I’m not a huge fan of Christmas romance in general. So it’s really not surprising that my Christmas posts for the next few weeks will feature a couple historicals and, well, this. I guess it’s sort of futuristic? I’d called it speculative fiction rather than sci fi though because there’s no real science going on in this book. After all, I don’t think anyone is necessarily working on technology to make fully formed husbands to order at all the mall: the matrimonial equivalent of Build-A-Bear. But that’s just what happens at the Manporium in Elise Logan and Emily Ryan-Davis’ More than a Man.
When Noelle goes to the mall to order her third husband, it’s a bit of a scandal. Typically Manporium relationships are for life, but the particular traits Noelle had built into her first two husbands led to their early demises. Her trip is just one stop during a busy day of Christmas shopping though and the mall is packed with shoppers and husband-builders. So it’s not that surprising when an overwrought buyer collides with Noelle, causing her to almost drop her communication device, getting her shopping list a little muddled with with her list of desirable husbandly traits. When a few weeks later Aya shows up at her door a little earlier thna expected, Noelle is thrown off balance and not just by his slightly untimely arrival.
As for Aya, well, he’s just been built. He comes implanted with certain made up memories and experiences and habits, some of which Noelle requested, some of which seem unique to him. And then there are the unintentional consequences of Noelle’s collision at the Manporium. Like the fact that he smells like gingerbread and has a Red Hot tongue, for starters, But it’s clear from the beginning that Aya isn’t some kind of pre-programmed robot who is just going to do exactly what Noelle expects and exactly what she has envisioned. Her previous Manporium experiences haven’t prepared her for Aya’s take-charge attitude or ability to grow and change and adapt independent of her wishes (almost like a real husband–ha!).
Though on the face of it More Than A Man is a silly romp through some kind of alternate reality where women buy self-designed husbands, It actually does have a broader point to make about how people go about selecting spouses. The Jerry Maguire ideal of “you complete me” is completely subverted here as Aya demonstrates not only what Noelle thought she wanted, but what she needs. Noelle wishes she were more of a risk-taker, for example, and she tried to build that trait into her previous husbands with disastrous results. But sex in unconventional places proves to rev her motor, not to mention the…um…tentacles. Yes, there are tentacles. This betrays an adventurous streak that she should simply have claimed for her own rather than trying to invent a man to fulfill that need vicariously.
This is an erotic romance and it’s definitely on the hotter end of the erotic romance spectrum. Readers will also have to be okay with Aya’s, well, unconventional appendages. They’re not just there for show, after all. But in a Christmas romance marketplace that sometimes seems overrun with puppies and children and sappy scenes in front of a roaring fire (if you like that, so sorry–it just isn’t my thing), the gingerbread tentacle man does put a new spin on things.
When I pulled these cookies out of the oven, I turned to my husband and said, “Hm. I knew tentacled gingerbread men would be unconventional, but I didn’t expect them to look quite so distressing.” He came into the kitchen and said, “Well, that’s unsettling.” But don’t let that deter you! Actually, you totally should let that deter you. In fact, the rest of this post isn’t really about tentacled gingerbread men specifically. More, the theory of tentacled gingerbread men, from creative use of cookie cutters to the tools and techniques you need for proper deployment of royal icing (along with a new recipe I found that lets you make it in the microwave!).
Obviously, no one really makes tentacled man cookie cutters. But they don’t really generally make Dora the Explorer cookie cutters or rainbow-with-cloud cookie cutters or any number of other shapes that an avid cookie decorator might want to create. So by using two different cutters: a gingerbread man and an octopus, I pieced together what I needed. Just press the pieces together so they stick and paint a little water over the top. When they bake, they’ll be sturdy enough. If you cover the joints with icing, no one will ever know you didn’t have a tentacled man cookie cutter just lying around.
Serious cookie decorators have developed serious technique for decorating cut-out cookies. I’m really a novice at it, but I do understand the theory. It starts with three different thicknesses of royal icing. The recipe below makes a nice stiff icing perfect for piping outlines and detailed work like the mouth and pupil dots on the eyes of these cookies. You can thin it with water a half teaspoon at a time until it’s thin enough for flood icing–just pipe an outline and fill with the thinned icing, being careful not to overflow the banks of the outline. For these cookies, I also used a third thickness of icing–7-second icing–which is called that because when you drip it from a spoon into a bowl, the drips disappear into the rest of the icing in about 7 seconds. It holds its shape better than flood icing without piping and enabled me to make the eyes on these cookies.
As for supplies, I use 12″ piping bags fitted with #3 tips and couplers for piping. You’ll want as many disposable bags, tips and couplers as you have colors. For flood icing and 7-second icing, restaurant style squeeze bottles work really well. I get mine at Walmart for around a dollar each. You’ll probably also need several small bowls for mixing up colors. Speaking of colors, I use gel food coloring that you can buy at craft stores and baking supply stores, as well as online. My local shop carries Americolor so that’s what I use, but if you don’t do this often and just want to use grocery store colors, that’s fine. I just like the gel colors because it takes less to get more vibrant colors. Finally, you’ll need a few toothpicks for clearing piping tips, pushing flood icing around on the surface of the cookie and making little corrections to your icing.
So if you’re ready to take your Christmas cookie decorating to the next level, that’s basically what you’ll need. If you’re new to it, I’d recommend staying fairly simple with just three or four colors and a simple design, which you can even sketch out on paper before you start. There are lots of good tutorials online about how to decorate really beautiful cookies. My personal favorites are Sweet Sugar Belle’s. She has instructions for pretty much everything you’d ever want to imagine. And her cookies are gorgeous. It’s well worth a look.
There is one small place where I’m going to have to part company with the serious cookie decorators though. Their preference for making royal icing in bulk is the use of meringue powder, which you can buy at craft stores and baking supply stores. I’ve used it, but I never really mastered the consistency issue and so my cookies were always pitted, with brittle, unattractive, unappetizing icing. Not like these, which are clearly masterpieces.
However, I always seem to have egg whites laying around from making ice cream and various custard fillings for cakes and pies and such. So I pulled out Joy of Cooking to see if it had an egg white royal icing recipe and it did! That said, it’s a teensy tiny small recipe, not nearly enough for generating multiple colors. But since the fresh egg whites and microwave instructions were such a revelation, here it is with a slightly stiffer consistency ready for piping and in a much larger quantity. I had a great deal more luck with this icing than I’ve ever had with meringue powder based royal icing, which made this much more fun than my previous attempts.
Plus…tentacled gingerbread men. Yum.
Microwave Royal Icing
adapted from Joy of Cooking
Makes enough to cover 4 dozen designer cookies or 2 dozen child-decorated cookies
Time: 10 minutes
5 egg whites (roughly 6.25 ounces)
3 1/4 cups powdered sugar + 4 cups powder sugar, separated
a few drops of vanilla extract (for gingerbread cookies) or almond extract (for sugar cookies), optional
food coloring, optional
1. In a large microwave-safe bowl, whisk together egg whites and 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar until combined. Microwave on high, one minute at a time, until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F on an instant read or candy thermometer. If you need to take more than one reading, wash the thermometer or dip in hot water before taking additional readings.
2. Remove from microwave and add 4 cups additional powdered sugar. With a hand mixer, beat on medium until icing is cool and holds stiff peaks. Add vanilla or almond extract as desired. Cover with plastic wrap touching the surface immediately after beating to prevent drying. Icing can be stored in a covered container for up to 3 days.
3. When ready to use, divide icing between smaller bowls and color as desired, covering when not in use as it dries quickly. Fill piping bags as needed, thinning the remaining icing for 7-second and flood icing.