Penn State Bakery’s Annual Gingerbread Palace Brings Sweetness to Nittany Lion Inn
Give Heather Luse about 100 pounds of icing, 50 pounds of gingerbread dough, 400 gum drops, and four days, and she’ll create a scaled, edible model of the Nittany Lion Inn.
For the past 11 years, Penn State’s executive pastry chef and her bakery staff have provided the iconic north-campus hotel with a table-sized replica of its walls.
This year’s installment includes pine trees made of ice cream cones, a chewing gum-shingled roof, and candy cane greek columns at its entrance, and sits just outside the doors to the Inn’s main dining room. According to Luse, it takes four workers to transport the giant, icing-slathered cookie from the bakery to its display table at the Inn. Patrons sometimes wonder aloud if the house’s iced and crystal sugar-dipped walls are actually gingerbread.
Though it now takes Luse less than a week to put this massive temple of sugar and dough together, making the house wasn’t always a fun, creative exercise.
“I didn’t have any idea what I was doing,” Luse said of her first effort. “I went over and sat there, I took pictures, I mean, I literally have files of stuff.”
A decade of construction experience has taught Luse several tricks of the trade. She now uses a series of cardboard cookie-cutter templates to make the walls, and stuffs the inside of the house with thirty sheets of Rice Krispie treats to stabilize it for its 25 days of display. She makes only small changes to the design every year, adding the occasional new candy but keeping the base structure generally the same.
The gingerbread house is one of the most eye-catching projects of an institution that, despite its influence, remains relatively unnoticed on campus. The Penn State Bakery provides “sweet treats” — like the famous West cookie — and other baked goods to all five dining commons, the cash operations on campus, and also services the university’s 11 commonwealth campuses. According to Luse, it bakes about 95,000 loaves of bread and more than two million cookies every year. Yet the Bakery sits in the basement of the Housing and Food Services building, behind the Arboretum and far removed from the daily routines of most Penn Staters.
This distance makes it difficult for Luse and her staff of 18 full-time and 20-25 student employees — some of whom arrive at the bakery as early as 3:30 a.m. throughout the week — to brand the bakery as a unique, Penn State entity.
“It’s hard to promote yourself within, it’s just accepted that you are here,” Luse said. ““We’re involved in a lot of stuff that people don’t even realize that we do.”
Luse’s goal is to make the bakery a memorable aspect of the overall Penn State experience, a part of the university’s unique, rich culture that provides signature goods alumni crave after they’ve moved on from Happy Valley.
The gingerbread house — which has become a favorite annual photo spot for Inn regulars — is an early step in the development of these traditions.
“I get really nice emails from people that I know,” Luse said. “I’ve taken pictures of it with my kids every year…I’ve gotten pictures from other people that have taken pictures with it, and I’ve seen their kids grow. It’s neat to be a part of that tradition.”
Although Inn officials dispose of the house after its holiday display period, its annual visit is becoming a recognizable hallmark of the holidays on campus.
“It’s a tradition, just like everything else at Penn State, so not many things change,” Luse said. “It’s like a memory.”
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