The baked gingerbread forest, smelling of honey, was not just meant to be a birthday surprise for my daughter, but also a way to fight my loneliness over an empty Christmas without my children. It was also a sentimental reminder of the times when my mother still baked Christmas gingerbread.
It was a culinary-therapeutic activity. My daughter’s birthday is on 27th December – just after Christmas. Last year she went with her father to spend Christmas with his family. Divorce has its consequences, even after almost seven years. For example, I am without my children for Christmas. Once, on a similar occasion, I went to hand out presents to patients who had to stay on the ward in a psychiatric hospital over Christmas. I have also cooked food for the homeless. Feeding others is my lifeline. On the verge of losing control of my emotions, I proficiently dish up spoonfuls of potatoes. Everyone has their own way.
Last year, facing the prospect of Christmas apart, I decided to bake my daughter the most beautiful cake in the world. The sort of cake that no pastry shop would make, because who would want it? A gingerbread cake? By myself, with no help. A laborious project for my own, good Christmas. I took the decision a month ahead. I got my act together and watched films on YouTube about how to bake cakes, how to make gingerbread houses, how to frost hedgehog prickles and a wolf’s tail. In secret, I assembled cake tins, gold sugar frosting and edible glue. I studied the art of making glass balls from sugar syrup round a water-filled balloon. I gave nothing away, but inside I was giggling with nervous excitement. The children went off. Right after Christmas Eve, which I spent with my mum, I started to bake the biscuit bases. I set myself up with white chocolate and mascarpone to make into cream filling. I also cooled the pastry for the gingerbreads so it would be easier to cut the shapes. I didn’t make it myself; I bought it from a Swedish furniture shop as, unfortunately, they have the best readily-available pastry on the market.
A long time ago, when my mother was still fit and healthy, right after Halloween she would start production of a proper, ripening cake dough made with honey, spices, rye flour and alcohol. At first, the dough would stick to my mother’s hands, before turning shiny and dark brown. It smelled of honey. Over the next three weeks, it matured – like the list of presents in the mind of the youngest child – and just before St. Nicholas Day (6th December in Poland) it was already completely pliable. It was made into reindeer, stars and snowflakes; decorated by the children better and better with each passing year. After baking, the decorated biscuits softened until Christmas, by which time they reached their magical best – in crumbliness, softness and dry sweetness. The wheel of time had completed another turn.
My cake, made from Swedish flour, was meant to take me to Narnia, to the land of human-friendly wild animals, bushy fox tails, Christmas trees and a little 3D cottage with a roof made from frosted tiles. The cutting and baking took many hours. I made animals, the walls of the house and the windows. I determinedly decorated the biscuits. I piped garlands of edible pearls, glued the house together and licked the sugar frosting from my fingers. The sugar-syrup glass ball turned out to be too much for me as a self-taught baker; it was meant to be thin and transparent, but came out bright gold, streaky and incomplete. I decided that it would become a bonfire at the edge of the forest, its flames shooting skyward; that it would give the cake some dynamism. Before I could put it on, I had to cover the biscuit bases with the chocolate cream filling and then cover the whole thing with a layer of icing. I had once before used fondant icing when, for my son’s sixth birthday, I made him another, simpler cake – a grass football pitch with two teams of gummy bears running around on it. This time the icing had to stay white, unsullied by dirty fingers. I already knew (thank heavens for YouTube), that one can roll it out and then lay it over the cake like a tablecloth, pushing it gently in at the sides, and smooth it out with a special trowel (which I bought). Pure emotions. Thanks to this, it was much easier not to think about how the people I love the most weren’t with me. One has to concentrate hard on gluing a bear onto a white panel, writing a calligraphic name with a gold marker pen in edible ink, arranging the surroundings of the cottage and gluing frosted trees in place.
Finally, everything that was meant to be made was in place; the forest story had been told. I sprinkled the cake with edible glitter and thus my Christmas came to an end. It waited, under the Christmas tree, for the girl who, on the evening of 27th December, blew out the 11 candles standing round the gingerbread forest. Then she bit off the wolf’s tail, savoured it, broke off another little piece and took it to her grandmother.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
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