by Ann Brooke Raynal
photographs by Carla Williams
Pastry chef Sam Squiers didn’t have to look far for inspiration when she set out to make a gingerbread house for this month’s Triangle Family Services’ fundraiser competition. Her happiest childhood memories were formed at her family’s beloved lake house, and its clean lines became her template.
Gingerbread made a good stand-in for its brown cedar shingles; icing re-created the red trim; and candy created a shiny round window. Squiers, 27, knows her way around the kitchen as pastry chef of Little Hen, a small farm-to-table restaurant in Apex, the town where she grew up.
It’s the second time the Wake Tech culinary school graduate has entered this annual gingerbread house competition, now in its 11th year of raising money for families in crisis. She’ll be up against 20 chefs from across the Triangle at the Dec. 5 event at Cary’s Umstead Hotel & Spa. The most elaborate houses will be auctioned.
Last year, Squiers’s submission was “whimsical and homey,” she says. “It was cute, but out of sync with the other entries. I didn’t really know what I was doing or what to expect.”
This year, she’s going in the opposite direction, with a design that is “cleaner, more streamlined, more architectural.” She got a great tip last year from the Umstead Hotel & Spa’s Daniel Benjamin – how to make her edges sharper – and is putting it to use with this year’s project.
Squiers is not shy to admit being a little star-struck in the midst of such high-profile chefs. Little Hen, a family restaurant critically acclaimed for its hearty fare and local ingredients, is one of the smaller outfits invited to participate.
In her free time, Squiers reads cookbooks and cooking blogs, prowls farmer’s markets for local fruits and vegetables, and generally thinks about food. “She has an amazing palate,” says Little Hen’s owner-chef Regan Stachler. “Her pies are as good as my mom’s. And I’ve never said that about anyone else’s.”
Squires often has the kitchen to herself for a couple of hours in the morning, allowing her to listens to music while she bakes bread and desserts. Light streams in from a wall of windows on the far side of the kitchen.
But her quiet on this day is interrupted by a farmer delivering three 15-pound bags of bok choy, picked just hours earlier. Squiers stops what she’s doing, helps the woman unload in the produce, and pays her. She goes back to the gingerbread house but is interrupted again by another delivery. Wearing several hats goes with the territory at a small operation like this one – so while she’ll spend 30 to 40 hours on this gingerbread house, they clearly won’t be consecutive.
When she does put a few hours together to work on the house, mother nature complicates things. The days between baking the walls and putting them together became unusually humid, and Squiers is frustrated to find the gingerbread softening. Leaving the walls in a bag filled with rice to dry them out doesn’t work, and there’s nothing else to do but start all over again.
So that’s what she does. The next morning’s light finds Squires patiently rolling out the new dough in her quiet-for-now kitchen.
Gingerbread House-raising step-by-step
Squires studied several recipes for gingerbread and ended up combining two she thought would give the dough the best texture. As everything on the house must be edible, the “glue” holding it all together comes in the form of royal icing.
6 ¾ cups flour
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ cups solid vegetable shortening
1 ½ cups sugar
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup sorghum
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract. Beat in eggs and egg yolk, one at a time.
Add sorghum to creamed shortening mixture. Add flour, one half at a time and mix until a smooth dough is formed.
Pat dough into a disc, wrap well with waxed paper and refrigerate one to two hours before rolling and cutting pieces.
Bake house pieces at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes – until completely cooked.
2 egg whites
4 to 5 cups 10X sugar (powdered sugar)
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat egg whites until frothy (not whipped), then slowly add sugar, scraping bowl as needed. Beat for 45 to 60 seconds until combined.
Squiers rolls out the dough on parchment paper, then puts another layer of parchment paper on top to avoid sticking. She rolls…and rolls, and rolls. A thickness of 1/8 inch is best, as the dough will rise some as it bakes.
When she’s ready to cut walls, Squires places a parchment template over the dough and carefully cuts her shapes, then peels away the excess dough. Here’s the tip from Daniel Benjamin: for cleaner lines, take a knife and press the edges inward slightly.
She freezes the shapes for 30 minutes to set the dough then bakes them for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. The walls need to be completely cooked so they aren’t crumbly.
She cuts out 100 circular “shingles” this way, too, then freezes and bakes them for 5 to10 minutes.
It takes Squiers 10 minutes to complete two rows of red icing dot “Christmas lights” on a parchment sheet (rather than on the roof itself). She methodically taps down the tiny peak in each red blob of icing, so each is perfectly round. She discards any dots that aren’t perfect. She’ll make strings of these lights connected by delicate threads of white icing in swoops along the roofline.
To create gorgeous copper-colored translucent windows, Squiers carefully pours her caramelized concoction of sugar, water, and corn syrup into the window holes in the walls and lets it harden and cool. Windows must be completely set before the walls can be joined together.
Then she sets the walls upright and glues them together. The shingled, decorated roof goes on next. Most people think the decorating takes place at the end, but Squiers explains that it’s much easier and less dangerous to ice a horizontal surface.
The royal icing hardens quickly, but the seams won’t be dry for 24 hours. After she joins the pieces, she adds another layer of royal icing as a re-enforcement, to fill in any gaps, and to create decorative trim.
Three pyramidal trees of varying heights get a dusting of royal icing “snow” at their crowns. The house and the trees rest on a cardboard square, covered with fallen “snow,” a mixture of shaved icing and grated coconut.
For a finishing touch, Squires eases an electric tea-light candle through the front door, making the amber windows glow. Now the house is ready for hundreds to admire. Or to be eaten on the spot.
Little Hen owner-chef Regan Stachler and his wife, Dawn, both 37, work at the restaurant every day and employ a staff of about 10.
Squiers says she loves her boss and her co-workers: “They are really my family, and they also treat my family like their family.” Squiers’s actual family – her parents and sister – live nearby and frequently meet for dinner at the Little Hen.
The owners are close to their families, too. Stachler’s own father helped him design the décor. A quilt his grandmother made hangs on the wall. The name and the design create a deliberate farmhouse vibe, country but not cutesie. Corrugated metal siding supports a beautiful waxed wood bar Stachler made. He also designed the stylized logo, using the bottom of his wine glass to trace the circular hen. One wall is taken up with an oversized ebonized wooden bench that provides banquette seating.
It’s all the result of a long-held dream. After culinary school in New York, Stachler, a Florida native, decided to settle in North Carolina. The long growing season, abundance of seasonal produce, and meat from local livestock drew Stachler south, and business opportunities for his wife (who practices law part-time for a Cary firm) put the Triangle at the top of their list.
Today, in addition to Squiers’ treats, their charming spot offers dishes like bacon-wrapped dates, shrimp salad, hangar steak, and the “pork big board,” a show-stopper. “One thing you can count on is that jaws will drop when the pork big board is delivered to your table,” says News & Observer restaurant reviewer Greg Cox. “A recent board groaning with porchetta, beer-braised belly, squash and trotter ragu, unctuous jowl on a locally baked roll, and a fat, juicy chop caused eyes to widen as far as two tables away.”
The Little Hen is at 5160 Sunset Lake Road in Apex. For more information, call 919-363-0000 or go to littlehennc.com.