Making gingerbread houses is fun, giving them is sweet

EVERETT — The donation was expensive, edible and easy to break.

The two women from the charity knew this. They moved cautiously, gently carrying a gingerbread house to the elevator of Trudy Tobiason’s condominium building.

She watched their every step.

Tobiason, 85, started baking the crisp gingerbread walls in August. She bought two pounds of fragrant chocolate wafers for a roof. She used hard, sweet sprinkles to mimic the rainbow of Christmas lights sparkling on crunchy, cookie trees.

The great-grandmother spent weeks crafting every painstaking detail. One house took 55 hours. Another, 45.

She gave both away for the annual Festival of Trees fundraiser, and her own home immediately felt a little emptier, for a while.

Tobiason has baked, decorated and delighted over these houses for more than 50 years. She never fails to give them away.

“I’m just prepared that they’re going to leave.”Tobiason doesn’t use a cookbook or store-bought kit to make her gingerbread houses. She designs them herself on grid paper. She knows how to dry the gingerbread just so over an oven vent, and how to use a tin can to support a balcony while the frosting hardens.

When they’re done, the houses are almost too good to eat.

She refuses to sell them, even though some have gone for more than $500 at auction. Instead, she gives them away to family members, friends and charitable causes, such as the Festival of Trees, which raises money for Providence Children’s Center.

She does this for a simple reason.

“Pleasure,” she said. “I like it if it makes people happy.”A slight woman with clear blue eyes and a surgeon’s steady hands, Tobiason began building gingerbread houses in the 1950s.

She unveiled them at Christmas to decorate the Waldheim Dining Room, a south Everett restaurant she owned and operated with her husband of 60 years. Dennis Tobiason died in 2006.

The couple, both of German descent, gave their favorite customers the houses at the end of the season. The designs were traditional: brown walls, white icing, a bit of candy.

Over time, that changed.The Tobiasons retired from the restaurant in 1979. In the early 1980s, Trudy Tobiason started inviting her grandchildren over to build houses during the Christmas season.

Tobiason stocked up on food coloring, pastry bag tips and paint brushes. She became well-acquainted with the bulk food bins at Top Foods.

Now her shelves are filled with dozens of jars of sweets: gum balls and sprinkles, Froot Loops and Necco Wafers, licorice sticks and chocolate kisses.

Chewy yogurt drops can make fine noses on snowmen. Frosted Mini-Wheats are perfect for snow-dusted thatched roofs.

“The more you work with it, the more ideas you get,” she said.Tobiason keeps a record of the houses in two family photo albums. The pictures show her grandchildren smiling alongside gingerbread skateboard parks and frosted cats.

Her husband is in those albums too. He loved building houses — and not just out of gingerbread.

The Tobiasons designed their own homes during their retirement. They would hire contractors to pour the cement foundation and install the electrical wiring. The Tobiasons did much of the rest, raising walls, installing cabinets, sweating over carpentry.

Like their gingerbread houses, the homes took time. They spent three years building their first place, a three-story home on 9 acres near Snohomish. They lived there for a few years, sold it and built another. Then another.

Before every Christmas, in each kitchen, they turned simple sheets of gingerbread into elaborate, miniature mansions.One photo shows a proud Dennis Tobiason next to his scale model of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. He designed the replica, complete with 75 windows, while his wife made sure it was structurally sound so the cookie roof would support the steeple.

Trudy Tobiason’s own houses tend to be more delicate. Once she made a dollhouse, complete with an inch-high rocking chair built from seven tiny pieces of gingerbread.

She thinks of her husband when she makes the gingerbread houses.

While she says the meaning of the giving them away is one of simple happiness, her son, Sid Tobiason, senses a more complex message.

“Love is hard work, and she’s willing to work hard to express that love,” he said. “That’s how she’s expressing love for other people, even people she doesn’t know. She wants them to enjoy the house.”Two of this year’s gingerbread houses sat on Tobiason’s mantles for weeks, a steady reminder of December, the month that marks not only Christmas, but also Tobiason’s birthday and wedding anniversary.

She was prepared to see the fragile houses leave, but still, she grew a bit nervous as two women from the Festival of Trees carried them away last month.Concerned about damage to the house, she filled a plastic cup with powdered sugar, neatly labeling the contents. The sugar could be mixed with a little water to secure a wobbly reindeer or candy cane lamppost.

The women carried each of the houses out the door, with Tobiason close behind, offering advice along the way.

The elevator door closed, and the women marveled at Tobiason’s gifts.

“These are her babies.”

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455,

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