Emily Garland has tiled the roof of the Palace of Versailles, constructed the iconic dome on top of Yorkshire’s Castle Howard, and secured the windows in London’s Somerset House.
No, she’s not a construction worker with an eclectic CV. Not in the traditional sense, at least.
The 38-year-old is a full-time ‘gingerbread architect’, who specialises in making biscuit versions of the world’s most famous buildings. As far as she’s aware, she’s the only baker of her kind.
“I think to start with, friends and family thought I’d lost my mind a bit,” Garland says of her quirky career. “But now I think they really like it and they’re proud of me. Everyone likes knowing someone with an interesting job to talk about.”
Garland isn’t a professionally trained architect or model maker, so she’s developed her own system for replicating these well-known facades.
She uses Google Earth to get a 3D view of buildings, then figures out the scale of each element. “You can literally measure your screen and count windows to work out how big everything is,” she explains. “It’s an absolute dream.”
The technique is particularly helpful for capturing an areal view, she adds, because that’s rarely shown in photos, but is vital to a realistic replica.
The next step is creating paper templates for each section, which she uses when cutting the final biscuits. The process can take days or weeks, depending on the size and detail of the build.
Garland sounds like a pro, but she insists she became a gingerbread architect “by accident”. She’d always enjoyed baking as a hobby, but hit a snag while making a birthday cake for a friend.
The pal was having a circus-themed party, and Garland was struggling to make a circus big top from cake. During a trip to her parents’ house, she stumbled across some old gingerbread house templates and decided to give them a go instead, adapting the shapes to fit her design.
“I loved it and got really into it,” she recalls. “And when I got to the party, the reactions were lovely, but sort of ridiculous! I hadn’t really anticipated how impressed people would be that I’d done it. It was really odd.”
She began experimenting with different shapes and recipes in her free time. By word of mouth, she started receiving special requests and in 2010, she quit her job as an administrator to turn Maid of Gingerbread into a business.
She now hosts biscuit-making workshops and creates bespoke pieces for weddings and events, but her main business is “the big corporate stuff”, like a biscuit version of the Waldorf Hilton, and a giant installation for Harrods’ Food Hall. Other clients include Fortnum and Mason and the British Museum but her largest build to date was a six-foot gingerbread house for the Ideal Home Show.
The design required more than 500 biscuits and is one of Garland’s only pieces Garland that hasn’t been free-standing. Due to its size, the biscuits had to be attached to a wooden frame for health and safety. “I had a team of four people and it took us three days on site to build it in a huge exhibition hall in November that wasn’t heated,” she says. “The icing kept freezing! It was just kind of crazy, but also amazing and really satisfying when it was all done.”
Somewhat improbably, Garland lives on a canal boat that’s currently moored in west London. It means baking big builds at home isn’t an option – she uses a kitchen-cum-studio in east London, where the front opens up like a shipping container, allowing the huge gingerbread slabs to be removed.
There, she constructs builds as fully as possible, but the larger pieces have to be assembled at their final location “like a jigsaw puzzle”. Moving them across the country is the most nerve-wracking part.
“When I was transporting the Castle Howard up to Yorkshire, it was a four-and-a-half hour drive in a van with it in the back, without knowing whether it was fine or not, which was the most stressful journey I’ve done,” she says. “There was one moment when we had to do a sharp break and we heard something move in the van. In my head I thought: ‘This is game over, I’m going to open the van and it’s just going to be crumbs.’”.
Luckily, just one corner of the main castle had broken. With spare parts and supplies packed in the van, Garland easily fixed it in the on-site kitchen.
Despite the close shave, Garland says her gingerbread creations are more sturdy than they look. She uses an ingredient called pastillage on the tricky parts, which looks like fondant icing, but dries “really, really hard”.
If you’re planning a gingerbread build at home, she recommends making sure none of the components are soft in the middle before you begin work. And the secret to yummy gingerbread is a good spice mix, says Garland, who declares bland biccies to be “just the most disappointing thing”.
“Whatever you’re building, just bear in mind that there are probably some pieces that are bigger and some pieces that are smaller, and they will take a different amount of time in the oven,” she says. “Always leave them to cool completely on a baking tray as that will cause them to dry a bit harder and always use a really good construction rule icing recipe that’s thick enough – it should be the texture of toothpaste.”
So sturdy is her end result that Garland also sells gingerbread piñatas, which take several bashes to break. So, can we expect some broken teeth?
“Not at all!” she says, insisting the designs taste as good as they look. ”They do taste delicious, I was really adamant about that when I started. I’ve spent a long time refining my recipe and I’m really pleased with it now. I’ve had people come to me and say ‘I don’t like gingerbread, but actually, I quite like this one.’”