If you walk through the lobby of One Ocean Hotel this holiday season, you can’t miss the aroma of their annual Christmas experience: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Follow the scent toward the grand entryway of the hotel’s restaurant, Azurea, and you’ll discover a gingerbread wonderland.
Every year, this Atlantic Beach hotel stages an elaborate gingerbread display. But don’t expect any ordinary gingerbread house; past years’ structures have included a life-size gingerbread igloo and a replica of the Polar Express. This year is no different. According to Head Pastry Chef James Victorino, the scene will be magical and larger than life.
Building bigger and more elaborate gingerbread houses appears to be a national trend. In 2013, a gingerbread house in Bryan, Texas broke the world record, measuring 60 feet by 42 feet, with its tallest point rising to 20 feet. Recipes for gingerbread date as far back in time as ancient Greece, but some sources mark the Crusades as the time when ginger came from the Middle East to Europe. The tradition of gingerbread men originated with Queen Elizabeth I, who had gingerbread shaped into miniature versions of her guests. Eventually, the trend spread across Europe, and molding gingerbread into people, trees, and animal shapes became a holiday tradition. The Brothers Grimm publication of the story “Hansel and Gretel” popularized gingerbread houses, which are a German tradition that Americans have eagerly embraced.
Chef Victorino is leading the charge this year for One Ocean’s gingerbread display. His team includes other pastry specialists and a group of engineers who will ensure a sturdy foundation. The massive scale of the project requires that they start making dough in October. We sat down with Chef Victorino to ask him a few questions about the art of gingerbread making.
Considering the size of the project, what does your list of ingredients look like?
We use a basic gingerbread recipe and then increase the spices, so that when guests walk in the room, the scent is very strong. It will take about 150 pounds of sugar, several hundred pounds of flour, and lots of candy and icing.
What goes into making a strong gingerbread house?
First, you need to have a stiff icing. Royal icing is best because it is good for keeping the gingerbread together. We add extra powdered sugar to make it even stiffer. Also, we have a team of engineers who have constructed a structure beneath the house to support it.
What do you like about making gingerbread houses?
It’s a lot of fun to work with the team, although we have many sleepless nights before the unveiling. Also, I’m very close to my two young nephews, and I’m excited to have them come and see the display.
Do you have a secret for tasty gingerbread?
The spices make the difference, but everyone has their own preference. Personally, I prefer a stronger cinnamon flavor, so I add more cinnamon. It depends on what you like. In any case, you need to have all of the flavors present: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg.
How long have you been doing the annual gingerbread house at One Ocean?
This is my first year as the head chef. Last year I was an assistant, and each person on the team got their own room to design. Mine was Santa Claus’s room, so I had pictures of the reindeer hanging on the wall, and Santa asleep in his bed. That display was big enough to be a playhouse, even for grownups.
What can visitors expect this year?
The public is welcome and there will be gingerbread cookies for everyone. Typically, the unveiling takes place the day before Thanksgiving. The theme changes every year, and we’re hoping this year will be even better than last year.