For some folks, making a gingerbread house is a fun afternoon project.
But for John Kuehn, it was how he spent October, working full time in his apartment kitchen for about 160 hours.
His creation – an edible rendition of Madison Square Park – is part of a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, called Gingerbread NYC: The Great Borough Bake-Off.
The Bake-Off features seven gingerbread houses, each aiming to represent a borough in gingerbread.
The vibe is more “appetizing art show” than “competitive baking event.” But there are awards, announced early Wednesday morning, including:
The Best Overall Prize went to Sherry Kozlowski for her display of the shops in Astoria. Good Enough to Eat went to Sans Bakery in Long Island City, for its rendition of the 7 train. A new prize, Most Resilient, was added at the eleventh hour and given to the Brooklyn Heights bakery L’Appartement 4F for “re-creating their display” in time for public viewing. Kuehn took home the prize for Grandest.
The awards were determined by some highly accomplished judges, including Bobbie Lloyd, the Chief Baking Officer at Magnolia Bakery, and Melba Wilson, of Melba’s in Harlem. Another is a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Whitney Donhauser, the director at the Museum of the City of New York, said the idea came about in a brainstorming session with her team back in the spring. Everyone had a “positive reaction” to the thought of showcasing gingerbread houses. She particularly liked the idea as a way to highlight the creativity and talent of New Yorkers across all five boroughs — something the museum takes seriously. Plus, she said, it seemed fun.
Kuehn, an amateur baker who shares photos on his Instagram account, New Bake City, had never attempted a gingerbread house before this fall. But he had worked for 25 years as an architect, acquiring a skill set that, turns out, came in quite handy.
Early in the process, he drafted blueprints of the gingerbread house with AutoCAD software. He tested multiple batches of dough before landing on the right “structural” kind, which contains shortening (but no butter), molasses, and loads of spices “for the smell.” His husband, Glenn Mendlinger, made at least 10 batches of dough to save him time.
With that, Kuehn baked and carved more than 125 pieces into stackable, modular shapes – some of them 30 inches tall – and then assembled them into the final structure.
“I was incredibly anxious at every turn,” said Kuehn on Tuesday, three days before the exhibit’s opening on Friday, Nov. 11.
Even getting the structure to the museum was an ordeal: a friend drove Kuehn’s car 80 blocks uptown, twice. Kuehn and Mendlinger sat in the back, holding the baked goods “like babies.”
“I was totally prepared for it to just come apart completely,” said Kuehn, who feared the city’s potholes would “pulverize everything.”
But – in what might generously be called a holiday miracle – everything stayed intact.
Until, of course, it didn’t.
Tuesday morning, Kuehn was back at the museum, using a thin tranche of Rice Krispies Treats to repair a tower that was sagging. He was not allowed to use Krazy Glue or duct tape.
The rules are clear: all decorations must be 100% edible, and the main structure has to be at least 75% gingerbread.
Humidity is another hurdle – “the enemy of a gingerbread house,” explained Lloyd, the judge from Magnolia Bakery. It can cause the dough to morph, affecting the structure, which, she said, is the hardest element to nail. The museum can control moisture and temperature levels inside the gallery, but it can’t control the dough.
Hence the stress for Kuehn. By midafternoon, he had reinstalled a new roof panel, made from leftover dough he’d baked earlier, when he’d sensed he was dealing with a “leaning tower of ginger,” as he called it. The renovated tower was cemented in position with isomalt sugar and royal icing.
Kuehn said he was “emotionally prepared” for future fixes. After all, his installation has to last until January.
Lloyd said the Madison Square Park creation was one that she particularly loved among an impressive group.
“Wow, there's a lot of talented people out there,” she said. “These contestants put their heart and soul into it.”
Kuehn said he was looking forward to the holidays, though he hadn’t decided what he’d be whipping up for dessert.
“I am a little baked out right now,” he said. “I don't think I'll be making gingerbread, I'll put it that way.”
Here is a complete list of winners:
- Best Overall: Sherry Kozlowski, Queens
- Best Borough (Most Representative): Bruno's Bakery, Staten Island
- Good Enough to Eat: Sans Bakery, Queens
- Devil’s in the Details (Most Intricate): Bruno's Bakery, Staten Island
- Grandest: John Kuehn, Manhattan
- Only in New York: Ida Kreutzer, Brooklyn
- Sweetest: Egidio Pastry Shop, Bronx
- Most Resilient: L’Appartement 4F, Brooklyn
The exhibit opens Friday, Nov. 11 and runs through Sunday, Jan. 8 at the Museum of the City of New York. The public will vote throughout December for their favorite gingerbread structure.