Behind the Scenes at Wonderland Express, Part II

With the holidays now officially approaching, all hands have turned to preparations for our annual holiday exhibition, Wonderland Express.

The ever-creative Nancy Clifton is putting the finishing touches on her fun and fragrant project for Wonderland Express: she’s making more than 400 wreath and garland decorations from a no-bake “faux dough” made of just two all-natural ingredients, cinnamon and applesauce. Nancy is a horticulture program specialist and popular Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden teacher. This project is “baking” in name only, as the dough is simply mixed, rolled, and cookie-cut—the ornamental “cookies” then air dry on the counter for a couple of days, becoming surprisingly lightweight and a pretty, cinnamony color. The process is easy and kid-friendly, great to try at home for your seasonal decorations.

Nancy let us photograph her at work, while supplying some tips along the way.


1 pound (16 oz.) cinnamon
3 pounds (large 48 oz. jar) applesauce


The first question: Where do you buy a whole pound of cinnamon? Nancy orders bulk cinnamon online from San Francisco Herb Company. Any house-brand, non-chunky applesauce can be used. Since these ornaments are decorative only, non-branded, inexpensive ingredients work just fine.

Are you thinking this might be edible anyway? Well, it’s non-toxic, but no, don’t eat this dough! “I tried it,” Nancy says, “And it tastes terrible. It’s for crafting only!”



Slowly and carefully pour 1 pound of cinnamon into a large stainless steel, glass, or ceramic bowl. (Note: because cinnamon can create a fine dust cloud when poured, make sure that your work area is well ventilated and adult supervised.) Empty the contents of a 3-pound jar of applesauce onto the cinnamon and stir slowly.


The ingredients will pull together into a shiny, moist-looking mix with few cracks. If the dough seems too wet to roll out, add more cinnamon. (Nancy suggests starting with a 1:3 ratio of cinnamon to sauce, then gradually working toward a 1:2 ratio, adding cinnamon until achieving the feel and sheen of pie dough). If too many hairline cracks form in dough, add a bit more applesauce and mix until glossy and smooth.


Prep your rolling surface (a granite countertop or marble dough board is handy for this) by spreading a thick layer of extra cinnamon all over it. Heavily dust your rolling pin with cinnamon as well. Remove the dough from the bowl, set it onto the surface and coat the top generously with cinnamon.


Roll dough to about ¼” thickness (thinner dough can result in brittle ornaments), constantly re-dusting surfaces so dough does not stick.


Now comes the fun part—dust cookie cutters with cinnamon and cut as many decorations as desired. Like pie dough, extra scraps can be scooped up, rolled into a ball, and re-flattened. A dusted spatula helps to move the cut-outs to a wax-paper-covered surface to dry.


Dough can also be:

  • Pressed into candy/chocolate molds (dust heavily with cinnamon)
  • Pierced with a wire to string as a hanging ornament when dry
  • Rolled into 3-D shapes: deer, snowmen, branches
  • Rolled into small cinnamon-scented balls to add to potpourri
  • Fragranced with ground cloves or allspice in addition to cinnamon



They’re fake, they’re inexpensive, and they smell like the real thing! For cinnamon sticks, roll out dough as above, working it into an elliptical shape. Use a sharp knife to cut a straight edge across the short width, about 4″ from a rough edge. Starting at the straight side, roll dough tightly into a cinnamon stick shape. Dust with cinnamon. Continue with remainder of dough.


cookies 1

Let ornaments air dry for at least 48 hours (thicker dough will take longer to dry completely) before experimenting with paint, faux frosting, or glitter as decorations. Nancy has displayed these ornaments on the large wreath and garland in the Joutras Gallery in the Wonderland Express exhibition (opening on Friday, November 23). Stop by to see the final result in person!

©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Published by

Karen Z.

Karen Zaworski is a writer who likes to use as few words as possible, a photographer who still works with black-and-white film and a darkroom, and a gardener who actually likes to weed.

15 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at Wonderland Express, Part II”

  1. We did these years ago in GS. Make sure if you are doing them with kids that they wear some kind of plastic gloves….like the kind you see at the bulk food section of the supermarket. The 1st time we did this without the gloves the kids were telling me that their hands burned…so we used gloves and didn’t have a problem. We just let ours air dry and boy did they ever smell so good.

    1. Good point! We photographed Nancy Clifton wearing gloves to mix the dough, but left out that tip in copy. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. If I may make a suggestion–adding a good squeeze of white glue while mixing helps the dough hold together better.

    You made beautiful ornaments!

  3. I know this is two years later, but i was wondering about how much dough do you get from that 3kg/1kg recipe? Enough for a small gingerbread house?

    1. Wow! I don’t know the exact size of batch—it’s a pound (16 ounce package) of ground cinnamon, with about a 16-ounce jar (or more, depending on the humidity in your house) of applesauce. Mix applesauce into cinnamon, adding applesauce until you get a dough consistency. Sorry I am not more precise in my measurements! —Nancy

  4. If you made a ginger bread house from this recipe it would be for decoration only. Half the fun of a gingerbread house is in the eating! But decoration made from this recipe keeps very well over the years if stored in a dry area.

    1. You’re so right, Anne–gingerbread is best when eaten! Our cinnamon/applesauce creations are meant as visuals only and they do, indeed, store well–our “cookie” wreath and garland is now in its third year, on view at the Garden View café through January 4.

    2. I am thinking of something like this for my step kiddos… one is diabetic, so this may still keep the fun without everyone snacking on the treats in front of him…

  5. I have made this dough for many years but I add a couple teaspoons of nutmeg and a bottle of Elmer’s white glue. I also bake them which make the house smell heavenly. 350 degrees for 15-20 min. let the cool completely then decorate. I also made a gingerbread barn out of it. It kept nicely for a few years.

    1. Good question, Peggy! We asked Nancy Clifton and she responds that it all depends on the size of the cookie cutters–start with a small one and the recipe should be fine for 24 cookies.

  6. Karen & Nancy … Hi! My question comes long after the original post, but I’m wondering how the ornaments might “hold up” with respect to dropping/breakage? I assume they are at least fairly strong, Nancy, if your wreath has been used for 3 years!
    It would also seem that adding the glue would even make them much stronger! I really want to plan on making some for Christmas 2016 ~ maybe adding to (or tying on!) our gifts ~ but I do want them to arrive “in one piece!” These sound like great fun, thanks for sharing!
    Your thoughts?!?
    p.s. I have made polymer clay ornaments and can throw them on a concrete floor without causing damage!

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