For the past nine years, the Fairmont Miramar Hotel has displayed a gingerbread replica of Santa Monica during the holidays. In addition to the bank with its gold coined roof, the post office, library, Fairmont hotel, school and church, this year’s city boasts surfers catching waves made of rock candy off a replica of the Santa Monica Pier, with a Ferris wheel on one side and a circus tent (representing Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza) on the other. Just behind the pier are a Farmers’ Market and the promenade’s giant Christmas tree. This veritable masterwork of gingerbread is the centerpiece of the Fairmont’s “Meet Me Under The Fig Tree” community event. This year 10 classrooms from local schools helped create the gingerbread city.

On the way to the Fairmont we ran into Victoria Taylor, 6, and her mother Maria. This is their third year attending. Maria was surprised there wasn’t any advertising for it this year.  Victoria thinks maybe that’s a good thing; she tells me she’s been looking forward to it for months. Although her class wasn’t one of the ones competing for the grand prize, she plans to meet her friends from school and our first stop was the voting.

After casting our votes for best gingerbread house, we headed to the festive outdoor area. The first thing Victoria noticed was the bouncy. (What is it with those things?) But along the way we were all distracted by a table of treats from the Vanilla Bake Shop that looked like it was straight out of a fairy tale. We sampled miniature puddings, tiny cupcakes and yummy cookies.

A cookie or two later, while her mom and I waited for an espresso, Victoria was off and into one of the front bungalows that had been converted into a holiday arts and crafts house for the evening. When we went in to check on her, she was first in line for the OC Balloon Dude, who made her a very cute yellow dog. Before diving into ornament making and cookie decorating, she was determined to find some hot cocoa, which was delish.

When she went back to do crafts, I decided to check out the silent auction benefiting Chrysalis, an nonprofit that helps the homeless become self sufficient. Maria told me that last year she got a present for her boss and the year before she got a great trip to Whistler. I would have loved to bid on the photo shoots but there was no way my family would make it ‘til 6:30 p.m. We did get a big kick out of the snow fall on our way out.

Inspired by the gingerbread city, we decided to construct a simple gingerbread house for ourselves at home. Since Halloween, I have been hoarding candy with “do not eat” marked all over the bag. Amazingly, the skittles survived and we were able to follow the instructions provided by Lisa Rowland Snow in American Cake Decorating magazine, a terrific source for learning about the design and construction of cakes (Dec. 2006 issue, illustrations by Ray Turner. See our blog for template and recipe). The baking went very smoothly and the gingerbread actually tasted delicious, especially considering we were expecting a mouthful of cardboard. 

Unfortunately, the intricacies of gingerbread building were beyond the 2-year-old brain. Zora and Addison spent their time swiping candy off the table and sneaking bites from a roof or a door. At one point, Zora found the food coloring and ended up looking like the Joker before I chased her down with a bucket of wipes. 

Dash, the 4-year-old, loved putting the house together, although he needed some help with frosting application. He thought it was a big, delicious, three-dimensional puzzle. His patience wore out before we reached the decoration stage, and most of the construction materials ended up in his stomach.  Snow’s best idea was to use a sugar cone as a tree base and cover it with green frosting to make a Christmas tree that could be decorated with M&Ms. Of course, before we got around to attaching the candy, the cute, frosting tree was just a memory. 

Next time, we would build the houses ahead of time, and just have the kids decorate them with candy. Also, we would also dole out the candy in small amounts instead of setting it out on the table. A giant bag of candy is just too much temptation for kids who aren’t usually allowed to eat food coloring and preservatives! Older kids suffering through geometry and algebra might enjoy designing the house (or a mansion, lighthouse, or yurt) as a practical way to employ their hard-won skills. Also, the recipe is so simple that children of all ages can participate in the baking (I just wasn’t feeling that brave this time).

For those who have trouble with a stove, Wilton offers a pre-baked gingerbread kit that includes all the candies and frosting that you may need. Find it at stores like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabrics. Costco has a kit that comes with the house already frosted together. Sur la Table also has a bake and make kit that requires a little more effort.

In addition to viewing the gingerbread city at the Fairmont Miramar, there are other activities we did to reinforce the whole gingerbread concept. For story time, we read the classics “The Gingerbread Man” and “Hansel and Gretel” (the witch lived in a gingerbread house). We also plan to check out the exhibit “The Science of Gingerbread” at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana. It’s a bit of a trek, but you can participate in activities and learn interesting things about the sweet treat, such as the fact that Queen Elizabeth used to present honored guests with their portraits in gingerbread decorated with gold-dipped cloves. The Science Center also has a gingerbread house contest every year. It will be fun to compare our efforts to the big winners. Maybe next year … .

Find a local calendar of children’s events and helpful links at smatoz.blogspot.com, or leave a suggestion for places to visit.