Inspired by a Yale icon, student honors a family holiday tradition
For Nellie Conover-Crockett ’22 making gingerbread houses with her mother as a young girl was a favorite holiday tradition. At first, they made typical structures, using a beloved gingerbread recipe. But a couple years ago, the Wisconsin native decided she wanted to try something bigger — a gingerbread replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London as a gift for her high school English teacher. “We decorated it with Shakespeare puns,” she said with a laugh.
Since then, she and her mother have made other elaborate gingerbread structures, including a barn modeled after the historic barns that dot the Wisconsin landscape and a custom cabin for a couple who commissioned their work.
This year, due to the pandemic, Conover-Crockett will not be heading home to see her parents over the holidays. But the avid baker wanted to build something out of gingerbread that would make her mother proud. She chose one of Yale’s most iconic buildings — Sterling Memorial Library.
“I love Sterling so much,” said Conover-Crockett, who is majoring in ethnicity, race, and migration and is co-director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Project. “I would go in there to study twice a week. Even though I had to wear a mask, it was the highlight of my week. And it is super architecturally interesting.”
Armed with aerial, front, and side views of Sterling, along with carboard boxes and tape, Conover-Crockett spread out on the dining room floor of the New Haven apartment where she lives with two roommates. She designed and cut the pieces out of cardboard and gave each piece a code which she listed in a notebook. There were 63 pieces in all.
“I made batches of gingerbread and rolled and cut out each piece. By the end, I was weary of rolling out,” she said.
Decorated with royal icing and candies, the final creation is a remarkable recreation of Sterling, and 100% edible. Conover-Crockett said she already made Bingham Hall two years ago and next year, her senior year, she has an even more ambitious plan — her residential college, Trumbull College.
“I’ll do the construction and then I’ll let everyone help decorate it as a study break,” she said.
Recipes for gingerbread and royal icing
Yield: 2 small houses (4 recipes for a gingerbread Sterling!)
- 1 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup molasses
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- 4 tbsp. water
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Using a hand mixer or sturdy spoon, beat the shortening and the sugar in a large bowl until light and creamy.
- Beat in the molasses until combined.
- Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and ginger in a large bowl.
- Add 1/5 of the flour mixture to the molasses mixture and mix to combine. Add 1 tbsp. water and combine. Alternate the flour mixture and the water until all ingredients are combined. At some point, the dough will become too thick to use the mixer, and you can switch to a sturdy spoon.
- Working on parchment paper, roll the dough to a thickness of 1/8-1/4 inch and cut out desired shapes. Transfer the parchment to a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until darkened and fragrant, but still soft.
- Quickly transfer the parchment to a flat surface (many baking sheets are warped, so a table or counter is best here) to cool, where they will harden completely.
Yield: 2 small houses (2.5 recipes for gingerbread Sterling!)
- 2 lb. powdered sugar
- 4 tbsp powdered egg whites or meringue powder
- 10-12 tbsp. warm water
- In a large, grease-free bowl and with a grease-free whisk, combine the sugar and egg whites.
- Slowly add water to the mixture, beating with a grease-free hand mixer. Stop adding water when all of the sugar has come together, but the mixture is still quite thick.
- Beat until the icing doubles in volume (5-7 minutes) and then add to a piping bag to assemble the gingerbread house.
- While you work, keep the icing under a warm, wet kitchen towel to prevent it from drying out.
Happy baking (and building)!