his many years of experience home with him.

A strong and sturdy gingerbread recipe is a must, according to Slessor.

“I have a recipe that’s really great. I love using shortening instead of butter because butter has buttermilk in it, and the milk is going to make it soft, so by using the shortening, it’s going to make it a lot crispier and it’s going to hold it together well,” he said. “I have always found a lot more success with a drier cookie to build houses than ones that are moist.”

To make sure your base is sturdy, you also need a strong royal icing recipe. Slessor recommends using whipped egg whites to strengthen and thicken the frosting.

“All those people that are trying to put their gingerbread creations together are always using very loose royal frosting. I recommend getting it thick, like wallpaper paste,” he said. “I paddle it so it froths up a little bit. The aeration in the frosting helps it to dry faster, so when you are piping it in a piping bag — or a Ziploc bag at home  — it will dry fairly fast and it has a stickiness to it, so it holds both sides of your gingerbread very well.”

Rorabaugh decorates as many of the pieces of her gingerbread houses lying flat as she can, before assembling the walls with royal icing.

“It’s a lot easier than decorating from the side,” she said.

To help support the structure, she uses large cans to hold the walls, roof and other portions in place while the royal icing dries.

“Just make sure you don’t accidently ice the cans to the walls, because the royal icing will dry rock hard,” she said.

Once the icing has set for at least an hour and the structure is solid, it’s time to add some character. So grab your favorite candy and let your imagination run wild.

Slessor’s family likes to make use of all the leftover Halloween candy to brighten up their gingerbread creations, which he said have gotten more intricate over the years.

“The journey, for my daughters, is really making it. They want it to look great and amazing, but at this point, they’re just … wanting to have fun, and that’s really what the holidays are supposed to be about — traditions and having fun,” Slessor said. “I know that we’re making memories. Sometimes parents forget that part.”

If for some reason your gingerbread house doesn’t turn out as expected, you can always improvise.

“If your house falls apart, you can put a dinosaur in there and make it look like it ripped it apart,” Rorabaugh said. “And if things go wrong, you can always eat your mistakes.”