A gingerbread competition changed the course of Jessica Graffius' professional life.

She'd been studying at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute with hopes of becoming an event planner. One of her instructors, Chef Mike Skarupinski, mentioned a competition downstate that Graffius and a friend decided to enter.

They won best of show.

"I found my love for working with gum paste and fondant," said Graffius, now the service lead and administrative assistant at the culinary school, part of Northwestern Michigan College. She also owns her own business making cakes, sculpting them into edible 3-D creations, including Coke cans and football helmets.

Graffius and Skarupinski are hoping to inspire more gingerbread artists with the institute's first competition, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 13. There are categories for adults, students, high-schoolers and youth. The creations will be judged at the institute, 715 E. Front St., at 5 p.m. Saturday. (The entry deadline has passed.) The gingerbread will then move to the Hagerty Center for the Zonta Festival of Trees, scheduled for Nov. 18-21, where it will be auctioned to benefit Zonta.

It took Graffius more than two months to create the winning "Alice in Wonderland"-themed entry in her first contest, she said. Half that time was spent trying to come up with a gingerbread that could be dyed green for the Mad Hatter's hat. Because most gingerbread uses dark ingredients, including molasses and spices, the chefs experimented until they found a recipe that was light enough.

The fondant — a malleable icing-like substance — and the gum paste — which dries hard — aren't really that good to eat, Graffius said, but work wonders for architecture and sculpting.

And even though fondant and gum paste might not be tasty, they still qualify as edible, which is one of the rules in the Culinary Institute's contest — everything has to be edible, which means no last-minute fixes with toothpicks. And, because store-bought candy will reduce a score, decorations should be made from scratch.

Skarupinski, pastry chef instructor at the culinary institute, said working with homemade decorations instills another level of pride in the contestants.

"They love explaining everything," he said. He remembers one entry that featured a bakery, complete with little pies, bags of flour and figurines.

And the contest, which offers cash prizes and medals to the top three finishers in each category, isn't solely for professional chefs and culinary students, he said.

"It's great for foodies who love to have fun," he said.

The gingerbread contest circuit can be cutthroat, he admitted, with prizes sometimes hitting $3,000. (The top prize in Traverse City is $75.) Even though this is the first year for the institute's competition, there are teams traveling from The Art Institute of Michigan, an art school with a culinary division. There also are adult, high school and youth categories.

The team of Scott McNees and Monica Vallier, both students at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, used this recipe for gingerbread for their entry and were happy that it didn't spread when baked.

Gingerbread

½ c. (4 ozs.). butter, softened

½ c. brown sugar

¾ c. dark molasses

1 egg

1 t. baking soda

1 t. salt

2 T. ground ginger

1 t. cinnamon

½ t. nutmeg

½ t. cloves

1½ c. (12 ozs.) all-purpose flour, more or less

In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar, molasses and egg until mixture is smooth. Stir dry ingredients together; add to creamed mixture to make a stiff dough. Chill at least 30 minutes or until firm.

Roll gingerbread dough out to edges of a large, rimless cookie sheet. Place paper patterns onto the rolled out dough. With a sharp, straight edged knife, cut around each of the pieces, but leave pieces in place.

You can also cut the shapes after baking; Skarupinski recommends cutting the dough while it's still warm.

Bake at 375° for 11-15 minutes until dough feels firm.

Place patterns on top of the gingerbread again and trim shapes, cutting edges with a straight-edged sharp knife. Leave to cool on baking sheet.

Royal Icing is frosting that hardens when it cools. It's mostly used for fancy decorating. It can also be used as a glue to fasten parts of your gingerbread house together, or piped onto individual parts of your house, such as decorations, windows and doors, using a pastry bag.

Royal Icing

3 ozs. egg whites (1 to 2 large eggs)

1 lb. confectioners' sugar, sifted if lumpy

1 t. cream of tartar

(Some recipes call for an acid, such as almond extract, vanilla or lemon juice, instead of the cream of tartar)

Mix all of the ingredients together using an electric hand mixer, until the icing is smooth and thin enough to be pressed through a pastry bag with a writing tip. Add more lemon juice, if necessary.

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