Taking the Gilt off the Gingerbread
Once again this year, Chow Bella writers are gnawing on the holidays -- in the form of stories of Christmas and food. Hope you have some Alka-Seltzer handy. Enjoy.
I feel obligated to create an elaborate December for my daughter.
When I was eight years old, my mother bought Martha Stewart's first Christmas book and she and I tried to create everything within its pages in just one month, which made for a beautiful, delicious--stressful--holiday season.
We dipped pinecones in scented wax for the fireplace. We baked gingersnaps, almond crescents, meringues, and two-tone, mint candy-cane cookies that we delivered to everyone in a three-block radius.
As we moved through the month, I didn't understand why one holiday dinner required so many stores, or why we needed to hunt down both red and green aluminum foil to dress up baked potatoes. But I embraced elaborate undertakings, like the Croquembouche -- cream puffs stacked in a Christmas-tree shape, encircled by a web of spun sugar.
Nothing topped our gingerbread mansion.
Using real ginger, real molasses, we baked pieces to build a structure three feet wide. I broke the walls, picking them up before they cooled. So we baked more, and over three days, we assembled them on the front table.
Two stories tall. Two chimneys. 28 windows, each fitted with carmelized sugar windowpanes.
My mother covered the gabled roof with gold leaf. She turned icing into shutters, bricks, and shingles. Then we landscaped with garland and fed a string of Christmas lights through the back, admiring the mansion's sugared glow. A monument to how magical only December can be. January came, signaling the end of a manic, aromatic era. No more baking sprees, decorating all-nighters, or craft-store runs for more raffia. Hours of baking, trimming, decking had transmuted into digested meals and unwrapped gifts--but the mansion remained, baked and iced and covered in gold.
My mother didn't throw it out. She transferred it to a heavy board and enlisted my father to carry it downstairs. They tucked it away in our wide, unfinished basement and covered it with a black garbage bag left loose around the corners.
For as much as I missed Christmas, I breathed better.
Martha's book could teach you to make ornaments out of popcorn or decorative trees out of nut s-- entire chapters devoted to food you're never meant to eat, treasures you should probably throw away. But now, during not-December, we could eat everything in our kitchen. We could bake our potatoes in any color foil.
And with the mansion now relocated to the basement where I played, I could sneak tiny snaps of icing (just off the corners, in the back, where garland would cover anyway--my brothers helped). Brittle enough to break off at weak points, the icing was too cement-like to chew, so we let it dissolve on our tongues as we played. Over months, we pockmarked the back façade, finally moving to the roof, where gold leaf peeled off with the icing. We ate that, too.
Every December, I've believed I only have a month and it has to be extravagant and complicated and gourmet. I have insisted on that for my daughter. But as a kid, I felt just as happy picking icing off a house under a garbage bag as I had felt displaying the mansion in Christmastime glory the month before. In some ways, I liked it better--all year long, I ate sugar and gold.
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