Friday, February 01, 2008

Cache Creek pastry chef builds holiday gingerbread castle

Two-hundred pounds of gingerbread. Four-hundred pounds of frosting. A toy Christmas village and train chugging around it 24 hours per day. These are all components of a mammoth gingerbread castle created by Cache Creek Casino Resort’s pastry chef, Alberto Ortiz.

“This is a thousand pound project, from the foot to the top,” says Ortiz, when summing up all the various parts – edible or not – which make up the giant cookie-based structure he painstakingly created over the course of a month with help from other kitchen staff members.

The finished piece stands at the entrance to Cache Creek’s Harvest Buffet restaurant, where visitors and gamblers can’t help but stop on their way past to marvel at the level of detail given to the confection creation. Gamblers, diners, and resort guests of all ages suddenly become kids again when they see this sugar-junkie’s dream palace.

In what has become a regular holiday tradition at Cache Creek, this is the fourth year that Ortiz has built a castle like this one for the resort. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “I really enjoy every minute of building this.”

A lot of fun and a lot of work. At its base, Styrofoam pieces are dipped in frosting and then applied to the structure making up the “mountain” upon which the castle sits. The special frosting, which acts as cement for the structure, and also doubles as a blanket of snow, is called “royal icing.”

“It’s made out of powdered sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar, and lemon juice,” says Ortiz. You dip something in it, and in fifteen minutes, it becomes super-hard.” This substance is also piped into crevices to seal the structure and hold it together. “When you apply it, the next day, it’s like cement,” Ortiz says. It’s okay to eat, but better to look at, according to the chef.

All of the gingerbread walls of the structure are custom designed and cut by hand. Ortiz doesn’t use any template to build his masterpieces. “I should have been an architect,” he jokes. He’s done so many gingerbread buildings, it’s become second nature. “I have it in my head what I need to know – I don’t have to think about it anymore.”

Each year Ortiz picks a different theme. This year it is “silver and blue.” The details, such as the Christmas buildings, and Christmas train are from his own collection of Christmas decorations. He also incorporates scrap materials he can scrounge, such as the columns that make up the castle towers, which are actually cardboard rolls that carpet was once wrapped around.

Cache Creek isn’t the first place that Ortiz has plied his trade. He’s worked at places like the St. Francis and Fairmont Hotels in San Francisco, and Sun River Hotel in Oregon, building gingerbread buildings for them as well. “I’ve been doing this for years,” he says. “I’ve been in this business since 1968. Building the gingerbread castles is more like a fun thing for me. It takes me away from normal production, and lets my mind rest. I look forward to it every year.”

Sometimes working at odd hours of the night to finish his creation in time for the holiday season, Ortiz says the hard work was all worth it. “Their faces when they see this, that’s the reward I get.”

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