By LAURA MEYN
Nibble, nibble, gnaw. Who is nibbling at my little house?" a witch demanded in the Grimm brothers' "Hansel and Gretel," perhaps the earliest mention of a gingerbread house.
The irresistible treat has many guises these days; a simple version can be made of graham crackers, and American renditions are often heavily laden with purchased candy.
But the real thing, home-baked gingerbread cookies held together with fluffy white frosting and ornamented with marzipan decorations, can be yours this year.
Local chef and teacher Mark Bittler is conducting his new "Holiday Gingerbread House" class the evenings of Dec. 3 and 4 at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center.
The project: Under Bittler's guidance, each participant in the two-session class will bake, assemble and decorate an authentic gingerbread house, and they will take it home as a unique holiday decoration. Barring any naughty nibblers, the gingerbread houses should keep through the New Year.
Bittler, now the chef at the Avalon Inn, first saw Europe's old-fashioned gingerbread houses when he was stationed in Germany for military service the 1980s.
At Christmastime, he noticed that each town's bakery displayed a huge, elaborate gingerbread house in its front window.
There, such confections are sometimes called "Hexenh & auml;uschen," meaning "witch's house," after the story of Hansel and Gretel.
Bittler was impressed with the size and detail of such whimsical houses.
The version he developed for his upcoming hands-on class will be smaller, at approximately 10-by-11 inches. And though it's limited to adults, his class requires no previous experience.
"We're keying it toward average person," said Bittler. He will give each student a copy of his recipe for making the gingerbread dough, but Bittler himself will prepare the dough ahead of time, because the class is so short.
Getting creative: With that step out of the way, students will get to the creative part sooner. The first evening session, which will last about two hours, will be devoted to rolling, cutting and baking the gingerbread. Bittler will provide stencils for students to use in cutting their gingerbread, making the task nearly foolproof.
The second class, expected to last about 3 1/2 hours, will be for building and decorating the houses. Students will make royal icing to glue their houses together, and also to give the effect of snow wherever it is spread. Participants will be encouraged to decorate their houses according to their own style and preference, and Bittler will aid the creative process by demonstrating how to make a Santa Claus from marzipan, among other more traditional decorations.
Plus he'll have pictures of decorated gingerbread houses and his own demonstration house on hand to give everyone ideas. In the true spirit of the season, Bittler's demonstration gingerbread house will be donated to Tod Children's Hospital after the class.
Exciting offering: Mary Kohut, who coordinates many of the adult education classes offered by the Mahoning County Career & amp; Technical Center, is excited about the gingerbread class, one of the center's latest epicurean offerings.
"It's a craft as well as a culinary product," she said of the finished gingerbread house each student will create.
The class will be limited to 12 people, affording each the chance for individual instruction and aid. "He is a dynamite teacher," Kohut said, adding that anyone who wants to try something new for the holidays should consider signing up for the class.
Kohut has also booked Bittler's talents for future cooking classes, including a creative pasta class this winter and a spring holiday cooking class early next year.
XCall the Mahoning County Career & amp; Technical Center at (330) 792-4100 to register for the "Holiday Gingerbread House" class; the fee is $55, including supplies. The center is located at 7300 Palmyra Road in Canfield. Call, stop by or visit www.mahoningctc.com to find out more about this and other adult education classes.