Culinary Carpentry

The Mountain Farmgirl may have an ‘Edifice Complex’, (she always seems to be building something!) … but this time it’s in her kitchen!  Join her there as she undertakes her annual culinary carpentry project in time for the holidays, while the spicy aroma of warm gingerbread wafts through the house!

It’s true, my friends … I have a confirmed ‘edifice complex’ (not to mention a ‘heavy metal’ fetish  … can’t EVER have enough wood-burning cook stoves! … but that’s a story for another day).  Building things, however, has been my passion since I was a teenager.  First it was a tipi, then a series of geodesic domes. I once turned an old wooden swimming pool into a 2-story barn (!!)  and lived in it for more than a year. I’ve slept in a homemade igloo. I’ve gutted, renovated, restored, built from scratch, and even handcrafted two entire homes, and I still haven’t gotten enough of it! Carpentry is so much a part of me in fact, that when my son Noah was a toddler, he thought that motherhood consisted of a warm embrace with one hand and a hammer in the other!  I once overheard him talking to his older brother one day.  “Let’s play house” he said. “I’ll be the mommy and you be the baby.” Climbing up onto a little stepstool ladder he said, “Okay, baby … go get me a hammer!”  Edifice complex indeed … I realized right then and there I had it bad!!


As Farmgirls already know by now, I am totally in love with ‘tiny houses’ and the simple living movement!  I’ve written about them both here many times (and its a sure bet that I will again). I had a Tumbleweed  tiny house here at our Lodge last year, and I’m designing one of my very own which I hope to build in the near future. But until that day arrives, I will satisfy the building itch I’m feeling today by staying right in my kitchen and getting down to brass tacks! Care to join me?  We’re going to do some culinary carpentry!


As Christmas approaches each year, I get that primal kitchen urge to make gingerbread. Yes, I always get carried away as slabs of the sweet and spicy dough transform themselves into walls and roofs; as pretzel sticks become posts and beams, sliced almonds become roofing tiles, melted sugar becomes glass windows. (I once made an exact replica of our church out of gingerbread, complete with stained glass windows, as a gift for our pastor’s family. As I mentioned to him that it was completely edible, my pastor broke a huge chunk off the roof right then and there and started eating it!  Mon Dieu … such sacrilege from a man of God!!!).

Over the years I have made gingerbread replicas of our Jackson, NH covered bridge, and the Victorian mansion that used to belong to my husband’s great Aunt Tina, a Fargirl Extraordinaire. I truly went overboard with that one, furnishing the interior from floor to ceiling on both stories with gingerbread furniture, fondant curtains, placemats and bedspreads, gingerbread place settings and hand-molded marzipan food!  It was my all-time masterpiece, for which I won competition money that was donated to a local charity. Did I mention that sometimes I am a bit obsessive?


I get my gingerbread inspirations from my mother, who used to make these little wonders herself at holiday time. They would grace our table as centerpieces, and were always as beautiful as they were delicious. One year she made THREE … one out of ‘straw’ (shredded wheat); one of  ‘sticks’ (pretzels) and one made of bricks (which I think were hard candies if memory serves me right). My sister always referred to my brother, my sister and me as the Three Little Pigs, so what could have been more perfect?!  ‘Grammy’ is still going strong, and will be making a couple more this year … this time at the request of two of her grandchildren (now in college!!) who love to spend time with her sharing in these mostly ‘forgotten’ holiday arts … another ‘sweet’ tradition we both delight in perpetuating. So precious!

‘So what will it be this year?’ I ask myself.  Choosing a design is always the first step, but I haven’t quite decided yet. Sometimes I use pictures as inspirations, other times local architecture.  One year I re-created the local train station, another time a model of our own Lodge, and long ago I made a gingerbread geodesic dome. As always when starting out, it is best to start small and simple so that you don’t get overwhelmed.  Gingerbread houses can be quite consuming (that was a pun I hadn’t intended) and can get pretty involved.  I think this year I will craft it after the image of a magical little home I recently discovered and visited on the coast of Maine;  the home of a new friend of mine who has every bit as much of an ‘edifice complex’ as I.  In fact, she coined the phrase after both of us. I love it!!  It won’t be an exact replica, but I will draw my inspiration from it.


Nola’s home is diminutive and fairy-like, with a peaky roof and many lovely little elements that will be easy and fun to embellish with ornamental frosting.  I have a photo I took when I was last there to work from, everything else will have to come from memory and imagination. Artistic license is definitely allowed in culinary carpentry (if not downright encouraged), by the way!  (P.S. In retrospect it was nothing like, but cute nonetheless!).

Now that I have chosen the structure and have an image to work from, I need to make a sketch of the different shapes of gingerbread that will make up the walls and roof (and chimney, if yours has one). I like to use graph paper for this as it keeps all the lines straight and true.  Once the shapes are drawn to scale, draw in the windows and doors as well. When it looks about  right, go over the lines you’ve drawn with a fine point marker which will continue to show when the paper gets stained with the oil from the dough, and cut them out. I like to use a glue stick to  paste them onto a foam core board at this point.  Cut them out with a matt knife and then pin the pieces together (straight sewing pins work fine) to make sure that the actual gingerbread pieces will assemble properly.  It’s so much better to make a mistake on paper than with the actual dough.  Make any adjustments necessary, then get ready for the fun!


Gingerbread dough can be a bit of a chore to make. I have killed two food processors over the years trying to mix it in the work bowl; for this reason I don’t recommend using one. A Kitchen Aid (or any heavy duty mixer) would be ideal, but barring that, good old elbow grease, as always, works fine.  Here is a recipe that I use for something called Structural Gingerbread.  It is not as yummy as the culinary version, although it is edible. However as the name implies, it makes strong, structural pieces that will withstand the weight of frosting and decorations:


Structural Gingerbread Recipe
• 1 c. light corn syrup
• 1 c. molasses
• 1 1/2 c. firmly packed light brown sugar (or dark brown sugar for a darker house)
• 1 1/4 c. butter
• 9 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 t. each: cinnamon, ginger, cloves & nutmeg

Most recipes that I have seen require the dough to chill; this is so that it won’t be too sticky when you roll it out. Place it in a greased bowl covered with plastic wrap or a zip lock bag, and refrigerate it at this point.  Now take a break!  (By now you could probably use a change of scenery!). 


If you’re still chomping at the bit, however, this would be a good time to assemble the decorations and ornamentation you will use a bit later. Coconut flakes and baker’s sanding sugar are both good things to dust over ornamental frosting to simulate snow; rock candy is awesome as ice in a ‘river’. Sliced almonds, candied orange and lemon slices and certain flat hard candies make wonderful roofing shingles or tiles; black and red licorice ropes are handy for many things. You’ll definitely want sprinkles and colored sugar, hard red cinnamon drops and edible silver balls. Cotton candy makes excellent smoke rising from the chimney.  The sky is literally the limit when it comes to embellishment, so let your imagination go wild and have fun!  Raid your cupboards … everything from coffee beans for stones that will line a sidewalk, to finely chopped walnuts to use as gravel.  Afterward raiding your pantry, you can have some fun supplementing your findings by going to the candy counter at your local, old-fashioned country store to see what other marvels you can come up with.  Don’t forget to have plenty of granulated and confectioner’s sugar on hand as well, for the frostings we’ll need later. All set? Well done!! When you get this far I now recommend putting your feet up or doing something else. Tomorrow is another day and it’s best to get a fresh start in the morning. I think I’ll take the evening off to make some progress on a really cool hat I’m knitting for one of my sons!

Rise and shine, ladies … it’s Baking Day!!  We’ll start by preparing large cookie sheets with parchment paper, which we’ll dust lightly with flour.  It is here that we’ll roll out the dough.  (Rolling them out directly on the baking sheets prevents the gingerbread pieces from getting distorted which would happen if we had to pick them up and transfer them to the cookie sheets). Now with your foam core templates at hand, break off a chunk of chilled gingerbread dough and roll with a rolling pin to an even thickness on a parchment-lined pan with. Spray the surface with a spray shortening.  I discovered the hard way that the templates stick to the dough otherwise!).  Now place the templates on the dough in a pattern to maximize efficiency, leaving approximately 1” between them all around. Cut around your patterns with a sharp knife and pull away the excess dough, which can be reused so don’t throw it away. Peel off the templates and Voila!  You are left with the cut out shapes of your walls and roof sections, now ready for the oven.  Bake them at 350 degrees (I’ve asked before but does anybody know where the degree symbol is on a computer?!) for  approximately 15 minutes,  but do not over bake. Although the above recipe does not contain any leavening, sometimes the dough will puff up a bit, becoming larger and slightly less defined than the original uncooked dough pieces were before baking.  If this happens, just lay the template back over the cooked dough while it is still warm, and trim the excess from the shapes (where necessary) with a sharp knife.  Let cool, and repeat the process until all your pieces are prepared. Now it’s time to make the icing.


Royal Icing, also called Ornamental Frosting, is a confection that becomes very stiff and hardens quickly, like cement, so you’ll want to keep it covered with a damp cloth to prevent the surface from setting up before you’re ready to use it.

3T. Meringue Powder
4 c. sifted confectioners sugar
5 T. water

Combine the above three ingredients and mix them at low speed with a table-top mixer for 7-10 minutes, or with a hand mixer on medium speed  for 10-12 minutes, until stiff peaks form. Cover until ready for use. Have a pastry tube ready with several different tips for applying it to your finished house.


Making “glass” for your windows is as simple as melting granulated sugar and pouring it onto a greased piece of aluminum foil. Here’s how to do it: Lay the wall of your gingerbread house face up on greased aluminum foil. Pour the liquid sugar directly into the window opening and let cool.  If you’re going for a stained glass look, paint your ‘glass’ with slightly diluted food coloring and a fine paintbrush. (FYI: Molten sugar is amazing stuff … and very hot!  Be careful not to burn your fingers; you can actually get a 3rd degree burn .  I speak from experience).  Not that we’ll be using it here, but did you know that you can do some actual glass blowing with melted granulated sugar? Using a small diameter piece of pipe about 12” long, you can work the molten sugar into a blob on the end of it and start blowing gently, turning it all the while to prevent it from dripping off the end like honey. Your blown ‘glass’ takes shape like magic, but it cools quickly so you will have to work fast.  Also, when melting sugar, remember to stir it constantly and keep a close eye on the amount of heat used, as it can burn easily).


Okay; now we’re ready for actual construction. It is helpful to have an extra set of hands to help with this, but you can do it solo if need be. Simply have some heavy objects (such as cups and glasses) handy to hold your walls in place while gluing them together. If you are not going to eat your house after Christmas, you can cheat and use hot glue to cement the corners together (I’m still trying to figure out how to make sugar sticks to use in my hot glue gun!!).  Until I do, however, you’ll have to use melted sugar as cement, but as I’ve said, you’ll have to work extremely fast and accurately. Hot sugar sets up harder than crazy glue almost instantaneously. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the Culinary World, almost as good as Post-it Notes, but for the opposite reason!


So let’s get started!  First cut yourself a piece of thin plywood (or some sort of base material) about 6” larger in all dimensions than your finished house. Lay out the wall pieces (with the ‘glass’ windows previously set in place) and start cementing the corners to form the walls of the house.  Next ‘glue’ on the roof and chimney sections. If you are getting very fancy and want to include a balcony or a porch, they are added next, followed by shutters and any other embellishments you may wish to add, such as a picket fence. (That’s  for you, Beach Farmgirl Deb!!)   Be sure to glue your house to the bottom board because we don’t want any earthquakes or disasters happening if you have to transport it! 


How does it look?  Are you psyched?! … because next comes the totally fun part: decorating!  I use a pastry tube and have various sized tips on hand to make different shapes and assorted diameter strings of icing. Start by outlining windows and doors with an evenly piped line of frosting. You can simulate bricks, clapboards, or other types of building materials this way as well by drawing them in with a fine outline of icing. For fun, you may wish to add icicles hanging from the roof. Use your creative eye to add the gumdrops, candies, sprinkles, candy canes, etc. to complete the desired effect. (Check out that snowman!!!)

Be sure to document each project you make with lots of photos.  Somehow, years of these projects have vanished off the face of the earth for me, having been stored on old computers that have long since gone by the wayside. Keep a scrapbook of them; they will someday become wonderful remembrances of Christmas’ past!  Of course, the best part is that after the holidays are over, you can get just as much enjoyment all over again by eating them. Have fun making your gingerbread houses, and be sure to post your comments or photos below.  My tiny gingerbread house is so darn cute this year, I wish I could shrink myself down like Alice, and live in gingerbread wonderland ‘til Santa comes!


Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings... and MERRY CHRISTMAS! from
The Mountain Farmgirl



By: Diana Sorenson
On: 12/12/2011 07:59:01
These are truly delightful!
By: Kathleen Neff
On: 12/12/2011 08:39:25
What a wonderful blog! I'm so glad a friend shared it with me!
By: Vivian Monroe
On: 12/12/2011 09:41:02

All I can say is WOW! totally AWESOME! I think you rule the Ginger Bread House world.

Thank you, Vivian!  They are so much fun to make.  You should see the gingerbread houses of the professionals, though ... pretty amazing, and put mine to shame, but the truth is they can't be having any more fun than I have (in fact, they are probably under a huge amount of stress).  Have a wonderful holiday. - cathi

By: Lonnie
On: 12/12/2011 11:17:25

Hi Cathi,
Your gingerbread houses are beautiful, creative, and truly inspiring. I LOVE the stained glass clever!!!
Looks like fun. Thanks for sharing.
On another note...the easiest way I know to get a degrees symbol is to type an "O" and then highlight the "O" and change the font effect to superscript. Good Luck.
Happy Baking! :)


Yippee, it worked!!  :-)  Of course ... it was so simple!  Why didn't I think of that?!  Thanks so much for solving a long-standing mystery for me.  Glad you liked the gingerbread house.  Have a very Merry Christmas! - cathi

By: Colette
On: 12/12/2011 13:08:08
Awesome gingerbread houses! Alt + 0-1-7-6 to make the degree symbol - hold down the alt key, then press 0176 in order (don't hold them down). It looks like this: °.
By: LynnAnn
On: 12/13/2011 10:05:09

I loved the plate and the saying, do you have any idea where that can be purchased?
Nature's blessings to you and your family.
Littleton, Colorado

Dear LynnAnn,

I bought the plate several years ago at one of my favorite places on earth: Mohonk Mountain House. This is one of the old, original  Mountain Houses still left in the Catskill Mtns. of NYS, and we lived not far from it. It was in their gift shop .. don't know if they still have them, but their website is and perhaps you can call them to find out. The quote is by John Muir, a real inspiration! Merry Christmas. - cathi

By: Debbie
On: 12/14/2011 15:16:17
Oh my gosh...!I'm not sure whether to sit down with a napkin and munch away or pack my bags and just move right in to your fantasy gingerbread house!!! My goodness girl, you are one talented farmgirl! Of course a picket fence would add the finishing touch wouldn't it? You never cease to amaze me with all you are capeable of! Just wonderful and quite a tradition too! I'll be sharing this with friends far and wide!

Merry Christmas to you and yours my dear!
farmgirl hugs ~
Deb ( your beachy farmgirl sister )

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir