Don't you love this time of year, when folks (let's be honest here, moms and their kids) get together over hot cocoa and construct those cute little gingerbread houses? Over at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, pastry chef Charles Froke has taken the concept to a whole other level: He's managed to re-create the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
This past Thursday I made a pilgrimage to the gingerbread basilica—it is nothing short of a miracle. Holy gingerbread house! I didn't think it would stand a prayer. (The above was my long-overdue homage to the late Gene Shalit. He will be missed. And yes, I'm done with the puns.) But seriously, it was impressive. Froke, a very modest patissier, told me it took him 70 hours to build the church, which required 125 pounds of gingerbread dough—and not the kind you use for cookies but rather something less savory, more sturdy—along with 45 pounds of icing, 10 pounds of chocolate for the trees, 20 pounds of sugar, and even a pound of coffee extract to color the icing. On its way from the hotel basement to the lobby, the roof partially collapsed. But Froke quickly recovered and layered more icing. The lights he picked up at the nearby CVS, he said, while he baked the dome in a bowl. And the tower was a lot harder to make than it looks.
So what happens to the shrine when the holidays are over? "We take it out back," he explains, where some of the kitchen staff will chuck objects at it until it is sufficiently destroyed. Sacrilege! (Froke's previous creation, a gingerbread Smithsonian Castle, was moved to the Smithsonian and preserved.)
Nevertheless, congratulations to Froke, who carries on in the spirit of Antonin Carême and alongside Duff Goldman. (Froke actually enjoys Ace of Cakes and says he wouldn't mind competing on a cooking show.) As Michel Richard, who began his career as a pastry chef and later became a savory chef and successful restaurateur, once wrote, "I think much of my urge to have fun with cooking comes from my background as a pastry chef. My years in the pastry kitchen imbued me with a sense of playfulness. Even among 'serious' gourmets, desserts are supposed to be fun and surprising."
Indeed, who knows what Froke will do next year—I'm just hoping he avoids that infamous creation for the christening of Louis XIV's grandson in 1682. As noted by author Ian Kelly in his biography of Carême, "it was fashioned out of almond paste, pastry and clockwork, and both depicted and animated the labour pains of La Dauphine and the baby Duke of Angoulême's entry into the world via a marzipan vagina."
Better to stick to castles and cathedrals.