Every year Lucas and I work on our Christmas project together... a Gingerbread House. We've done many types over the years... an Irish Cottage, Country Church, a Log Cabin, and one of our biggest--our own home, Buddleside. That was the biggest and heaviest to date Victorian roof pitches and wraparound porch... even down to our hammock (made out of Fruit Rollups hanging on the front porch). Last year, in honor of our Voyage in Italy, we build a Trullo, those pointy roofed houses in Puglia (see post HERE).
But even last year, before we decided on the Trullo design, we had another thought... to build a Gingerbread Leaning Tower of Pisa. Well, as you can see by the photo above, this year we decided to do it! I think we succeeded... I was pretty rough going, though. Of course, the obvious challenge is that it leans. Another main problem was how to construct--and bake--the curved tower sections. I researched covering a cardboard tube with gingerbread and leaving the tube inside. But I discovered that gingerbread sort of melts downward as you heat a tube sitting vertically in the oven. The other method is to lay the gingerbread covered tube on its side in the oven and turn it every minute or so as it bakes. We decided against this because attaching balconies would be a real hassle. The Leaning Tower has balconies on six levels. We decided to create cylinders alternating with round cookies to construct the tower.
The solution to forming the curved shapes was to make half-cylinders and then put two together to form each floor of the tower. Next was coming up with a jig that could cool the shaped pieces just as they came out of the oven.... without them cracking or sloughing off pieces. I created a rig out of a large wooden rolling pin attached to our large roasting pan. As we quickly found out, the gingerbread recipe that Lisa had prepared was too crumbly at first... which we fixed by adding a bit of boiling water and re-kneading. But then we found that would not hold together when draped over the rolling pin form immediately after baking. We needed a new recipe....
The recipe that worked was more fudge-like in texture. It molded well. It cut well. And most important, after baking (undercooking a bit) it molded to the cylinder form without cracking!
So, I baked up some half-cylinders, then the gingerbread rounds to act as each level's floor and balcony.I decided to bake the bottom level as one complete cylinder... molded over a cardboard and metal iced tea contained that I cut at the correct angle for the Tower's sunken foundation. I rolled out the gingerbread and then rolled it up around the tube. As it baked, I kept turning it--about ever 2 minutes, for 15 minutes. This kept it from melting down off the tube. Perfect!
Next I created the smaller parts: doors, hearts, angels and the arches and rings needed to create the campanile (bell tower)... after all, the Leaning Tower is actually a functioning bell tower. Ours was going to have bells!
We attached the first level with duct tape (inside the cylinder) to the plywood base. We then "glued" each level, one by one with royal icing, cutting offset holes in each round cookie to allow for the dowel. Lucas put a special candy inside each level that only he would know about. By the time we got to the top level, the dowel "just" made it... touching the side of the curved wall. Another 1/2" off would have been a disaster. All the levels were already "glued"! The campanile was the delicate part. It was all hands on deck to get this assembled and then lifted into position. It really was the crowing glory of the piece. Once it was up there, the thing really looked like the Leaning Tower!
Then it was the fun part... Lucas organized all the candy and we started decorating. The chocolate, foil wrapped bells up on top. The doors and angels. Gummy bears, M&Ms, Live Savers, jelly beans, peppermint swirls... The hardest part was attaching all the pretzel columns... we have about 1/3 as many as the real tower, but they still took us over an hour to do.
By the end, my hands were shaking and my fingers were cramped from pressing the stiff royal icing out of pastry bags for hours on end. The assembly and decorating pretty much took us an entire day.
It was worth it, though. We think it turned out to be one of our best. What do you all think?
Jerry, Lisa and Lucas Finzi... Merry Christmas--Buon Natale!
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