A Sweet Holiday Surprise

A research fellow is selected to be part of a distinguished gingerbread house contest — and chooses to honor NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

When Dr. Sonia Debek arrived in New York City last August, the visiting research fellow from Warsaw, Poland, was eager to learn all about her new home. She’d spend weekends exploring museums, soaking in the story of New York, but she never imagined something she created — a gingerbread replica of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center — would be on display at the Museum of the City of New York.

The cancer researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine was one of 23 bakers chosen to be part of the Gingerbread NYC: The Great Borough Bake-Off, hosted by the museum. She filled out an application for the contest after hearing about the opportunity during a museum visit. “I already knew that I would bake NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, the magnificent building that amazes me every time I see it,” she says. “It would let me express how happy and proud I am to be a part of the Weill Cornell Medicine community and to be carrying out my research on cancer here.”

To Dr. Debek’s surprise, her application was chosen, but creating the building was no easy task for the amateur baker. Dr. Debek had to quickly learn where to get the supplies she needed — not to mention figure out how to optimize an unreliable oven. “I discovered the hard way the oven did not distribute the heat evenly, so I had to redo some burned pieces, but as a scientist, I troubleshot these setbacks,” she says.

Dr. Debek's handwritten plans for her gingerbread creation.

She meticulously sketched and planned the dozens of pieces and shapes she would need, hand-whipped all the icing, and recreated NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center’s stunning windows out of sugar and caramel. No detail was too small: from the candy colors to the little gingerbread scientists and lab mice, she made sure to capture the essence of the institution she is so proud to be part of.

While Dr. Debek admits that her amateur creation may not be as perfect as some of the other gingerbread masterpieces — some of which were created by professional bakers — she is proud of the homemade quality, which reminds her of the gingerbread houses she has long made at home with her family during the holidays. “But in this case, I had the help and support of my newly made NYC friends and colleagues,” she says.

Honoring a place that was personally meaningful has paid off: “One of the judges appreciated that I chose a non-obvious building that is as breathtaking as other iconic New York City buildings,” says Dr. Debek. “It has been an exceptional experience.”

Gingerbread NYC is on display at the Museum of the City of New York through January 15.

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