Sweet Labors of Holiday Love

Don’t miss the array of gingerbread houses on display at Discover Portsmouth in December!

Surrounded by trees, this log cabin, cleverly constructed of pretzel “logs” by Brett Starr of Rye, won the youth category of the 2016 Discover Portsmouth Gingerbread House Contest.

One of the most enduring holiday traditions—dating back to sixteenth-century Germany—is gingerbread houses. Obsessing over crooked cookie walls, licking fingers sticky from royal icing and eating gumdrop decorations are all part of the fun of baking and building the candy-studded structures.

Discover Portsmouth, the Portsmouth Historical Society’s welcome center and gallery, showcases this holiday tradition with its annual gingerbread house contest and exhibit. This is a popular local event that started at Strawbery Banke Museum in 1990, then moved to Discover Portsmouth five years ago. “It’s a real community grabber,” says Lainey McCartney, Discover Portsmouth’s curatorial associate. “We draw applicants from all over New Hampshire.”

Created by Robert Menard of Portsmouth’s Hilton Garden Inn, this magnificent re-creation of the city’s North Church—winner of the Business Category—includes meticulously-formed bricks and a candy fieldstone walk. 

Last year, the contest garnered eighty-five entries, including an elaborate woodland scene, a troll house, and edible replicas of area landmarks such as the Nubble Lighthouse in York, Maine, and the famous neon sign from Portsmouth’s former Yoken’s restaurant. Entrants range from professional bakers to folks who simply enjoy the process. “In addition to award winner Robert Menard (see previous page), we had another participant who created a replica of Portsmouth’s North Church,” McCartney says. “She likes to make gingerbread houses; she Googled ‘gingerbread contest’ and found us.”

History of gingerbread

Gingerbread has been around for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Greece. Used originally for religious purposes, gingerbread was introduced to Western Europe by eleventh-century Crusaders. Hard gingerbread cookies—shaped and elaborately decorated, sometimes with gold leaf, to look like birds, animals and flowers—were a favorite treat at medieval European festivals and fairs.

Gingerbread houses date back to sixteenth-century Germany, and gradually became a holiday and winter tradition. The Brothers Grimm featured a gingerbread home in one of their most famous fairy tales: the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. On a more fanciful note, the lavishly carved architectural detail found on many Victorian homes is known as “gingerbread trim.”

Fantasy Cottage, created by Joanne Nichols, features carefully articulated shingles made of frosting and a candy-covered roof. It won both the Adult Category and  Most Attention to Detail.

Ingredients for a great gingerbread house

Perhaps the most important ingredient necessary to engineer a stellar gingerbread structure is patience. Joanne Nichols of Alfred, Maine, created Fantasy Cottage—a gingerbread cottage with carefully articulated shingles in gray frosting, a nonpareil roof, and red frosting trim and window boxes—that captured awards in the Adult Category and Most Attention to Detail in Discover Portsmouth’s twenty-sixth annual Gingerbread House Contest. Nichols, a former caterer and owner of www.chatterboxbakery.com, makes and sells gingerbread replicas of historic sites as well as people’s homes.

“I like the three-dimensionality of gingerbread houses,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun and a lot of hours.” Depending upon its difficulty, Nichols spends between twenty and two hundred hours completing a structure (it took twenty hours to build Fantasy Cottage) and works on multiple houses at once. She sketches her ideas first, draws her templates, then bakes. “I produce several houses at a time and let them set for a day or so,” she says. “Then I take one at a time, decorate each panel separately, then assemble the house.” Adding fine detail is the final step.

Rachel Koch created this delightful interpretation of an iconic Maine lighthouse, dubbing it the Knubble Light, and won Most Seacoast Spirit.

Structural disasters are always a possibility. Nichols secures walls and roofs with royal icing, frosting and candy canes to avoid collapses. “If it’s a large project, I build interior beams,” she says. “They’re completely edible.”

The Penguin Palace—created by the DeCristofaro family of Portsmouth and winner in the Family Category—features pretzel logs, a cereal roof and a penguin family made of marzipan. 

Kay Shoubash, a teacher at Windham High School, and her baking club students entered five houses in the 2016 Discover Portsmouth competition, including a troll house, held together with melted caramel candy. At least fifty students helped create the structures, working in shifts at school to make the dough, bake and then decorate their entries. “This was the first year we participated,” Shoubash says.

Rachel Koch’s Knubble Light, a re-creation of Maine’s Nubble Lighthouse, won Most Seacoast Spirit in last year’s competition. “My family started making gingerbread houses when I was seven, and I did it my entire childhood,” she remembers. Constructing the lighthouse tower was challenging—she created a cylinder out of individual gingerbread sheets. “I’m a stickler for accuracy and making it as a realistic as possible,” Koch says.

Enjoying the creative process was the real reward for these gingerbread house creators. “A lot of holiday traditions are disappearing, and food is such a big part of that tradition,” Shoubash says. “The kids really got into the spirit of the holidays when they were baking and decorating. That’s what it’s all about.”

Making Gingerbread Houses

Poking out among clouds of cotton, four-year-old William Galliher (left) and John Bolduc, age five, 
enjoy the sweet sights of a gingerbread village.  

Gingerbread Dough

Recipe courtesy of Joanne Nichols

Makes enough dough for 1 or 2 houses, depending on size


  9 cups flour
¾ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
2 tablespoons ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
teaspoons nutmeg
¾ teaspoon cloves
3 sticks butter, softened
½ cup dark brown sugar 
cup molasses
¾ cup water (approximate)


1. Sift together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. In a separate bowl, mix together the butter and sugar, then add the molasses. Gradually add the dry ingredients. Add the water. If the dough is too dry, add a little more.
3. Mix until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl.
4. Wrap in plastic and chill in refrigerator for several hours.
5. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line sheet pans with parchment. Roll out dough and cut gingerbread pieces in desired shapes, leaving 2–3 inches between pieces in pan. Bake for 12–15 minutes (note that baking time will vary depending on the size of pieces). Cool completely before removing pieces from pan. 


Royal Icing

Makes 4 cups


  4 large egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
7 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons flavored extract 
(vanilla, almond, 
peppermint, etc.)
A drop food coloring (optional)


1. Combine all ingredients in a mixer, using the whisk 
attachment. Whisk the icing at medium to high speed until stiff peaks form. 
2. To store the icing, wrap in plastic and place in the refrigerator.
Decorating tip: Decorate gingerbread pieces on a flat surface prior to assembly. If you’re using piped icing to create details, let the icing dry completely for twelve hours. Assemble two walls together first (also pipe icing on to the bottom edges of each piece to secure them to your base). Then add each wall, gluing together with icing. Once walls are secure, attach the roof. Finishing touches and hiding seams or imperfections can wait until the house is fully assembled.

Twenty-Seventh Annual Gingerbread House Contest

This charming storefront of Gingie’s Boutique—created by Cherée Socha and Kathy LaMagna of Manchester—features window displays and a little candy Scotty dog on the sidewalk.

Part of the Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth celebration, the twenty-seventh annual Gingerbread House Contest—with 
gingerbread houses created by  local businesses, artists, families and kids—kicks off December 1 with a party from 5 to 8 p.m. The houses are on display December 2–23 in Discover Portsmouth’s  first-floor gallery. The exhibition  is free and open to the public.  For information on how to enter the competition and a complete calendar of events, contact:

Discover Portsmouth
10 Middle Street in Portsmouth 
(603) 436-8433 



Categories: Food & Recipes