Tucked away on the second floor of the Chequit, behind a set of swinging doors adorned with a handwritten sign that says, “Santa’s Workshop – stay out!” Mazie Galle and a team of enthusiastic crafty volunteers have been hard a work baking, piping, smoothing, adorning and constructing this year’s holiday gingerbread masterpiece, a stunning replica of the North Ferry and 26 of the historic hillside homes of the Heights, along with the Ferry House, Union Chapel and pharmacy, leading to the storied inn.
“As soon as I finished last year’s gingerbread house, I kind of knew I wanted to do the ferry boat for this year,” says Galle, the Chequit’s talented head pastry chef. “It’s such an iconic piece of Shelter Island. I felt it was a fantastic follow up to last year’s replica of the Chequit. It’s also my favorite part of coming onto Shelter Island.”
For Galle, creating this replica is a labor of love. She and her immediate family have deep history on the island. Her mother, Elizabeth Ryan Galle, is one of 10 siblings who all went through Shelter Island school. Ryan-Galle met her husband, Michael Galle, during their college years while waiting tables one summer at the Pridwin Hotel.
After marrying, Elizabeth and Michael’s work moved them to Brazil, where young Mazie lived from ages 2 to 5, making her first real memory of the ferry boat when her family returned to live back in the states.
“That was when my Uncle Billy [Ryan] started doing gingerbread houses at my grandma’s house,” says Galle. “It’s always been part of my Christmas!”
The fun and wonder of the tradition stuck with her and, last year, she decided to do a full-scale replica of the historic Chequit Hotel. Because of its multitude of moving parts and sheer size, it was an experience very different from the smaller gingerbread houses her family constructed when she was a kid — and she learned much about the process. This year, the chef took those lessons and applied them to the current structure, including a kick-off of the process a full three-weeks earlier in order to be ready for the hotel’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony Dec. 2.
“We did a lot different this year – like, last year we used parchment paper for all our templating but it would curl up when laid down on a cookie and also would cause fingerprints to wind up on the gingerbread when trying to get the paper to stay down. This year, I used card stock and poster paper,” Galle says. “There was no chance of it sticking to the cookie dough and it’s firmer, so it stays in place.”
Also, all the structures are completely edible this year, as no glue was used to attach and seal the pieces — only royal icing. Still, Galle warns, she’d prefer you didn’t break off a piece and help yourself, as much for the integrity of the structure as the gingerbread isn’t fresh. “It is edible! But still, it’s been baked for months, so… “ she laughs.
While the ferry is a complete structure, she and her crew created more of a stage setting for the Heights houses. “Everything is really only front facing, except the ferry. We learned we need to do a little extra structural support in the future because some of houses are bending back or forward.” Still, if you walk the winding roads of the Heights, the fact is: many of these old houses, like the iconic Huschle House and its slightly leaning turret, are askew, too.
“They’re all a little wonky, so it works!” she says. “As someone who’s a perfectionist, I notice all those details, but honestly, it seems like most people don’t.”
That, too, was a theme of this year’s construction. “It’s really funny, because everyone who comes in to help is always very nervous that I’ll micro-manage them,” says Galle. “But my motto this year was: There are no mistakes, only whimsy! And that helped people calm down.”
It took eight volunteers, including Galle’s parents, over seven weeks to construct the storied island scenario. The round-up of ingredients this year: 1 quart molasses, 30 pounds of powdered sugar, 4 pounds of Isomalt (a sugar substitute made from beets) used for the for the water beneath the ferry and the windows of the structures, 5 pounds of nonpareils, 20 Nerd ropes, 15 Charleston Chews, 1 pound of gummy snowflakes, 1 ½ pounds of gummy Christmas trees, 6 boxes of ribbon candy, 6 boxes rolls of Necco wafers, and a half pound of Fancy Sprinkles Christmas sprinkle mix. Then, for an extra touch, Mazie found a chocolate truck from Li-Lac Chocolates (so there’s a passenger vehicle on the boat, of course!), a chocolate Santa to run the boat from the Love Lane Sweet Shop and a bevy of gummy sea creatures teeming in the waters below.
The big reveal of the gingerbread ferry and Heights homes will be this Saturday, starting at 3 p.m., where the display will sit in the hotel’s second floor lounge for all to visit during the holiday season. There will also be a special appearance by Santa Claus, who will arrive on a Shelter Island Fire Department Truck, and hot cocoa, cookies and donuts served until 6 p.m. when the Chequit Christmas tree will be lit.
It’ll be a moment for Galle to relax, too. You might even find her taking break on the source of her inspiration.
“I feel like getting on the ferry is a moment of meditation in a world where you don’t get a lot of peace – every time on get on the ferry, I just have to look out at the beauty of Shelter Island and the world around me,” she says. “It’s a moment to disconnect from a fast-moving world. It’s a moment that’s precious every single time you get on the boat.”