Pastry arts students improve culinary skills in gingerbread village project

12.15.2015 | By Rob Vanya

Building gingerbread houses, a popular holiday activity, became a means for San Jacinto College pastry arts students to improve culinary skills in a recent class project.

“During this time of year, pastry chefs all over town create gingerbread houses and villages,” commented San Jacinto College pastry chef instructor Andrea Huerta, who conceived the concept, and coordinated the gingerbread house village class project. “Gingerbread house displays are commonly found in country clubs and hotels and it’s always the pastry chef that creates them. Putting together an entire village is quite an undertaking, and I wanted my students to build a village as a way of getting hands-on work experience.”

The pastry arts students created their individual houses, which collectively were grouped as a village, entirely from scratch. “They were not permitted to use store-bought kits because kits are more expensive than making everything from scratch,” said Huerta. “That’s what would be expected in the industry, as restaurants are always watching their bottom line.”

Each student was individually responsible for the entire house-making process, which included making the dough, portioning, rolling, baking, creating a design template, assembly and decoration. The class as a whole collaborated to create the village, which was on public display for a week.

Students were graded on their concoctions, earning marks for proper technique throughout the process. “Performing each step correctly is vital to the overall success of such a project,” Huerta remarked. “They were provided general guidelines, but they determined the theme and look of their houses. I provided feedback, and the students collaborated to help work through any blocks in creativity. I want students to learn good culinary judgment and know when they are producing something that looks professional. That way, by the end of a semester they can be critical of their own work and look for ways to improve on their weaknesses.”

Culinary arts student Mary Beth Crouch of Pasadena chose a country theme for her gingerbread house, dedicating the project to her husband Josh, who she describes as a good-natured, hard-working country boy from the small town of Avery. “I snagged some of Josh’s sunflower seeds to use as roofing material for my gingerbread house, and as I began to put it together, it sort of took on a life of its own and developed into a log cabin in the snow,” she commented. “I decided I liked it, and just went with a country boy theme.”

A sign in the yard proclaims “Bubba’s General Store & Live Auction.” Bubba (a toy figure), who likes to hunt, is perched on the roof wearing an orange hunting vest, holding a deer rifle, and is crouched in a marksman pose. In the yard, a large snowman made from icing is decked out with a matching orange hunting vest. Also in the yard is a livestock pen. She used Circus Animal Crackers for livestock, and (for a touch of realism) she used mini toll-house chocolate morsels for cow manure. Also scattered around the yard are toy tractors and cars, and (of course) toy pickup trucks. “Woody,” the cowboy from “Toy Story” is ice fishing in the front yard.

“Mary Beth made an ‘A’ on her gingerbread house,” remarked Huerta. “She is a great student.”

Crouch said she does not consider herself creative by nature. “But working in pastry arts just sort of pulls creativity out of me,” she said. She has a natural knack for making desserts, which grew from a hobby to a passion. She enrolled in the San Jacinto College pastry arts program to learn how to improve her skills, and to learn the business side of the culinary industry.

Crouch plans to earn an associate degree in pastry arts from San Jacinto College next December, and then transfer to the University of Houston to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business. Her ultimate career goal is to either own her own bakery, or to work as a bakery manager.

So, what will become of her country boy gingerbread house? “I will take it home to Josh and ask him if he wants to take it to work and give it to his boss,” she said. “Who knows. Maybe he will get a raise.”

To learn more about culinary arts programs at San Jacinto College, please visit sanjac.edu/career/culinaryrestaurant-management.

About San Jacinto College

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for more than 50 years. As an Achieving the Dream Leader College, San Jacinto College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of approximately 30,000 credit students. The College offers 186 degrees and certificates, with 46 technical programs and a university transfer division. Students benefit from a support system that maps out a pathway for success, and job training programs that are renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $690 million each year to the Texas workforce.

For more information about San Jacinto College, please call 281-998-6150, visit www.sanjac.edu, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.