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Gingerbread Manhandling

With enough dough and royal icing, you can make any kind of gingerbread structure for the holidays. It might help, though, to get a few pointers from a professional — and this month, that's Mark Bratton, executive chef of Virginia Tech's dining programs and an expert in gingerbread building techniques.

Bratton and his chef de cuisine, Cynthia Smith, demonstrate their craft at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Dec. 16 from 10 a.m. till noon. "We're going to build gingerbread birdhouses in keeping with the garden theme," Bratton says, "and we're applying seasonal decorations. People can make these for display in their houses and then put them outside — birds and squirrels actually love gingerbread."

Recipes for two kinds of gingerbread will be featured: the edible kind, made with butter and rolled in white sugar, and construction-grade dough, which uses shortening and fewer spices.

Both are decorated with royal icing, which combines confectioner's sugar, egg whites, lemon juice and cream of tartar. "It hardens in five minutes," Bratton says, "and is good to work with because it holds its structure, is attractive, you can glue on candy and decorations instantly, and it's edible. It's always fun to nibble as you go, but I wouldn't want to eat a ton of it."

Bratton says building a gingerbread house calls for creative license, and structures can be abstract or symmetrical, thematic or free-form — anything that gets kids and adults excited about the activity.

Preregistration for the class is required. The fee is $40; $30 for garden members. 262-9887, ext. 322.

Santa's Little Helper

The folks at Capital Ale House have a few holiday gift suggestions for the drinker on your list, including baskets with glassware and a worldly range of brews and ales. Consider Delirium No‰l, Corsendonk Christmas, Allagash Grand Cru and Gouden Carolus No‰l — all of which are promised to be bottle-conditioned, corked and caged and ready for seasonal swigging. S

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