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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011 12:47 pm

The Gingerbread Queen

Johanna Rosson cooked with Paula Deen and threw down with Bobby Flay to earn her crown as the gingerbread queen


Johanna Rosson’s decorating skills are sweet.

Rosson designs and builds gingerbread houses – and she’s been head architect for some of the best.

In 2005, she appeared on Food Network’s “Paula’s Home Cooking.” After that, she was commissioned to make a special replica of a Springfield, IL., train depot to be displayed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.

All this exposure attracted the attention of Bobby Flay, who (unwisely) decided to challenge her to a gingerbread battle on Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” Needless to say, the gingerbread queen held on to her crown.

In a typical year, construction season for Rosson begins around midsummer, when many of the magazines she works with are completing their holiday issues.

“Whenever I make the first gingerbread house of the season, it just brings me back to life,” Rosson says. “I actually listen to Christmas music to get myself into it. Last year, when I was working on a house, my air conditioning went out – and it was more than 100 degrees outside!”

Her busiest season has seen her build about 50 houses. “There was an eight-year period where I didn’t sleep at all during the fall,” says Rosson, who works in marketing at Fort Hood, Texas, where her family is stationed.

Rosson’s culinary foundation was laid early on, as she was growing up in Illinois. “I’ve always baked. I baked with my grandmother and my mother. It was a part of at least every week – almost daily,” she says.

She married at 19 and her husband, Steve, immediately entered the military. With that, she began moving about with the Army officer. He is currently serving in Afghanistan.

Wherever Rosson was stationed, she would take baking classes, whether it was Arizona, California or more exotic locales.

Rosson spent some time in Germany in the early 1990s, where she became enamored with the gingerbread houses displayed in bakery windows.

“I was fascinated with them. I wanted to know how to make them,” she says.

She cracked open a book on gingerbread houses, tried a few recipes and started to build a reputation.

“I started kicking up my creations. I started donating the houses for military fundraisers,” she says. “I knew that people would be buying raffle tickets for them. I wanted them to be worth donating money to.”

Rosson cultivated a specialty in replicas of famous and historical structures. Her first was a 2005 recreation of the Richmond Hill, Ga., mansion of Henry Ford that was displayed at a retirement village. As a contributing writer for Cooking with Paula Deen magazine, she has also rendered the Southern celebrity chef’s home in gingerbread.

Her favorite creation? That was the train depot for display at the Lincoln library. Rosson put about 400 hours into it: a labor of love.

“I’m an Illinois girl. I love me some Abraham Lincoln. It was a huge honor for me,” she says. “We’re a patriotic family, anyway.”

Family members frequently lend a hand to Rosson’s projects. Her father designed a special foundation board to facilitate the building of the Lincoln depot structure. Her mother has looked after her children while she completed high-profile jobs. Her oldest son, 13-year-old Joshua, crushed up candy to make coal for the depot replica.

All of Rosson’s kids (besides Joshua, there’s also Scott, 11, and William, 8) are naturals at gingerbread building. Each creates an individual house each holiday season.

“I think for the longest time, they thought every mom did it. That was normal to them. They didn’t think it was that big of a deal until I was on Bobby Flay,” she remembers.

That 2007 “Throwdown” episode saw judges declare her gingerbread recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, IL., home superior to Flay’s Empire State Building replica.

In recent years, Rosson scaled back the number of houses she produces annually to about 20, mostly for fundraisers. She says she’s careful that it doesn’t engulf her holiday celebrations and family time.

Nowadays, “I put off all gingerbread making to around the first week in December,” she says. “For so many people, it kind of takes over your whole holiday. I don’t want to be stressed out over the holiday.”

Even the Gingerbread Queen herself admits, “You can’t let gingerbread get in the way.”

Thirteen one-of-a-kind Gingerbread Houses will be on display at downtown businesses through December 21. Presented by the Springfield Area Arts Council, in conjunction with the DSI Holiday Walks, these houses are part of a raffle to raise funds for Arts-in-Education and other programs of the Arts Council.

Lib Granzeau, former President of the Arts Council Board of Directors, along with Cindy Milner and Karen Richardson, designed and executed the thirteen houses which are made of completely edible ingredients. Raffle tickets are $5 each and may be purchased at the business location where the “house of choice” is on display or at the Hoogland Center for the Arts where tickets may be deposited for any of the houses. Winners will be announced on Thursday, December 22.

Gingerbread Houses are located at the following downtown businesses: Abe’s Old Hat Antiques, Andiamo!, Augie’s Front Burner, Café Brio, Flea Market to Fabulous, Golden Frog Café, Hoogland Center for the Arts, Maldaner’s, Moxie Massage, National Museum of Surveying, Petals & Accents, Recycled Records, Spice of Life.

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