Gingerbread: Build first, eat later

Kerry-Ann McManus, 15, of Old Saybrook, a dancer in the Eastern Connecticut Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," prepares for a holiday open house at the Bee & Thistle Inn and Spa in Old Lyme, decorated with gingerbread houses created by Linnea Rufo, the innkeeper.
Kerry-Ann McManus, 15, of Old Saybrook, a dancer in the Eastern Connecticut Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," prepares for a holiday open house at the Bee & Thistle Inn and Spa in Old Lyme, decorated with gingerbread houses created by Linnea Rufo, the innkeeper. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Building your own custom-designed house is a major construction project - even when it's out of gingerbread.

But for Linnea Rufo, a master gingerbread house baker, it's well worth the effort.

Since she became innkeeper of Old Lyme's Bee & Thistle Inn and Spa four years ago, Rufo's large, elaborate gingerbread houses covered in colorful candy have enticed people of all ages from near and far, who come to the decorated inn during the holiday season.

Multiple steps are involved in creating a gingerbread house from scratch, starting with making the dough and the icing, then designing a pattern, rolling out the dough, cutting it into sections, baking the pieces and assembling them using the icing as mortar, and finally getting to what Rufo thinks is the most fun, creative part: "slathering on the icing and candy."

Buying a prefab gingerbread house kit that only requires assembly will considerably cut down your labor, but the advance planning, patience and time it takes to make your own house from start to finish is exactly what Rufo thinks we need in our high-speed, hi-tech world.

"You can get fast food, fast everything, but this is a project that's all about slowing down, and not stressing out," she says. "The process brings people together. You can make it an activity, a tradition - not just with kids, but also with friends."

Rufo's first taste of gingerbread house making was at the age of 15 while working part-time at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Mass., where gingerbread houses covered in gumdrops were displayed during the holidays. It inspired Rufo to do the same thing during her first Christmas as owner of the Bee & Thistle; and unexpectedly resulted in her becoming a grandmother three years later.

Rufo's daughter, Jordan, who was a student at Pratt University - along with her roommate Danielle Stril - found a computer program to make architectural patterns that could be used for gingerbread houses. The women, along with Nathan Keay, a student at the Lyme Academy College who worked at the inn, took on the ambitious project of constructing four edible Old Lyme landmarks: the Bee & Thistle Inn, the Lyme Art Association, the Florence Griswold Museum and the Lyme Academy College of Fine Art.

The project took three weeks of working until 3 a.m.

It was exhausting, Rufo recalls, but it also became the spark-plug of a romance between Jordan and Nathan.

"They fell in love making gingerbread houses and now have an 8-month-old daughter," Rufo notes.

Unfortunately, the houses were too big to store, and gingerbread doesn't have a long shelf life, so they didn't make it to the next holiday season, and Rufo had to make new houses.

Rufo recommends that novices go with smaller scale dwellings. She also encourages advance planning, including blocking out a period of time to do the project, and making sure to have all supplies at the ready.

The house can be built in several stages, Rufo says, starting with designing the pattern, making and refrigerating the dough and icing, and then gathering people together for an assembling and decorating party.

And, Rufo notes, "It's not about perfection, it's all about fun."

The Bee & Thistle Inn is at 100 Lyme St. in Old Lyme, where Rufo's gingerbread houses will be on display through out the end of the year. Call the inn at (860) 434-1667 for more information.

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