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Gingerbread on the brain

The gleaming green, gold, blue and white of St. Basil's Cathedral have been captured in countless photos, including one that missionary Justin Wilder sent from Russia to his family in Medford.

It was the iconic church's muted red brick, however, that fascinated Wilder's 13-year-old brother, Luke.

The Moscow landmark's façade, Luke thought, looked like gingerbread.

Granted, Luke had gingerbread on the brain. His brother's photo arrived just after last year's annual GingerBread Jubilee, where Luke competed in the student division with a gingerbread boardwalk scene, complete with Ferris wheel. The project kept him up the entire night before the competition, so this year Luke vowed to start early, submitting his entry form for "Christmas at St. Basil's" before any other Jubilee baker.

"It's kind of in honor of him," Luke said, referring to his older brother. "And it's such a cool structure."

The entirely edible cathedral is one of 33 gingerbread designs slated for judging today in downtown Medford. A total of $3,550 in prizes awaits winners in three categories: adult, student and group.

Along with five exhibition-only pieces, the entries will be auctioned off Friday evening at Medford's Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater. Last year's live and silent auctions raised more than $70,000 for the nonprofit Craterian Performances.

A public tour of the gingerbread creations starts Sunday and runs through Nov. 24. Because of a scheduling conflict with the touring production of "Evita," the gingerbread tour moved this year from the Craterian to 230 E. Main St., between Lawrence's Jewelers and Grilla Bites in Medford.

Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The exhibition is closed on Nov. 22, Thanksgiving.

An expanded gingerbread tour isn't the only change in this year's Jubilee, said Maureen Esser, development and communications manager for the Craterian. More male bakers, like Luke, are entering the competition than ever before, she said.

Medford building contractor Travis Curtis, 29, heard about the competition from his wife, Suzi, who is working with her mom to construct a Christmas-themed cafe from gingerbread.

"I didn't want to get left out," Curtis said.

Given his experience building off-road pickup trucks, Curtis said he decided to enter a "ginger-wheeler," his version of an edible monster truck, perhaps using doughnuts for tires.

"I'm surprised that more guys aren't into it. I'm looking forward to doing it next year," Curtis said, adding that he wants to collaborate with his wife on the "Polar Express" locomotive.

Vehicles also are the theme in an exhibition piece by Jacksonville resident Michael Towndrow and Brian Herwig, chief operating officer at Providence Medford Medical Center. Hoping to capitalize on local business support for the Jubilee, the duo is replicating Lithia Motors' Toyota dealership in gingerbread.

Herwig, 52, is well-schooled in gingerbread art, and has built a structure with his daughter every holiday season for the past 15 years.

"I kind of caught the bug," Herwig said. "The more you do it, the more obsessed you get with it."

A career in fashioning custom furniture gave Towndrow, 60, the enthusiasm to explore another medium. He said he spent about 20 hours researching gingerbread art online, emerging with a "humidity-proof" recipe that can be manipulated much like wood.

"We got it so hard that you can actually cut it with a hacksaw and sand it," he said.

The recipe might have helped Luke, who recut dozens of pieces composing St. Basil's octagonal chapels after he failed to account for the width of frosting "mortar." But his rendering of the cathedral's distinctive onion domes approaches divine inspiration.

A glass Christmas ornament provided the dome's approximate shape. On the advice of his grandmother, Luke cast the ornament in plaster and molded sheets of gingerbread dough to it before baking. A paint of powdered sugar, condensed milk and food coloring will finish each dome in its respective pattern and hue. Candies will give some domes their knobby texture.

Malleable fondant was used for the smallest and highest dome and is the likely material for populating Red Square, Luke said.

"If I have time, I was going to put quite a few people," Luke said. "But I was going to have my brother be one of them."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Luke Wilder, 13, constructs a St. Basil Cathedral for this yearís GingerBread Jubilee. - Jamie Lusch