Mastering the art of gingerbread houses
Story by Maureen Stratton, photos by Leigh Lofgren and contributed
Vanilla sticks, cloves and citrus simmering on the stove… Apple cider brimming in the pot… Creamy hot chocolate… Fragrant spices baking… And of course, gingerbread -- The yummy magic of sugar, molasses, cinnamon and ginger. There’s nothing else like it and nothing else comes close to the culinary treats that Union Point’s very own “Gingerbread Lady,” Sherley Selman, makes.
Be it gingerbread houses, cookies and loafs, Selman has a hold on the gingerbread market in Lake Country.
When you first meet Sherley, you could see her as the ideal holiday baker. Numerous Ingredients, spices, measuring cups, rolling pins, bowls and more clutter the kitchen’s counter. Fresh warm gingerbread men lined up on a baking pan with colorful frosting await as a visitor’s treat to her kitchen. She has this recipe down but what is more spectacular are her unique gingerbread houses that she has been creating over 45 years.
Gingerbread itself is a broad food category which includes cookies, both hard and soft, loafs, and other baked goods typically flavored with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, sugar or molasses. It typically makes its arrival around holiday time, but many cherish it delectability throughout the year. Its culinary history originates in both Greece and Germany, and in earlier times in England, it was thought to be medicinal, used to help ailing stomachs and digestion. Gingerbread eventually came to the Americas with settlers from Europe. Beyond its delectable smell when baking, gingerbread evokes warm memories for many.
Sherley, a mother with three children and grandchildren, was commissioned into the Army, served 25 years throughout the U.S. as a registered dietitian and food services director. She eventually retired as a lieutenant colonel. She and her husband, Charles, a surgical nurse in the Army, traveled frequently and served in numerous hospitals during their service. That is where Sherley got her hankering for gingerbread.
While visiting her in-laws when her children were younger, Sherley experimented with making a gingerbread house with her daughter. “It was a disaster,” she laughed. “I would put one wall of gingerbread up only to have it fall down. I essentially found a way to prop it up!” She found that the frosting in earlier gingerbread kits didn’t hold up. She was soon on a mission to find the right concoction that would hold up, literally.
While working at a hospital in Germany, she watched as a fellow officer build a gingerbread house and took quick notes while watching every step. Every hospital she was assigned to after that had a gingerbread house as a centerpiece each holiday season. She continued to experiment with just the right amount of ingredients and found that an egg-based meringue was just the right glue to hold the house together. Soon, friends and family took notice and she was busy baking and building a unique variety of gingerbread houses for all to enjoy.
“At the last hospital, I made a village with the help of fellow bakers and those with decorating skills,” she said. “I would cover an 8-foot folding table with houses, stores, a church, bridges and gingerbread men. When on my maternity break, the bakers would send me pieces to put together and decorate for them so the tradition would continue.”
Once retired, Sherley started helping bakers with the challenges of building gingerbread houses. “Often people have trouble with putting the houses together,” she said. “I designed my own kits for sale and told buyers that mine were different because they still had aroma and taste. More importantly, I didn’t use white frosting to hold the house together. I found that if I put enough meringue powder in my recipe, I could make thick Royal frosting to hold the house all together. With good icing as a base and just a little more care, anyone can have fun making the houses.”
As word of mouth spread, she began selling kits at a variety of markets and tree lighting ceremonies in the area including the popular Jaycees Meadowcrest Arts and Crafts festival. She has her own fan base of repeat buyers who enjoy passing on traditions to their children and grandchildren.
Sherley continues to make gingerbread houses, gingerbread treats, and the ever-popular gingerbread men on special order. She takes special prominence as Greene County’s “Gingerbread Lady.”
Sherley can be emailed at email@example.com.
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Story by Maureen Stratton, as published in the Nov-Dec 2022 issue of Lakelife magazine.