Amidst the cookie baking, present making, ribbon curling, mulled wine drinking, friend and family embracing of Christmas is an immutable tradition in our household. It comes to us from a Swedish friend who has shared her family traditions with us for the past decade. Each year, she and I set aside a day with our children to make gingerbread houses.

Usually, Lena makes the gingerbread dough for the houses. This year, Ikea came to our aid with pre-baked walls, doors, roofs, and chimneys. We both found, with delight, that this didn’t detract from the magic; it added because the architectural part of the day was always fraught, as walls burned, roofs split, chimneys broke.

The glue for our houses is caramel. The gluey snow is egg whites mixed with confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice. The decor? Gum drops and honey balls, colored sugar and luminescent pearls. My favorite source for these is the Bon Marché in Paris; they always have things no one else does.

The kids cover pieces of cardboard with foil, for the base. Once the houses are built, the kids are on their own. But before they begin I feed them, this year with freshly roasted chicken and potatoes. With that in their stomachs, they’re less likely to make themselves sick on decor.

The houses change so much as the kids grow. This year, Camille, the eldest, is go through his Goth period, and his house turned out spikily red and black; Fiona still goes for creative fantasy, while Johanna insists on lineated perfection. Tom, the youngest, is all over the map, sticking reindeer here, squirting snowy glue there. The results are all, quite simply, delicious.

To be eaten after Christmas...

I recommend this as an activity and offer vague instructions for creating a gingerbread house, all you really need. To make the caramel, heat at least 3 cups of sugar in a skillet over medium high heat. Don’t stir the sugar – instead, shake the skillet occasionally. When it is melted and golden, stick the edges of the walls and roof pieces into it, then hold them together until the caramel hardens. When the houses are all assembled, set them on the bases.

For the sweet snowy glue, whisk 3 egg whites until foamy. Whisk in enough powdered sugar to make a thick mass, then whisk in enough lemon juice to thin it out to the consistency of Elmer’s glue. Divide the snowy glue into little plastic ziplock bags, snip off a corner, and let the kids go!

 To glue accessories to the base, dip them first in caramel and hold them to the base until it hardens. Then, cover the caramel with sweet snowy glue.

I won’t offer you a recipe for the houses. For those, go to your nearest Ikea. I will, though, give you a recipe for Roast Chicken. It’s always good to have one of these on hand.

ROAST CHICKEN

POULET ROTI

Nothing simpler!

1 roasting chicken, with giblets

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lemon, halved

2 imported bay leaves

1. Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C).Pat the chicken dry all over with paper towels. Remove the giblets from the cavity of the chicken, generously salt and pepper the cavity, and return the giblets. Squeeze the lemon into the cavity, then add the lemon itself, pushing in each half gently.

2. Slip 1 bay leaf between the skin and the meat on each side of the breast, gradually working your fingers under the skin to gently loosen it so it doesn’t tear.

3. Truss the chicken and place it breast side up, on a rack if you like in a large baking pan. Roast in the center of the oven until the bird is golden on the outside and the leg joint moves easily when you rotate it, about 1 hour.

4. Remove the chicken from the oven, and salt and pepper it generously all over. Flip the bird onto the breast side and let it rest, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes and as long as 30.

5. Carve the chicken and arrange it on a warmed serving platter. Cut the giblets into thin slices and arrange them on the platter. If a substantial amount of cooking juices remain in the baking pan, place it over medium heat and bring to a boil. Scrape up any browned bits, add ½ cup (125 ml) water, scrape up the bits and pour the sauce over the chicken.

4 to 6 servings

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3 Responses to A New House for Christmas

  1. Joan Tabb says:

    When a good friend returned a bag of borrowed books to me just before this holiday season, she included in it some selections off her bookshelf that she thought I might like. ‘On Rue Tatin’ with its luscious cover photo was my first choice as I settled in to read just yesterday, on a cold, stormy non-work day. I loved it and could not put it down; I read iist straight through and feel like I’ve had an incredible visit with you, In France, and now, feel inspired to COOK! My husband has always been chef of the house, and me, his agreeable eater and cleaner-upper (we are just the same age and I also set off on my life adventures at 25 yrs old in 1980!) but something about the way you describe the food and all the sensory,social and even historical aspects of it, has inspired me to ‘take to the kitchen’. You are a FABULOUS writer and the tantalizing recipes are now pulling me to the market for tonight’s dinner…I’m starting with the Herb Roasted Veal Shank. Wish me luck!
    Joan in Foster City, CA– just south of San Francisco

    • Susan Herrmann says:

      Dear Joan,

      What a lovely note! Thank you so much and I hope the Veal Shank was a huge success.

      Happy New Year.

      Susan Herrmann Loomis

    • Sue Malizia says:

      Susan,
      Joan in Foster City said it perfectly…”something about the way you describe the food and all the sensory, social and even historical aspects of it, has inspired me to ‘take to the kitchen”.

      As I read your book, On Rue Tatin, that I received from my daughter for Christmas…I couldn’t wait to get into my kitchen for a day of relaxed baking. I wanted to make something healthy, simple, yet special for New Year’s Eve and did just that with your apple tart.

      I loved your story ~ from the very beginning of your adventures of cookbook author, diy home renovators, and sharing your wonderful life style in Louviers with your family…I just didn’t want it to end. My husband and I grow almonds (just 5 acres) on the side and I can’t wait to get your next book, Nuts in the Kitchen. I’ll definately be adding all your previous works to my cook book collection and can’t wait to try your wonderful recipes for my family and friends. Thrilled to be back in the kichen again!

      Sue in Ripon, CA

      ~ Susan Ripon CA. – just an hour and a half from SF)

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