IT'S THE WEEKEND: Food and drink - Meet the gingerbread woman of Newport

With Christmas getting closer by the minute, LAURA LEA meets Newport’s very own gingerbread lady, Deb Howard.

It’s only fitting that Deb Howard’s home on Ringwood Hill, Newport, should be her very own version of a gingerbread house, decked in jewelled lights and oozing festive cheer.

And on entering her kitchen – dominated by a very industrial-looking oven- I was met with gorgeous smells of sweet cinnamon.

The mother-of three has been a dedicated baker for years.

“I’ve always been a baker but began with the gingerbread houses when my children were younger. It started to be an annual tradition. I would leave them to do the decorating,” she said.

Deb’s youngest is now sixteen, so she’s taken over most of the decorating duties now.

“My mother is German and she’s always loved her cakes so maybe it’s in the blood. I was always baking at home when I was younger, but started on the gingerbread houses when I had my own children.

“When I was a kid I really loved the gingerbread story. I don’t know if it’s just my obsession!”

When she’s not busy in her kitchen, Deb is a teaching assistant at Maindee Primary school.

“At the beginning of December I go around collecting all my sweets. It’s always a snowy effect, but each house is different.”

The assembling of the houses involves a certain degree of maths and structural engineering. Deb uses both moulds and templates she has made herself. Once all the panels are measured and cut to size, they are baked before being assembled. The roof panels are attached to the side walls and the chimney is put on last.

Now this is the part that has seen many a family’s romantic vision of creating a house literally fall to pieces.

“My first one collapsed because I was too eager and the children just wanted to see it finished,” Deb admitted.

“The actual icing is really hard like cement, but you have to let it set. You need to hold it for a few minutes and when you let go, it should be quite safe.”

Cream of tartar and egg whites are what make the icing harder than usual and getting the consistency right is vital to getting a sturdy build.

“It becomes easier with practise,” Deb said. But that’s not to say it’s quick – this is a labour of time, as much as love.

“It takes about half hour to make the dough and a further half hour to bake. But decorating can take another hour or more.”

Sitting on her dining table were a wintery looking blue and white themed house and a more traditional looking German style, in red and green with a candy cane porch. But the houses don’t just look good, but taste delicious too.

“I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit over the years. As a baker, it’s all about the spices and this is a really spicy mixture. The cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger – I just love it.

“It’s the best gingerbread I’ve had a recipe for. The texture is so good.”

In the last couple of years, Deb has started selling them.

“People see them and say -oh can I have one?”

And it’s not hard to see why. The houses make a beautiful centrepiece or decoration worthy of any festive home.

“I make them myself as gifts for others. I can personalise the design and the gingerbread people at the front as well as the edible cookie label. I like to have a bit of a challenge. ”

Deb has been known to make them as ‘new home’ gifts, with the recipients in gingerbread form and even a ‘welcome home’ doormat.

“The next one I’ve started is chocolate themed- covered in different types of chocolate drops.”

One of the reasons they are so popular as gifts is because they can last so long.

“They last for up to three weeks easily – like a Christmas cake. It won’t go stale or soggy,” said Deb.

“They’re not just decorations, they do get eaten. Gradually I’ll come in to find a chimney missing and then part of the roof. You could leave it for a couple of weeks and as long as the dog doesn’t jump up to have a lick or something – it’ll be good for eating. “

Wrapped in cellophane with a beautiful bow and edible gingerbread label, these houses really do look the part and I’m at a loss how Deb manages to create them around her fulltime job.

“I bake everything but one of my other specialities are my shortbread Christmas biscuits. “

These, she bakes alongside the houses and other festive biscuits.

“I can make two batches at a time of the gingerbread and once they’re cooked I can put them in a tin and go back to them to decorate when I have time.

“I just can’t stop – I enjoy it so much. I have been known to get up at four in the morning to make a batch of cookies.

“You definitely get a feeling of satisfaction. You see it from start to finish – it’s like creating a piece of art. I start with my treacle and eggs and it ends up like this. But I’ve always felt like this about my baking. “

So what’s the next challenge for the baker/builder?

“I think my next thing will be expansion – try some bigger structures. A church would be fab. I may experiment with coloured icing too. But that’s next year’s project.”

Another idea is to put tiny gingerbread people inside the houses as a surprise to the person tucking in. This really is baking from the heart and if that doesn’t sum up the Christmas spirit, I don’t know what does.

If you would like your own gingerbread house this Christmas you can email your order, with any personalisation requests, to deb.howard2@sky.com. Prices start at £15. Find Deb’s baking page on Facebook at ‘Deb’s Doughs’.

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