Casino’s gingerbread  display ‘from the heart’

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND L'Auberge Casino's pastry chef, Arlety Estévez and executive chef Jeffrey Oliveri, constructed a life-size gingerbread house and swamp scene from
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND L'Auberge Casino's pastry chef, Arlety Estévez and executive chef Jeffrey Oliveri, constructed a life-size gingerbread house and swamp scene from "The Cajun Night Before Christmas." It includes a life-sized Santa and alligators made from Rice Krispie treats and fondant, water made from gel icing, and a fishing shack made from more than 2,000 pounds of gingerbread. The display took three weeks to prepare, 13 people to assemble over two nights, and will be viewable through Jan. 3.

Arlety Estévez didn’t remember which football game was on, but she did remember stealing the show from the packed house in The Stadium, L’Auberge Casino Hotel’s sports bar, as building supplies for her nearly two-story gingerbread house, including a life-sized Santa and six-foot-long alligators, made its way from kitchen to atrium.

Then again, a ton of gingerbread is liable to get a gasp or two no matter where you put it or how you arrange it.

Estévez, the casino hotel’s pastry chef de cuisine, Executive Chef Jeffrey Oliveri and the crew built a life-sized Cajun Christmas gingerbread house, complete with a Santa piloting a sleigh pulled by alligators over a shimmering bayou.

“When I showed them the picture in the beginning, they couldn’t imagine how big it was,” Estévez said.

Her staff baked for three weeks — eventually turning out more than 2,000 pounds of gingerbread using 1,200 pounds of bread flour, more than 750 pounds of sugar, 500 pounds of icing and 100 pounds of candy.

In the large atrium where the display sits, which also houses the casino hotel’s restaurants, bars and other eateries, the smell of gingerbread and candy dominate over the smells of steak, coffee and barbecue wafting from the other establishments.

The house itself, a one-room shack perched on stilts, is made of gingerbread shingles lined in frosting and decorated with peppermint candies and gumdrops. Even the inside of the house, where guests just get a peek, has white chocolate panels. Moss hangs from the roof, and nets made from red licorice and cheesecloth hang on the porch. The bayou in front is made of shimmering blue frosting and across it skate Santa, his sleigh and his team of alligators.

Each 6-foot gator and the 5-foot-tall Santa are made from Rice Krispies and colored fondant over wooden frames. Santa’s beard and hair are shredded coconut and the alligators’ reins are strings of fruity cereal.

The house, Santa and the gators are all made on wooden frames built by Daniel La-Fleur, who looked on his creations with pride. His favorite part are the toothy alligators, which, like the rest of the exhibit, called for some ingenuity in their construction. He said he used tin foil to shape their bodies and recycled pallets for the bones of the house itself, all of which is artfully hidden by edible construction.

The nature of the confections also poses a problem. Estévez said the gingerbread used in the display, while edible, is specially formulated to last the three weeks it’ll be up, as is the frosting that holds the shingles together.

The gingerbread is baked with more flour and cooked longer to make it durable and uses less molasses than the more tasty recipe Estévez serves to guests.

Furthermore, Louisiana’s humid environment and the crowds passing within arm’s reach of the house mean it needs constant attention. More frosting, candy replacements and color touch-ups are a regular occurrence. The display will be up until Jan. 3.

“It really was a project from the heart,” Estévez said as she pointed out the tiny details that set off the display, like boxes of poker chips and playing cards, and the tiny Tiffany boxes hidden on Santa’s sleigh.

Oliveri said the display reflected the casino hotel’s philosophy of serving up special, over-the-top cuisine in all their restaurants, including The Stadium, PJ’s Coffee, 18 Steak, the Bon Temps Buffet and The Edge Bar.

And Estévez isn’t finished. She and her crew made 16 more gingerbread houses — though not in the Cajun theme — for the casino hotel’s employee party. She’s also already planning her next display, maybe for Easter, and definitely another one for Christmas.

“I see this and I’m already thinking of what to do next year,” Estévez said. “There’s a lot of things I learned. We’ll definitely do it again.”