One Times Twelve
"If you can do one, you can do twelve." My inner coach did not skip a beat, flooding me tips and pointers, keeping everything positive while I held up the sides of a gingerbread house, waiting for the royal icing to take and hold the sides together. My parents-in-law were looking on, with their expectant air. I was thinking I should have gotten something to prop the thing up. Standing there was beginning to get old.
The goal was to produce one house so that Ian could decorate it with his grandparents while they were visiting. That evening, they'd watched while I'd sliced out the pieces deftly with a professional flair, turned them onto the sheet with aplomb, and baked the cakes to precisely the right level of doneness. I could not tell whether their watchful gaze was helping or hindering. In any case, assembling was a breeze, and the project looked like it was going to be a success.
The birthday parties include an activity where we create flowers, vines and decorations with colored royal icing that the children pipe from their own pouches. We dry each child's creations on sheets in an oven suitably heated for white meringue while we work on making the cupcakes. The oven is twice as hot as a hot summer day, but cool to oven standards. So thinking that this might expedite the hardening process of the cement for the house, I wound butcher's string around the structure and placed it in a similarly cool oven. My parents-in-law pivoted in place to follow my moves. I shut the oven door. "Nothing else to watch here, just waiting." They drifted off to read books and massage their feet, and examine brochures and leaflets made for Lyon's light festival. I gave the house a half an hour in the oven.
When I returned to the oven, they followed me. I opened it up, and saw that the heat in the oven had softened the cookie part of the house, and caused it to collapse into a broken heap, the cement remaining in tact. I pulled it out and let it bounce on the cooling rack for good measure. I pulled my hand away like it might be burned. This shock caused further collapse and they jumped slightly. "TA-DA!" I didn't have to say it so loudly. I turned to them gave a very good impression of self congratulatory pleasure, while they stared, in stony silence. The oven was buzzing, that electric buzz. I had to call the oven guy to come fix that.
"This, my dear beaux-parents, is a perfect chalet ruin, an authentic reproduction of the partial stone edifices, evidence of shepherds past on the pastroral slopes of the Belledone". The Belledone is a string of mountains in the Alps that is still largely agricultural. I said it to ensure that they didn't confuse it with the Beaufortain or Mont Blanc, the touristy areas where all the ruins have been snatched up by investors and gingerbread-like chalets built on their foundations. In the Belledone, the ruins stand as is in their regal solomn pride, hollow broken heaps of stone, columns and doorway arches, their wooden upper structures long rotted and gone, leaving us to dream about their past. We come across them all throughout the forests and on the hills during our walks there and like to climb in the ruins.
"BRAVO, Lucy! Encore une reussite!" chirped Brigitte.
"Taste, it is authentic." I broke off a piece of the honey-heavy spice bread with a flourish, heavily seasoned with that specially ground mix of precious seeds, bark, dried roots and peels and passed these chunks to my onlookers. I made about a pound of épice à pain d'épices of for this project. The splendid aroma has now become kind of an emblem of the holidays chez nous.
The cake was quite delicious and soothed what I knew was a momentary sting. "Back to the drawing board" said my inside coach, with less urgency and excitement, more like determination. I found my rhythm throughout the next two weeks, finally ending up with the twelve houses that were planned. The children arrived, fresh as snowy winter days, strapped on their aprons, followed through with wondrous candy-laden decorative effects, and went home, delighted, with their lovely houses to have and enjoy through the holidays.
You have to roll the dough very thinly to make a crisp light biscuit, and prop the constructed houses up to solidify overnight. This way, the cement can hold them up. That's the secret.