While in the processes of moving recently, Diane Burns accidentally dropped a box that held a very special family treasure. It was the elaborate gingerbread house made by her mother, Millie Reaksecker, 25 years ago in Oregon.
Sadly, the cookie crumbled and the house sustained considerable damage. Burns, of Glenwood Springs, knew that even though it was not replaceable, it was repairable.
So she dug out her mother’s old German cookbook, with the “Lebkuchen Hauschen” (gingerbread house) recipe and template/pattern, tied on her baker’s apron and got busy.
Reaksecker, now 83, was a professional cake decorator decades ago. After making and donating her first gingerbread house to charity in the 1980s, she continued making them and gave one to each of her four children. The decorated cookie houses became a holiday tradition and Christmas centerpiece in each home. She decorated the houses with cookies, candies, royal icing and the whimsical trinkets she had in her cake-decorating bag of tricks, such as woodland animals, elves, tiny trains and miniature lampposts.
As Burns worked to reconstruct her mother’s damaged gingerbread house, her home filled with aromatic spices, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves. Friends and family oohed-and-ahed over the gingerbread house so much that, once she completed the reconstruction of her mother’s old house, she kept on going.
Burns made gumdrop houses, candy cane houses, traditional houses and houses with specific themes. Some houses have ice skating ponds and others feature Santa’s sleigh.
Just like her mother, Burns lavishes fine attention to detail on every house, making each one unique. Besides the edible goodies, every house features a small collection of vintage decorations as well. Some of these are from Mother Millie’s stash of left-over cake decorations, and some have been found on Internet sites. Burns is particularly fond of the tiny gnomes, circa 1950, which she found to fit nicely into her confectionery vignettes.
The gingerbread house-building process takes three days. On day one, Burns does all the cooking and baking. Day-two is the construction of all base pieces of gingerbread, using royal icing as the “glue.” Then on day-three the decorating begins and Burns’ artistic side really shines.
In her mother’s footsteps, Burns has always loved to bake.
“Pies are my specialty,” she says. And to prove the point, Burns has a 1986 newspaper that features her on the front page after winning the American Pie Contest at the Washington State Fair. She went on to compete nationally in Nashville, Tenn.
Even though Reaksecker started this family tradition, she eventually gave away all her gingerbread houses and doesn’t have one of her own. Burns will be surprising her mother with a freshly baked gingerbread house this Christmas. Burns’ children will also be the lucky recipients of these edible masterpieces. The rest of the houses are up for sale. And Burns plans to continue making custom orders throughout the year.
“I would love to be able to share and sell these gingerbread houses,” Burns said. “They are meant to be enjoyed and they will last for decades. ... Just be careful not to drop them.”