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Chamber presents 8th gingerbread house competition

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 9:57 p.m.
A gingerbread house display created by Manfred Sander depicts a typical German-style village. Submitted

When it comes to making gingerbread houses, you could say Manfred Sander has the recipe for success.

Sander, who is originally from Germany, said he has baked and decorated thousands of the traditional Christmas holiday treats during the past several decades for friends and customers in the Ligonier Valley.

More recently, however, Sander has served as a judge for the Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce's annual gingerbread competition.

“Making a gingerbread house is a wonderful Old World tradition to usher in the Christmas season,” said Sander. “There is something about the smell of gingerbread, it makes the whole house smell like Christmas.”

Registration for the chamber's eighth gingerbread contest ends Friday. Cash prizes will be awarded. The entry fee is $15 for the amateur and children levels and $20 for professional-level competitors. First-, second- and third-place cash prizes will be awarded as well as best in show.

“This is a great opportunity to show off your talents to everyone in the community, help those less fortunate and help ring in the holiday season,” said Holly Mowrey, chamber director. “The community is invited to place a silent bid on a favorite gingerbread house or make a donation.”

The gingerbread houses will be on display at the Ramada Ligonier Dec. 1 through Dec. 9.

“We love having it here. It is a wonderful event for the community,” said Andrea Cuda, director of sales and marketing at Ramada. “It is a way for us to be a part of this by housing it here. And, it always goes to a great charity.”

This year, proceeds benefit the Ligonier Meals on Wheels. Winners will be announced at Ligonier's Town Wide Open House on Dec. 2.

Sander offers some advice for first-time and return competitors. He advises contestants to keep the design simple.

“In Germany, the gingerbread houses are traditionally made to look like crude chalets with candy on the roof, with a witch outside the house and a black cat on top of the roof,” he said. “It is supposed to represent the witch's house in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale.”

Sander said it is also a German tradition to place wrapped candy on the house so when visitors leave your home, they break off a piece of candy from the house for good luck.

“You shouldn't try to be the biggest expert at decorating,” he said. “Use a good royal icing and put lots of icicles on it and that's all it really needs.”

Sander recommends a sturdy Styrofoam board as the base, but he said make sure it is not too heavy to transport.

“Do not make it too big, then it is too hard to reinforce,” he said.

He said, as a judge, he looks for originality and use of all-edible decorations.

Sander suggests using a recipe for German Lebkuchen gingerbread.

“Do not try to out do yourself,” he said. “Make it at your level of expertise.”

He suggests using a ready-made powdered royal icing mix.

“When you are preparing the icing, you will know it is ready when it sticks on the whisk,” he said. “If it is too liquid, it will not dry properly.”

Sander said he learned how to make gingerbread houses when he was 15-years-old, during an apprenticeship at a pastry shop in Germany.

“One year, a wealthy individual ordered 450 small gingerbread houses for the children at a local orphanage,” he said. “I can still see the look in those kids eyes when we delivered all those gingerbread houses.”

He said he was working at a shop in England when he was hired by the Rolling Rock Club in 1965 and moved to Ligonier. He said he started out at the club as a pastry chef and retired as executive chef in 2006.

Sander has not taken orders for gingerbread houses in recent years. However, he is looking forward to playing host at a gingerbread decorating party for his granddaughters, Sophia and Ella Marks, and their friends, at their home in Mt. Lebanon in December.

Next year, prior to the annual competition, Sander said he plans to conduct a gingerbread house workshop offered by the Ligonier chamber.

For registration information for the gingerbread house contest, call the chamber at 724-238-4200.