FOOD: Rococo Bakery's gingerbread houses 

All the Pretty Houses: So cute even Hansel and Gretel would be fooled again

Rococo Bakery
1750 Savannah Hwy.
West Ashley
(843) 763-2055
Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m
Gingerbread House: $60
Cookies: 4 for $4

No dessert seems to conjure up the warmth of Christmas quite like gingerbread. The spicy smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, clove, and ginger provide a healthy dose of culinary aromatherapy.

Perhaps that's why Chef Bernd Gronert puts so much time and energy into holiday gingerbread production at his Rococo Bakery. This West Ashley institution has been owned and operated by Gronert and his twin brother Armin for nearly 10 years. Both moved to the United States from Germany to teach culinary classes and in the meantime bought the fledgling bakery from its founders. Throughout the year, they produce a full line of pastries, but the holidays see the shop filled with gingerbread. Bags of gingerbread men (and women!) sit near the register, and every countertop bears a heavy load of gingerbread houses. Gronert estimates that they make around 50 houses every holiday season.

This should come as no surprise given the Gronerts' birthplace. Germany just happens to have one of the longest traditions of baking shaped gingerbread. Historians trace the spiced cake, cookie, or bread to 11th century Europe, and the German city of Nuernberg has evidence of a gingerbread tradition dating back to 1640.

Even during these early days of gingerbread making it was common practice to cut the pastry into shapes. Buttons and flowers appeared at spring fairs, while animals signified autumn. However, the gingerbread house did not gain popularity until the early 19th century when the Grimm Brothers formed a collection of traditional German fairytales. In their work they unearthed the story of Hansel and Gretel (remember two poor children become lost in the woods and happen upon a house made of cake and candy) — and thus, the gingerbread house tradition took off. Gronert remembers gingerbread as a "Christmas-time treat," but ironically his mother always bought it from the store despite her reputation as a prolific baker. Regardless, the dark, heady flavor made an impression on Gronert, and like many German immigrants before him, he brought the gingerbread tradition to America.

In addition to making hexenhaeuser (gingerbread houses) at Rococo, Gronert teaches the process at the Culinary Institute of Charleston and Trident Technical College. He admits that every year he goes a little crazier looking for "new" candy to decorate the houses. This year he has 34 different types of candy, and every house looks different.

Standing in the bakery, it's easy to lose yourself checking out the myriad details in each miniature dwelling. Pretzel sticks form a fence, jelly beans act as bricks, and marshmallows become puffs of smoke at the top of a chimney. Surely, even the toughest scrooge would soften at such pure holiday fun.



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