"We've only been baking two weeks," said Pat Mudrick. It doesn't seem long enough to mix 84 cups of flour, 18 cups of molasses, 18 cups of brown sugar, 18 cups of shortening plus baking soda, ginger, allspice, etc. -- much less bake it.
Pat Mudrick was not talking about a baking marathon but about the 7-foot-long, 31-inch-high gingerbread model of the Smithsonian Castle Building that she and her husband, David, donated to the Smithsonian earlier this month.
The Castle Building's curator, James Goode, and his staff greeted the Mudricks when they arrived in a van and station wagon toting what looked like a huge dollhouse with many parts -- the parts turned out to be the roofs and eight towers of the building.
"Long before the ingredients were bought, David studied the building's design for nearly six months," his wife said. By collecting photographs and sketches of the building, David Mudrick was able to draw a pattern of the original Smithsonian structure -- complete with the South Tower bird house.
"We thought the nubby texture of the gingerbread would be particularly well-suited to the reddish-brown brick construction of the Castle," said David Mudrick.
The Mudricks, of Reston, Va., have baked gingerbread before. In Ogden, Utah, where they lived three years ago, Pat and David made a gingerbread Victorian mansion, only 2-by-2-by-2 feet.
Once the base of the gingerbread Castle was safely installed on a green felt-covered table in the real Castle's Great Hall, and the towers painstakingly attached, the work of decorating began.
Pat Mudrick squeezed icing in scalloped lines generously along the outline of the building -- a squiggle up one turret, a squiggle across the roof. Meanwhile, David put white Christmas tree lights inside the structure, lighting up each sugar-pane window. Besides providing a cozy dollhouse look, "the lights are important," explained David Mudrick "so that the interior dries up, making a sturdier structure. But I wouldn't want to see their PEPCO bill!"
Alice Donaldson, Pat Mudrick's sister, helped place gum drops on turrets, Jujyfruits, peppermint candy canes and M&M candies along the sides of the building, and kept the three Mudrick boys (all under age 7) from munching on all the "ornaments."
The delicate carmelized sugar windows were the most difficult. Pat Mudrick described the process: "We baked a sheet of gingerbread, cutting out rectangular holes where the windows would fit. Then we melted lollipop syrup -- boiling it until it turned molten. Next we filled in the rectangular holes with the sugar syrup and allowed it to solidify. It was trial and error before we learned how to lift up the structure without the sugar windows sticking to the cookie sheets." The windows were then covered in a crisscross pattern with white icing.
Pat Mudrick baked sheets of gingerbread until they were almost entirely cooked. "Then we took them out, flattened them and allowed them to cool. Flattening the bread makes for a more solid and stable wall or roof." For several of the towers, David Mudrick added support with cardboard braces on the insides.
The authenticity of the gingerbread building surprised the Castle's inhabitants. "Look," said one, "two marzipan falcons are even perched on the South Tower bird house."
Details such as a doorways, receding arches and a rose window were not forgotten either -- although the delicacy of the construction sometimes caused problems. While threading Christmas lights through one side of the gingerbread castle, David Mudrick knocked out one of the arched doorways. Within minutes, however, he was able to repair it with a little help from his wife's icing tube.
The gingerbread castle will be a temptation to the public as well as to the Museum's resident roaches and mice. Amy Ballard, assistant to the curator, believes that the public poses more problems than pesky night visitors. "We've installed a sonar mouse/insect trap system so that if the cake is visited in the night, a high-frequency sound that only they can hear will scare them away."
The castle will be on display until New Year's Eve, at which time the Smithsonian will donate the gingerbread castle to the Hospital for Sick Children in North East Washington.