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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Holiday architects pack Northern Quest on Sunday for Gingerbread Build-off fundraiser

Brooke Ball, 9, builds her own gingerbread house during the 15th annual Gingerbread Build-off, held for the first time at Northern Quest Resort and Casino on Dec. 8, 2019. Families gathered to assemble their own gingerbread houses, to view elaborate professionally made gingerbread houses as they were put together by local teams, plus other activities like photo booths and raffles to benefit Christ Kitchen. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

The air smelled like sugar, with children intent on creating their very own gingerbread houses Sunday at the 15th annual Gingerbread Build-off, a fundraiser for Christ Kitchen at Northern Quest Resort and Casino.

One table was full of teenage girls dressed up to help celebrate Hannah Nichols’ 13th birthday. The girls giggled, on a sugar high from all the candy and frosting that didn’t quite make it to their gingerbread houses.

“It’s awesome,” said Tanya Nichols, Hannah’s mom. “We’ll definitely come back.”

Nichols’ youngest daughter Chloe, 10, was also enjoying the fun in her candy-cane-themed dress. Chloe wants to be a professional baker when she grows up and watches baking shows all the time.

“I like baking cupcakes and cakes,” Chloe said with a smile, before heading off to see the professional bakers working on their extravagant gingerbread pieces.

Seven teams from the Spokane area competed to build over-the-top creations that fit the theme “Christmas Around the World.” Three trophies are awarded each year: a people’s choice award, a judge’s award and the Christ Kitchen Board of Directors Award. Winners earn a $1,000 prize.

Christ Kitchen is a Spokane nonprofit that provides professional development and employment opportunities for women in poverty.

The Gingerbread Build-off is Christ Kitchen’s largest annual fundraiser. In previous years, the event has been held at the Historic Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane, but this year the festivities moved to Northern Quest.

“Partnering with Northern Quest has been absolutely amazing,” said Kim Kelly, Christ Kitchen’s executive director. “It’s been an enormous blessing.”

Volunteers and Christ Kitchen employees prepared 6,000 miniature gingerbread kits for attendees to decorate, said Kelly.

While the competition may have moved, many of the competitors returned from last year.

Reigning people’s choice champion Lilac City Bakery decided to create something interactive this year, with an Advent calendar including doors that open and a train that ran on top.

“What I think set us apart last year is we have a lot of guest involvement,” said Amber Owens, owner of the bakery. “We love to talk to the kids.”

Owens and her team have competed for the past four years, and this year their team included 10 people.

“It’s a great cause, and it’s just an awesome way for our team to get together, hang out and have fun, and be off the clock and do something creative,” Owens said.

Teams bake all of their gingerbread and other sweets off-site and also bring their internal structure pre-made.

“You just basically have to assemble here,” Owens said.

Christine Leaming, from Sweets Geeky Cakes, has competed for the past three years. She has the smallest team in the competition – just herself. This year, however, Leaming brought two helpers for her display that tapped into Central European folklore.

One of those helpers was Scott Jones, who praised Leaming’s ability to sculpt cakes.

“She’s a very gifted sculptor, and the stuff she can do with butter cream is amazing,” Jones said.

As Jones handed off a bag of icing, Leaming was focused on cutting strips of fondant to decorate the base of the display.

While the event is a challenge for Leaming, it’s something she continues to do each year.

“I come back because of Kim and what she does for the community, and it’s such a great organization to be honest,” Leaming said.

Sweets Geeky Cakes’ “Central European” display won the Board of Directors Award, with the Northern Quest Resort and Casino team’s “Christmas in Caracas” display receiving the People’s Choice award and Yoke’s “Paris” display winning the Judges Award. All seven finished gingerbread creations will be on display throughout the casino until Dec. 22.

Baked goods weren’t only for the gingerbread building contest. Women employed by Christ Kitchen made prepackaged meal kits, including soups and baked goods, which were for sale at Sunday’s event.

“Community events like this and our private donors are how we sustain our ministry,” Kelly said.

The event has become a family tradition for Becky Zaleski, who has brought her 9-year-old daughter, Makenna, every year since she was born.

“We come here every year,” Zaleski said. “I just think it’s a cool Spokane event.”

While Makenna’s early gingerbread houses required quite a bit of help from her mom, this year her house had candy canes and a security camera made from a gumdrop.

“It’s just creative and fun,” Zaleski said. “It’s totally her.”