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Elaborate Four Season gingerbread houses to debut Nov. 22

Addie Broyles

It drives Four Seasons executive pastry chef Javier Franco crazy, but some of his fellow pastry chefs start playing Christmas music as early as summer to help get themselves in the mood to make the elaborate gingerbread buildings that appear in the hotel's annual Gingerbread Village.

Franco and his team have to start in July in order to have all 15 structures finished in time for the unveiling in the hotel lobby on Nov. 22. "It's a learning process," says Franco, who hadn't made a gingerbread structure until working at a Four Seasons in California . "I still remember the grocery store and bookstore with an open book as a roof," he says. Since 2003, the Four Seasons staff have created a Bavarian village, but in honor of Texas' 175th birthday, Franco suggested that they do Texas landmarks this year. On a visit to the pastry kitchen last week, Franco showed off the structures that were completed or in the works — the UT Tower, the Alamo, the Capitol, and a small version of the Four Seasons itself.

They had yet to start the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue, Frost Bank Tower, St. Mary Cathedral, Space Center Houston or Dallas' Reunion Tower. Franco didn't seem nervous that there are only a few weeks until the debut, even though each building can take up to 30 hours to make. (The Gingerbread Village is on display Nov. 22 to Jan. 2.)

Franco and his staff of six have detailed plans about what the basic structures will look like, but when it comes time to actually decorate them, he says, they often look around to see what they have readily available in the pastry kitchen. For instance, anything with an elevated texture can be used to imprint patterns in fondant, the thick, smooth sugar dough that covers most of the gingerbread structures.

Like most gingerbread house makers, the Four Seasons staff uses royal icing (a mixture of egg whites, powdered sugar and lemon juice) to hold many of the pieces together and to "glue" on decorations on the rooftops, walls or windows. You can make it as thick or as thin as you need, Franco says, by adding more lemon juice or powdered sugar.

The gingerbread village is a labor-intensive project that must be completed in between making all the other desserts for restaurants and banquets in the hotel. They get paid an extra stipend to create the structures, but Franco says he enjoys doing the project because it's out of the ordinary. "I like the challenge."; 912-2504

If you go ...

The Four Seasons Gingerbread Village will be on display in the hotel lobby (98 San Jacinto Blvd.) from Nov. 22 through Jan. 2. This year the display will include QR codes which people can scan with their phone to find out clues about hard-to-find details on the structures or interesting facts about what went into the construction.

Local businesses and individuals can purchase the structures for anywhere from $100 to $1,200, with proceeds donated to the Seton Shivers Cancer Center. For more information, call 685-8048.

Gingerbread house-making tips

At the Four Seasons, they make their own gingerbread, but the time I tried to make a gingerbread house from scratch, I ran out of steam to finish the project by the time the gingerbread finished cooking. If you do want to skip the pre-made gingerbread house kits, I'd recommend splitting the project up into a few days: One for baking the gingerbread and letting it cool, and then another day (or two) for decorating. Also, if you're baking the gingerbread yourself, bake it in large sheets, but don't bake it all the way. Remove the sheet of gingerbread from the oven when it's about three-quarters finished, cut into the pieces you need to build the house and then put back in the oven to finish baking.

Even Four Seasons pastry chef Franco suggests buying fondant, the thick, rollable sugar dough that you can use to mold into different shapes or even cover the entire house. Many craft stores and even some grocery stores carry it in a number of colors.

Inside the Four Seasons gingerbread structures will be small florescent light bulbs, but if you're making one at home, you could put a battery-operated candle inside to illuminate the windows.

Stop by the bulk section of a grocery store to buy the candy and other foods that have a variety of shapes, sizes and textures. You might not need an entire bag of, say, candy corn, but in the bulk section, you can just buy enough to line the rooftop.