NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 18, 2013

Building a tradition

Port woman helps spread joy with gingerbread houses

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — Lyndi Lanphear has constructed hundreds and hundreds of houses. Along the way, she has picked up quite a few tricks for holiday decorating.

Colorful chocolate rocks make great sidewalks, while chocolate kisses and peppermints dress up rooftops. Big candy canes look beautiful over archways, and ribbon candy is the perfect sleigh for a sweet Santa Claus. And there’s no better adhesive than sugary royal icing.

If the finished product looks good enough to eat, that’s because it is.

Lanphear, a Newburyport resident, has been building gingerbread houses for more than 20 years. She started the tradition with her grandmother Gertrude Wolfe, who lived with Lanphear and her husband, Kevin, when their children, David and Jennifer, were young.

After teaching themselves how to make the houses, Lanphear and Wolfe would cook and assemble the pieces, then set up a table with a variety of candy and small cups of royal icing.

“It was fun doing it with her,” Lanphear said. “Then, as the kids got older, they helped me, and they loved it.”

What started as an activity at small family gatherings grew into larger events, with Lanphear making the houses for her son’s Cub Scout troop, both children’s classes at Immaculate Conception School, Sunday school sessions and, eventually, a number of other organizations.

“It just kind of evolved over the years,” Lanphear said. “One year, I made over 200 houses.”

At her peak, she would start baking gingerbread right after Halloween and freezing it so it was always on hand during the holiday season.

“I like to have (the houses) made about a week before I use them, because they harden,” she said. “My family loves the smell of gingerbread cooking in the house all season long.”

Now that her children are grown, she has scaled back her efforts, especially this year after finishing up a campaign for councilor-at-large. Her job as the owner and manager of a professional office building also takes up a lot of her time.

“I’m just doing small parties, 20-30 at the most,” she said.

Earlier this month, she led a session at The Salvation Army, where she is a board member. She likes to meet with the nonprofit’s groups from time to time, and she thought it would be a great activity for several women who get together on Wednesday mornings to do crafts.

“I think they really enjoyed it, I think it was fun,” she said. “Now, they’re going to use them as the centerpieces for the dinners they have at The Salvation Army throughout December.”

Lanphear said she is particularly fond of making gingerbread houses because it is an activity that everyone can participate in, from preschoolers to senior citizens. And she is always picking up new decorating tricks just from watching others experiment with all kinds of candy and other edible accessories.

“It is amazing, every year I learn something,” she said. “Every year, someone else comes up with something new. I’ve seen so many people do it over the years, I’ve learned all their secrets.”

Gingerbread dough

Makes 3 14-by-11-inch rectangles

5 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup vegetable shortening or margarine

3/4 cup sugar

1 cup light molasses

1 large egg

On waxed paper, combine flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt.

In large bowl, with electric mixer, beat shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in molasses and egg. Stir in flour mixture to make a stiff dough.

Divide dough into thirds; wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 3 days before using.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cover 2 or 3 large baking sheets with aluminum foil or baking parchment paper.

On prepared sheet, roll out cookie dough, one-third at a time, to a 14-by-11-inch rectangle, about one-eighth-inch-thick. Using patterns as a guide, cut out as many pieces as possible, leaving a half-inch between pieces. Lift off dough trimmings and reserve to roll out later.

Bake small gingerbread pieces 8-10 minutes, larger pieces 12 to 15 minutes. Shapes should be firm and golden brown. Transfer to wire racks; cool completely before decorating. Store pieces in airtight containers.

Royal frosting

Makes 2 cups

1 pound confectioners’ sugar

3 large egg whites

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

In medium-size bowl, with electric mixer, combine sugar, egg whites and cream of tartar just until well-mixed. At high speed, beat mixture until light and fluffy.

Cover frosting tightly with a damp towel or plastic wrap while using.

— Recipes courtesy of Ironclad Non-Stick Coating

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We’re looking to share the recipes and secrets of amateur cooks who have a knack in the kitchen and consistently amaze their family and friends with their culinary skills. If you know a great cook or are one yourself, email Ann Reily at areily@newburyportnews.com.

Putting it all together

For step-by-step assembly instructions and printable patterns for gingerbread houses, visit Lanphear’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/lyndicares or email her at lyndilanphear@me.com.