Cookie wonderland

Picture 7,000 gingerbread cookies. Yes, 7,000 of those sweet creations all packed into one place, looking absolutely sugary and scrumptious.

Sounds like something out of a story book or Hallmark holiday special for kids, doesn't it? But it'll be reality starting Nov. 24 when Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens unveils its Gingerbread Fantasy, a holiday-themed exhibition that runs through Jan. 8.

Longwood, about 70 miles away in the town of Kennett Square, has had holiday displays before, but none like this. Billed as "the world's premier horticultural display garden," it's mostly known in November and December for its elegantly decorated Greenery, and during the rest of the year as a sanctuary that houses a thousand-plus acres of greenery and woodlands.

The holiday atmosphere Longwood conjures is especially interesting because it's 180 degrees away from the way it looks the rest of the year. Stop in to visit during any other season and you'll find the venue's 20 gardens conjuring up visions of springtime.

For example, there's the Hillside Garden, which boasts perennials, the Idea Garden, which contains vegetables in autumn, and the Herb Display, which grows only plants that possess medicinal value.

But this time of year it's all about the holidays for Longwood, and they've definitely gone all out with their Gingerbread Fantasy display.

How far out have they gone? Well, there will be illuminated outdoor fountains, lots of trees and some 500,000 colorful lights.

Oh, and there will be the 7,000 gingerbread cookies that were baked and hand-painted specifically for the display. No that's not a misprint. That number of cookies really is 7,000. To loosely paraphrase an old Earth, Wind and Fire tune, it'll be a cookie wonderland.

The sweet treats will be fashioned into tree decorations, used to form garlands and pieced together to make up wreaths. And they'll also be used to create a working train called the Gingerbread Express.

If Willie Wonka were a real person, he'd either be very jealous or be taking up residency in Longwood's majestic conservatory, which will house most of the holiday festivities.

"We always have great displays at Christmas," says Patricia Evans, Longwood Gardens' communications manager. "But there is just something that is so quintessentially holiday about gingerbread that I think it's going to be so popular with our visitors."

Baking memories

According to Evans, preparations for the deluge of gingerbread treats started way back in July. It was then that a bakery in the region, Liz Marden — Gourmet Cakes and Desserts, Inc., began cooking up Longwood's future holiday displays.

"She's just finished the actual cookies," Evans says. "And she's now working on recreating our conservatory and our historic Peirce-du Pont house in gingerbread houses for the display. So it is going to be really spectacular."

With all the talk of cookies, Evans already knows what everyone who visits will be wondering and she's already got an answer. Yes, you can eat them. But you'd better be careful because they're not your average gingerbread cookies.

"Because they're being used for this purpose, they use a different kind of dough," Evans explains. "You use construction dough, as opposed to what you would typically use to bake a cookie that you would eat."

So while the construction dough "is edible," says Evans, it makes the cookies "a little tougher and crunchier.

"So you can still eat them, but you probably want to dip them in coffee first."

Some parts of the Gingerbread Fantasy you won't be able to eat at all, though. The gingerbread ornaments have been shellacked so they can be preserved during the duration of the six-week display.

"That's because we're going to have some hanging outdoors and we have to make sure the little critters like squirrels aren't eating them. We had to protect them."