With a quick glance, chef Patti Paige's Baked Ideas' studio in Manhattan looks like Santa's gingerbread workshop. Cookies, cakes and gingerbread pack the large studio from top to bottom. Candies you've never seen before and all shades of icing are Paige's artistic tools that give life to her work.
From tiny houses you could eat with one bite to giant brownstones, her creative and whimsical approach to sweets are what makes her one of the most sought-after gingerbread house-bakers in New York City. With six months of work crammed into one crazy month, Paige often makes a few thousand houses per year.
For each order, Paige starts by baking her gingerbread dough and cuts it using one of her templates. The dough is sturdy enough to decorate and transport around the country.
"It's super delicious. Everybody loves it," said Paige, who's been making the houses for over 30 years.
Royal icing, made with egg whites and confectioner's sugar, adheres the pieces of gingerbread together. The sides set almost instantly and the gingerbread house can be placed on a piece of cardboard or a gingerbread board.
Paige shops at a local convenience store for most of the candy she uses because they have a wide variety. Economy Candy, a specialty store in Manhattan, provides many hard-to-find candies and offers inspiration for her designs.
Most of the houses Paige makes are hand-piped with royal icing for a more "sophisticated" look. Not going for "the standard candy cane thing," Paige said that "sometimes we use a lot of candy and do it really discretely."
With small houses starting at $18 and larger houses at $500, the customized designs are labor intensive. Complete customization can cost up to $5,000 depending on the detail of the design. The small houses commonly used as party favors and the larger houses make beautiful centerpieces.
"They hold up really well and can hold up for years," she said.
The largest masterpiece from Baked Ideas is currently on display at Le Parker Meridien hotel in Manhattan. Guests donate money to vote on the best gingerbread house to benefit City Harvest. It took her team about a week to create the Lincoln Memorial gingerbread house she contributed this year.
"We made a model of foam core and then use all those pieces to cut out the gingerbread. We use those as molds and then piece it back together," Paige said of her edible memorial. Stacks of gingerbread and long gingerbread sticks held up the entirely edible structure that was covered in modeling chocolate and stuffed with Rice Krispie treats.
Paige, who has a masters degree in fine art, said she was "always a maker of things." After working as an art teacher, she decided to sell cookies to stores around the corner. The cream cheese cups were her grandmother's recipe. Called walnut delights, they started selling out immediately.
She began adding other cookies like peanut and chocolate chip to her repertoire as her business picked up.
Paige began "playing around with materials and started making gingerbread houses." The houses were a way to incorporate Paige's love of art with her baking skills.
Her cookbook "You Can't Judge a Cookie By Its Cutter," from Grand Central Books, is due out in 2014. In addition to baking, she also sells yoga gingerbread cookie cutters on her website.