It’s the season for new gingerbread construction. At the recently opened Harriet Beecher Stowe House on Federal Street, house guide Cathi Belcher has built an elaborate gingerbread replica of Stowe’s Brunswick home. Belcher revealed it at her recent “Tea with Harriet” monthly event, where she also read some of Stowe’s Christmas stories.
Elsewhere at Bowdoin, students affiliated with campus offices worked on gingerbread houses to compete in a campus competition. The Outing Club, Student Center for Multicultural Life, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Women’s Resource Center, Counseling Services, and Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity made a few seriously detailed masterpieces.
Then, to celebrate the houses and the holiday season, the students lugged their creations to the Outing Club for a dessert party last Friday. After tallying the votes, the Outing Club’s gingerbread house (with kayakers and moose) came in first. The Multicultural Center’s house was a close runner-up, as was the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life’s meticulously crafted boat. (Its director, Rev. Bob Ives, is a boatbuilder.)
For gingerbread house enthusiasts:
Cathi Belcher, who has 20 years of experience making gingerbread houses, said some of her prize-winning homes have included finished interiors, furniture, draperies, and quilts on the beds, all made out of gingerbread and fondant.
She explains, “If I am making a replica of a real house (not just one out of my imagination), I photograph the home from all angles. I then draw it out on foam core board, cut it out and pin it together to make sure that the pieces all fit. When they do, I use them as templates, by laying them down on the rolled out dough, and cutting around them to get the right size and shape.
I use a special gingerbread dough recipe, called Architectural Gingerbread. The replica of the Stowe House has over two cups of spices, such as ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. It is also edible like regular gingerbread cookies, but it is much stronger and harder. It can hold up under the weight of all the parts of the house (second stories, the weight of the royal icing), etc. This gingerbread doesn’t puff up like regular cookie dough, and stays truer in size to the cut out dough. I always lay the template back down on the cooked dough, however, and trim around it to make sure that it is just the right size.
The Royal icing I decorate it with is like cement when it hardens. It helps with the integrity of the building, and holds it together. There are egg whites whipped up like a meringue that are added to the confectioners sugar, which makes it stronger and harder than most other icings. It hardens quickly, so you have to keep it covered tightly, and work fast! I put the walls and roof pieces together with melted sugar. It is stronger than crazy glue when it cools and hardens. Molten sugar is also what I use for the panes of glass in the windows.
Not counting the time it took to make the foam core model, it took about a week to make Harriet’s house out of gingerbread, and I had a wonderful time doing it. I hope after people see it, they will be reminded to come over to the Stowe House any Thurs-Sat, from 12-3 to see the real house in person. I love to give tours and talk about Harriet and her writing, or answer any question people may have. I also encourage everyone to attend one of our Tea With Harriet events, held the third Thursday of every month from 1-2:30. They have become very popular, and in addition to tea served in china cups and the homemade pastries that I make, each Tea has a theme or topic. Sometimes we have guest speakers, and other times I give a talk and offer related readings of Harriet’s books and short stories.”