A Solvang baker added yet another year to his longstanding tradition when he put the finishing touches on a giant gingerbread house inside a hotel lobby last week.
Bent Olsen and assistant Louis Rojas literally put the icing on the cake Tuesday morning just inside the front door of Hotel Corque, where they created hundreds of icicles hanging from the eaves of the house.
“He’s been doing this since 1984,” said John Martino, hospitality manager at the hotel on Alisal Road, as he watched Olsen and Rojas doing final touch-ups on their creation that’s big enough to be a children’s playhouse.
Olsen, now 72, moved to Solvang in the late 1960s and has been a hands-on baker for 47 years at Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery and Coffee Shop on Mission Drive.
“I’ve been doing this since this was the Royal Scandinavian,” he said about the hotel and its gingerbread house. “They came to me and asked if I wanted to do it. … I told them I will do it as long as they want me to do it.”
Rojas has been helping him create the houses for the last 20 years.
The house is always installed in the hotel lobby in time for Thanksgiving, and it will remain on display there all through the holiday season.
It’s become a tradition for some families and individuals to return every Thanksgiving to see what that year’s creation looks like.
“The fun part is it never has to be the same every year,” Olsen added. “I use different colors, a different design. Sometimes I put a red roof on it.”
This year, the roof is the same gingerbread-brown as the walls, but the door and window trim are red — made of cookie dough — and the white window frames are accented with green icing.
“I don’t use too much food color,” Olsen said. “I don’t believe in coloring. But sometimes you have to.”
The house is created with slabs of gingerbread “cemented” to a plywood structure with royal icing — a mixture of egg whites and powdered sugar — in the driveway of Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery.
To create that much gingerbread requires 75 pounds of brown sugar, 50 pounds of molasses, 80 pounds of butter and 10 pounds of spices, mostly cinnamon and allspice, and Olsen estimates the edible portion of the house, not including the wooden frame, weighs 250 pounds.
It takes three days for Olsen and Rojas to put it together. Then it’s trucked over to Hotel Corque, where the two complete the house by trimming out the windows, door and eaves, putting a design on the exterior walls and adding the icicles using parchment cones filled with icing.
“Everything is covered,” Olsen said, as he plugged some small gaps around one window. “We don’t miss much, I’ll tell you. … You can spend a lot of time on this. You can make it very, very detailed.
“Once it’s hard, it will stay forever — until the kids come in and break them off,” he said of the icing icicles. “And that’s OK. I come back once a week to touch it up.”
The hotel staff adds a skirt of “snow” to hide the wooden foundation, and then the house is surrounded by a small white picket fence to complete the picture.
Olsen said he also provides ginger snaps that are placed on a nearby table so people can find out what the house would taste like — if they could eat it.
“At the bakery, we have one a little bit smaller than this,” he added. “We call it ‘Little Brother.’ This is the grandfather.”
Finally finished touching up the house, Olsen had one last tradition to carry out. Walking across the lobby, he handed the parchment cone bulging with icing to one of the employees.
“I always surrender it to the employees, and they can play with it,” he said with a smile. “They like to squeeze it out and eat it. It’s very sweet.”