Tom Eblen

My family’s holiday tradition: Building Kentucky landmarks in gingerbread and sugar

The circa 1882 Floral Hall at the Red Mile was recreated by columnist Tom Eblen and his family with sugar cookie walls, clear sugar windows and a chocolate graham cracker roof. As an annual holiday project, they make an edible version of a different Lexington landmark. Past projects have included People's Bank and the Hunt-Morgan House.
The circa 1882 Floral Hall at the Red Mile was recreated by columnist Tom Eblen and his family with sugar cookie walls, clear sugar windows and a chocolate graham cracker roof. As an annual holiday project, they make an edible version of a different Lexington landmark. Past projects have included People's Bank and the Hunt-Morgan House. teblen@herald-leader.com

After I wrote last December about my family’s tradition of building a Kentucky landmark in gingerbread each Christmas, I ran into Kit Glenn McKinley at a New Year’s Day brunch.

“Next year,” she said, “you must do Floral Hall!”

I wasn’t surprised. McKinley heads the non-profit foundation that cares for Floral Hall, the 134-year-old “round barn” beside the Red Mile harness track. Designed by the noted 19th century Lexington architect and builder John McMurtry, it looks like a wedding cake and is one of Lexington’s most-photographed buildings.

I immediately realized it was a great suggestion —and would be a big challenge: three octagonal, progressively smaller stories with four doors and 96 windows that would need to be cut out of gingerbread and “glassed” with molten Isomalt, a sugar substitute.

Becky, my wife and construction-supply baker, thought it would be too big and complicated. She has been wary since our huge Hunt-Morgan House in 2013 kept requiring her to bake more and more gingerbread. But Shannon, our younger daughter and artistic director for this annual project, was up for it, so we talked Becky into it.

I had photographed Floral Hall for a column four years ago, so I used those pictures to make a scaled pattern. Then I built a cardboard model to figure out structural issues and exact pattern sizes.

Because Floral Hall is painted white, we decided to use sugar cookie rather than gingerbread dough. Although some pieces got too puffy while baking, it worked well and didn’t harden as quickly as construction-grade gingerbread. That is important, because each panel and window must be cut before baking, then trimmed again afterward while it is still hot and soft. We have lots of burned fingertips.

Shannon poured hot Isomalt into each window hole to make glass, then I assembled the panels using octagonal cardboard guides to get each level’s geometry right. Royal icing, which turns to concrete when dry, is the glue that holds everything together. Shannon also used it for decorative trim.

We couldn’t figure out a good roofing material, so we walked Kroger’s candy and cookie aisles and found chocolate graham crackers. Using a serrated bread knife, we cut them into tiny shingles and glued them one by one to sugar cookie panels with icing.

Good materials can be hard to find. Last year, we built People’s Bank and did Google image searches to find candy just the right size and shade of turquoise for its glazed-tile walls. The answer: a case of Powermint Tic Tacs.

I have always thought Floral Hall’s cupola looked like a Hershey’s Kiss. We found one just the right size — and foiled like a Santa hat! For more holiday cheer, we added candy cane columns and red-and-white candy balls on the cornices.

For landscaping, we shook shredded coconut in a bag with green food coloring and added a few gumball trees. We lit the inside with two LED votive candles, carefully slipped up through holes in the foil-covered cardboard base.

Becky figures the three of us put in about 32 hours on this project, from design to baking to trying to stop the cornices from dripping as the royal icing was losing its starch. But it was great family time and an interesting challenge.

Each building is completely edible, but after it sits around for several week getting stale and gathering dust, who would want to eat it? After a couple of months of absorbing moisture from the air, the walls and roof will begin collapsing.

Next Christmas, I want to make the old Fayette County Courthouse to celebrate its reopening after a top-to-bottom renovation. Even Shannon is afraid of that project, but I have 11 months to talk her into it.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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