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The house that love built

Gainesville woman's confection constructions are a holiday family tradition spanning generations

POSTED: December 25, 2011 12:30 a.m.
/For The Times

Rachel Schuetze, left, gets help from her cousin, Kristen Neilsen. Neilsen, of John's Creek, has been building gingerbread houses with her grandmother, Roberta Schuetze, since she was a toddler.

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Gumdrops on shingles and icing on chimneys ... these are a few of Roberta Schuetze's favorite things.

For nearly three decades, her family has gathered around the same time every year to create masterpieces from gingerbread, royal icing and candy embellishments.

"It takes a lot preparation, but it's a fun thing to do," said Schuetze, a Gainesville mother of three and grandmother of four.

"Usually we do it right after Thanksgiving. Whenever everyone can get here."

With more than 20 years worth of experience, it's probably safe to say that Schuetze's gingerbread houses are anything but cookie cutter.

"One year, I decided to make a two-story one. It was very time consuming though because everything was edible, but it was so much fun," Schuetze said.

"You wouldn't want to eat it after it sits out for a month or so, but it was edible. I painted runny icing on the walls for wall paper. And I made a tablecloth using icing.

"I did that for a couple of years in a row, then I thought, ‘Heck. If I can make two stories, I can make a three-story.'"

And she did.

Several of her creations were recently on display at the governor's mansion in Atlanta during the Christmas tours there.

You could say that baking is Schuetze's family's holiday tradition. And has been for as long as she can remember.

"My mother was known for her cookies. She baked year-round," Schuetze said.

"She always made Christmas cookies, from the time I was little bitty to the time that I left home."

When Schuetze left, she carried with her some of her mother's cookie cutters and a desire to continue the Christmas cookie tradition with her future offspring.

"We baked Christmas cookies every year. I would do all the prep work and cleanup, but my husband, (Ray Schuetze) would bake, sugar cookies with the kids when he wasn't (away in the military)," Schuetze said.

That tradition continued until her three children left the nest.

"When they were all gone, I didn't make cookies as much anymore," Schuetze said. "It just wasn't as much fun without them."

‘It snowballed from there'

That void left room for Schuetze to find a new, holiday baking tradition. That's when she traded sugar cookie dough for gingerbread.

"That's been close to 30 years ago," she said.

After a few solo projects, Schuetze decided to get her adult children and grandchildren in on the fun. At that time, she only had two grandchildren, both toddlers.

"I thought the little ones would enjoy watching," she recalled. "It was really very interesting because they were like 3 years old. ... I thought my children would help their children, but I was wrong.

"I helped the children and my big children were building their own houses, having the best time. It snowballed from there."

That candy-coated snowball has grown to include homemade matching aprons and some unique creations.

"My oldest granddaughter is 26 now. She's gotten quite adept at it," Schuetze said.

"This year, she made a fall-themed one. She didn't want to make a Christmas one. I've never seen a fall gingerbread house before, but she's made the others for 100 years, so she said she wanted to do something different."

Even though their sugary construction projects are one of the many ties that bind this close-knit family, they're not opposed to letting others join in on the fun.

"They can bring a friend if they want to. I just have to know ahead of time so I can prepare," Schuetze said.

The advance preparations are nothing to scoff at.

"It probably takes me eight hours a day, for at least four or five days," she says.

Only royal icing will do

Besides baking gingerbread and whipping up icing, Schuetze also puts the pieces of the houses together before her family arrives.

"I go ahead and make them because it takes about a day for them to set up and be rigid," Schuetze said.

She's stumbled across other tricks over the years.

"In the past, I have cut the pieces out of dough and then baked them. The baking process makes them a little out of shape," Schuetze said.

"If the pieces aren't pretty squared, you can't build a house. One day, my husband said, ‘Why don't you just bake the whole thing and as soon as it comes out of the oven, put the template down and then cut it?'

"It made it so much easier."

Even though she typically bakes all of the gingerbread from scratch, last year for the first time, Schuetze decided to use the pieces from a kit she bought for her grandchildren's houses.

Although the walls of the houses were pre-fabricated, the "glue" was still homemade.

"The reason so many people are unsuccessful making gingerbread houses from the box is because they use the icing that's in the kit," Schuetze said. "It will not stick. It's a mess.

"I make my own icing. It's egg whites, cream of tartar and powdered sugar. It's called royal icing. You don't want to use anything other than homemade royal icing."

If you're working on an intricate design, Schuetze recommends decorating the pieces first, then assembling the houses.

"I let the decorated set for at least 12 hours. They have to be good and dry," she said.

"When it's good and dry, then you can put it all together. Start with the sides and the ends. That has to dry a good 24 hours before you put the roof on.

"The roof is kind of tricky because you have to put one side on at a time and then hold it until it sets up. That usually takes about 30 minutes or so. If you don't let it set first, it'll slide off. I learned that the hard way."

Even though it takes her about 20 hours to complete each house, Schuetze doesn't get attached. She admires them for a bit, but then she gives them away as gifts.

"At Christmastime especially, I think it's more about giving of yourself," Schuetze said.

"When I give away one of my gingerbread houses, I'm giving of myself."

For Schuetze, the most important output of the holiday project, isn't the houses themselves. It's the family bonding.

"I want my children and grandchildren to have special memories, so I always try to do little things to make things special," Schuetze said.

"This is something everyone really seems to enjoy. We have a ball."

Even though some area families are still basking in appreciation of her gifted gingerbread creations from this year, Schuetze has already turned her attention to 2012.

"Next year, I'm going to make townhouses," Schuetze said.

"That'll be something different. I've already started drawing off the pattern. I like a challenge."



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