by MICHELLE WASHINGTON
photography by Eric Lusher and AMANDA LUCIER
In college, Rodney Diehl cooked to pay the rent while he studied forestry.
Cooking has paid his bills for more than 33 years now. Diehl, head pastry chef at Colonial Williamsburg, first worked there as a teenager, when his dad was a master harness maker. After studying at Oregon State University, he returned to his hometown and landed a job at the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. He joined the historic area’s apprenticeship program, then moved to the central commissary.
Now he runs a team of chefs who prepare thousands of pastries every day. And for Christmas every year, that team creates an elaborate gingerbread village display 10 feet wide, 10 feet across, and loaded with frosting. “The houses range from small outhouses to train stations, gift shops, toy stores,” Diehl says.
Each year’s display features a different theme. One year, his team recreated the Governor’s Palace. Another year brought Scottish castles and a Loch Ness Monster. Brainstorming for the theme begins in August. Assembly begins around Halloween so the houses are ready for display by Thanksgiving.
The chefs use the same recipe for the gingerbread as is used for the cookies made in the commissary, along with the stiff, glossy, egg-white frosting that often accompanies gingerbread houses, Diehl says. He has a few slightly more industrial tricks that make each year’s display more attractive, if less edible.
“We use a hot-glue gun to glue them together – it sets quicker. We’re not going to eat them, and it allows you to come back later with the frosting.”
Once the buildings have been assembled, the team adds decoration. Then the whole confection gets a liberal dousing of hair spray.
“It keeps it from cracking,” Diehl says.
Diehl has reworked a few of his recipes for use at home. None contains glue or hair spray.
Yield: A house about 5 inches wide, 6 long, and 8 tall.
To save your house for next year, Rodney Diehl suggests wrapping it in a plastic bag and storing it in a dry, dark place; do not refrigerate or freeze it. When you’re ready to display it, sift fresh powdered sugar over it.
For pieces that keep their shape, chill the dough after rolling it out. You can also cut the pieces directly on the baking pan and just remove the scraps.
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 cup margarine (2 sticks), melted
½ cup evaporated milk
1 cup unsulfured molasses
4 cups stone-ground or unbleached flour, sifted, with up to ½ cup additional if needed
Optional: Egg wash of 1 egg and 1 teaspoon water beaten together, for a shinier surface. Or use crushed hard candy, for a window-glass effect
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare cookie sheets with parchment paper or grease and flour.
In a large bowl, combine the sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Mix well. Add the melted margarine, evaporated milk and molasses. Mix well. Add the flour 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly. The dough should be stiff enough to handle without sticking to your fingers. Knead it for a smoother texture. Add up to ½ cup additional flour, if needed, to prevent sticking.
When the dough is smooth, roll it out ¼ inch thick on a floured surface, chill if desired, and cut desired shapes. For a shinier surface, brush or spray with egg wash about 5 minutes before you bake.
For window glass, place crushed hard candy in the window openings about 5 minutes before baking time is complete.
Bake the dough for 10 to 12 minutes; the pieces are done when they are golden brown and spring back when touched.
Keep the icing covered with a damp cloth to prevent crusting. If time allows, let the front and sides of your structure dry before adding the roof. After assembling the house, you can thin some of the icing with a small amount of water to make the icicles or pipe the shingles on the roof.
3 egg whites
1 pound powdered sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice
Place all ingredients in the bowl of a mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat to a stiff consistency. If the mixture is too soft, add more powdered sugar.
If it is too thick, add a few drops of water.
These are served at the Williamsburg Lodge.
Yield: a 9- by 13-inch pan.
1 cup sugar
2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks)
2 large eggs
4½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon vanilla
In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing on low speed until each is incorporated and scraping down the bowl in between.
Add the flour, vanilla and salt, and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Cover the dough with plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.
Roll the dough out 1/8 inch thick and lay it over the pan to cover the sides and bottom. Prick with a fork and chill 30 minutes.
As the dough chills, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place a piece of foil over the dough and top evenly with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes. Allow to cool and remove the beans or weights and foil. Set aside.
PECAN FILLING INGREDIENTS
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1¼ cups light brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ cup honey
½ cup heavy cream
1½ tablespoons vanilla
4 cups pecan pieces
Preheat oven again to 350 degrees.
Combine butter, sugars, honey, heavy cream, vanilla and salt in a heavy-bottomed pot. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches 225 degrees on a candy thermometer. Stir in the pecans. Spread the filling evenly over the baked dough and bake 20 minutes more.
Cool completely before cutting into squares; the lodge typically cuts them to 1¼ inches.
Yield: a 9- by 13-inch pan.
Don’t skimp on the corn flake crumbs; they’ll be the crust for this Williamsburg Lodge treat.
1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 cup corn flake crumbs
2 cups chocolate chips
2 cups coconut flakes
1 quart plus 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
(5 cups – or 40 ounces total)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spread butter evenly in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle corn flake crumbs over the butter to coat the bottom. Sprinkle the chocolate chips evenly over the crumbs, then layer on the coconut.
Pour on the condensed milk, working across the entire top, not in just one spot.
Bake for 25 minutes or until the bars are golden brown.