A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world—from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith
Christmas celebrations always include holiday sweets — cookies, cakes and even minty candies. But for those who live in the Washington, D.C., metro area, several of the most memorable baked goods include the gingerbread creations by pastry chef Charles Froke. Of these, the elegant (and edible) Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the National Cathedral are breathtakingly beautiful.
Creating religious edifices such as these is not surprising, since chef Froke grew up in a devout Catholic family in Wisconsin. “We were very Catholic,” he said. “We went to church every Sunday, ate all our meals together, and prayed together. And I went to a Catholic high school.”
His baking passion is also connected to his family, he said, because his mother and grandmother were “huge” bakers. “They taught me how to bake,” he said, “and I was always at me grandma’s house baking cookies. ... I have always had a passion for it, and that is what I did. My favorite medium has always been gingerbread.”
As an adult, then, Chef Froke made the obvious career choice: cooking, or more accurately, baking. For the past 25 years, he has been baking in Washington hotels seven days a week, first at the Four Seasons Hotel for 23 years, and then for the Fairmont Hotel until recently — and the busiest times were always the holidays. “My staff and I normally did so many Christmas parties,” he said, “serving one thousand people a day. It was crazy trying to do my baking during the day, so I would start at night.”
Chef Froke planned far ahead what his gingerbread creations would be. “To get the design accurate,” he said, “I would go to the church site, take pictures and print them out. Then I would post the pictures on a wall and put some online as well. As I am working on the final design, I kept looking at the pictures.” He would then order batches of bread and draw templates on the bread packing boxes and cut out the pieces to form them with dough.
He would then shape trial pieces with gingerbread dough, having often to make six different pieces of the same image because the dough would shrink while baking or someone would break off a piece of dough. “The gingerbread recipe I used is almost like wood,” he said. “It is tough to eat and it does not taste good. It had to be a special recipe.”
He started out by rolling up a tube of gingerbread dough so that it looked like a cigar. He would chew on it while making changes to the recipe. “Over the years, I have gotten more efficient,” he said. “It is a great process, but it is fun,” adding that he was always smelling like gingerbread, so when he got home, the dogs loved it.
Every Christmas he has picked an appealing building, including the National Shrine. “It has a big tower with a big blue dome, so he covered the gingerbread creation with blue frosting. “This past year,” he said, “I made the National Cathedral. I displayed it in the hotel’s Santa Suite, which was open to the public every day. I invited people from church and they came and took a video of it. We always had weekly churchgoers come through to look at it.” He would also make a small gingerbread house that would sit out to dry, and after the holidays it would start to fall apart.
Sadly for the metro area’s restaurant goers, Chef Froke has decided to relocate to Hudson, Wisconsin. Here he is to open his own pastry shop, St. Croix Baking Company in late summer... the prodigal chef has returned!