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My Craft: Baker Emily Garland

Emily Garland works under the name Maid of Gingerbread, and is fast becoming known for her design-centric take on traditional gingerbread structures, drawing her inspiration from unlikely places such as central London coal plates, with stunning results.

Interview Samantha Stocks

Do you bake full-time, or is it a passion project that you do on the side?

It started off very much part time and I’d been working in other jobs alongside it for years, but I recently gave up my day job to fully focus on baking under Maid of Gingerbread, so it’s a really exciting time at the moment.

Was it something that you fell into at a certain point in your life, or has it always been a passion?

I think I’ve always loved it. I grew up in a family where baking things from scratch was just the norm; my grandma famously used to harshly judge any dessert that wasn’t homemade, saying, “It’s good… for ‘shop’”. There always seemed to be a pie or cake being made, so I got to help out from a very young age and quickly became hooked. As a student, I baked cakes for friends’ birthdays (and for house parties — any excuse) and also became known for my chocolate biscuits. But building with gingerbread has been a more recent thing. It happened after I found my mum’s old gingerbread house templates and started adapting them to make other things, and immediately became totally addicted!

The designs you use are often very geometric — where does your inspiration come from?

I absolutely love patterns, and for years I’ve been taking photos of interesting patterns on tiles, windows, and floors. Then a couple of years ago I spotted a coal plate in central London and immediately fell in love with its circular, symmetrical design and thought it’d look perfect on the top of a round cake, so I had to make one. After that I kept seeing more and more of them, so now a lot of my cake designs come directly from coal plates I’ve come across.

More generally, I think angular shapes lend themselves particularly well to gingerbread building (as it’s easier to construct something with straight edges), so I guess I’ve been naturally drawn to those. I like playing around with triangular and hexagonal patterns when creating my templates, and have also always loved kaleidoscopes, so that’s been an influence as well.

Baking gingerbread is rooted in history and tradition, but your creations break from tradition in that they’re very design-oriented. Is this what you deliberately set out to do, and do you think that this changes people’s perceptions of what baking can be?

Gingerbread baking is certainly really traditional, and obviously has its association with Christmas. I think that still has its place, but my aim was just to try to offer something totally different, not only from the traditional gingerbread houses, but also from the cupcake bakers that were dominating the industry when I started out, and my individual style has grown out of that. In order to make the things I wanted to I had to develop new techniques — for example, I work with lots of small component parts compared to most gingerbread houses, and the designs would just be lost if I covered all the joints with the amount of icing that’s traditionally used, so I came up with a way of securing the joints with only a thin line of icing showing on the outside. So it’s been a gradual process of taking some aspects of the tradition and adapting them to fit my style.

I was really keen on woodwork when I was younger, and constructing things out of gingerbread brings me the same joy; it seems to perfectly combine my love of design and craft with a passion for all things food.

I do hope I can change people’s perception of what baking can be — why have just a gingerbread house when you can have a gingerbread DeLorean?! I think programmes like The Great British Bake-Off have really helped expand people’s baking horizons and show that anyone can be creative in the kitchen, but I’d love to encourage even more people to experiment with baking at home; it’s such a satisfying and tangible achievement to take a few ingredients and turn them into something fun and new. And then you get to eat it — amazing!

Is there a particular part of the process that you enjoy the most?

Definitely the construction. Although it’s important to me that the end result tastes as delicious as possible, I’m ultimately driven by the building side of things. I tend to see the dough-making, rolling, cutting, and baking as just a process needed to create my building materials, and the real fun begins as soon as all the component pieces are laid out ready to start construction. I was really keen on woodwork when I was younger, and constructing things out of gingerbread brings me the same joy; it seems to perfectly combine my love of design and craft with a passion for all things food.

Knowing that your window displays might not get eaten, does it change your approach to creating it?

They don’t get eaten, but I still make everything edible because I feel it’s cheating somehow if I don’t, and also gingerbread gives off the most wonderful aroma, so without that it wouldn’t have the same impact.

For some projects though I do incorporate some non-edible supports to make sure it can all stand up for a long period of time.

Do you ever struggle to find the time to complete your projects? Is there ever a moment where it can be more stressful than enjoyable?

There have been a few moments, especially when I was working other jobs at the same time. For example, I have been known to still be cutting out individual chocolate ‘roof tiles’ by hand at midnight — sometimes I can get too focused on the small details! Producing a lot of things at once can be a bit stressful, just because I have limited space (I still bake everything from my home kitchen in East London), but even when it’s not quite so fun it’s still so much better than when I was working in jobs that were highly stressful and not really ever enjoyable, so I just try to remember that. Handing over a finished product that I’m proud of, or seeing someone smile having received something I’ve made is so rewarding that it eclipses any panic or stress.

You’ve had some high-profile clients reaching out to you — how did you get onto their radar? Was it your goal to work with them?

I think I was partly just in the right place at the right time. I’d contacted Lily (from Lily Vanilli) as she’s just down the road from me, and together we designed and made a gingerbread clock for her bakery last Christmas, which she then wrote about online. A new bakery buyer at Fortnum and Mason came across that blog post and contacted me out of the blue, so I feel very grateful to Lily. Being in Fortnums last Christmas has led to more people hearing about my work and getting in touch, which is really exciting. Although I didn’t seek them out specifically, of course it’s a dream to have such prestigious clients.

What’s next? What clients and projects do you have lined up and where can we expect to see your work?

This summer I’m mainly working on bespoke wedding orders, and then I’ve got a couple of really exciting things coming up later in the year. Harrods have asked me to create a big gingerbread construction for this Christmas which will be installed in their store at the beginning of December along with a range of 3D gifts. I’m also in the process of designing a series of biscuit building kits, to share my techniques and allow people to make my designs at home, so I’m really looking forward to launching those and spreading the gingerbread word!

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