The Great NPS Bake Off

By Kelly McGreal

When discussing this year’s Great NPS Bake Off, Arrye Rosser, interpretive and education specialist for CVNP, made an ambitious suggestion: create the Station Road area in gingerbread. It’s scenic. From the parking lot, visitors can see the charming, yellow Brecksville Station, a stop for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Nearby is the historic wrought iron Station Road Bridge that hikers, bikers, and horseback riders use to cross the Cuyahoga River. In the distance, the bridge that carries Route 82 across the valley stands tall, its hallmark arches creating windows in the sky. The beauty and history of this place piqued my interest, but I knew the scene would be a challenge to create from dough. I wasn’t quite sold.

The Brecksville train station is shown in the foreground. It is a pale-yellow building with a peaked, shingled roof. From the front, it resembles a small one-story house with windows, but part of the structure is open. Under the roof of the open section, train passengers can wait. In the background bare trees stand tall against the bright, blue sky.
Brecksville Station

Then Arrye told me about this bigmouth in the area who apparently swims upriver all the way from Lake Erie. I thought to myself: What a show-off!  However, this swimmer—a bigmouth buffalo—has a great story. Back in May, CVNP Biologist Ryan Trimbath took a photo of the first one ever caught in Akron, in the Valley View Area of Cascade Valley Metro Park. He was part of a team of scientists surveying fish in the Cuyahoga River. The removal of two dams from CVNP in 2020, which had diverted water into the Ohio & Erie Canal near the Station Road Bridge, allowed the fish to swim upstream. The dam removal, along with other important efforts to restore the once-polluted Cuyahoga River, has helped this area recover and flourish. The river now supports diverse wildlife such as great blue herons, bald eagles, river otters, and the fish they eat.

The image depicts a view from the historic Station Road Bridge of the Cuyahoga River and another bridge that carries Route 82 through the valley. Some of the wrought iron beams and rails of the Station Road Bridge are in the foreground. The other bridge in the distance is tall and is comprised of several elegant arches. The Cuyahoga River runs beneath both bridges. A train track can be seen near the rocky left bank of the river. Bare trees and dense brush are on either side of the river and in the distant landscape.
View of the Cuyahoga River from the Station Road Bridge

After hearing the story of the bigmouth buffalo, I accepted Arrye’s challenge. To be honest, I’ve been preparing for something like the Great NPS Bake Off since I was a kid. Each year, my mom made graham cracker houses with my sister and me. We’d watch her carefully cut the crackers. Over time, we could do it on our own, applying just enough pressure to saw through them without cracking. We developed restraint and resilience, learning not to eat half the icing and to keep a stiff upper lip when the head rolled off a gumdrop snowman. As we grew, our houses became more detailed, but making the Station Road area from gingerbread is by far the most complicated confection I have ever created (image below). I learned a few things during this process and thought I’d share some advice in case you’re thinking about making your own gingerbread scene. 

A gingerbread landscape of the Station Road area depicts the Station Road Bridge and the Brecksville Train Station. The scene includes railroad tracks by the train station and a blue isomalt version of the Cuyahoga River. In the back of the scene is a gingerbread version of the arched bridge that carries Route 82 through the valley. The landscape is iced to look snowy and has trees and plants made from gingerbread and green chocolate. In the foreground are three fish-shaped cookies that represent bigmouth buffalo fish. The fish are silvery-blue, have teched scales, and dark, circular eyes.
Great NPS Bakeoff Entry

Tip 1: Chill Out

When a recipe says to chill your dough, chill your dough. Many recipes recommend dividing your dough in half and refrigerating it for a minimum of two hours before rolling it. However, dividing the dough into several smaller segments may work better if you have many intricate pieces to cut. As dough warms, it becomes less firm. Designs cut after the dough has been sitting out can pull and become misshapen. Unless you’re going for the surrealist look (think Salvador Dali’s melting clocks), try carving shapes from a small segment of dough while the rest remains in the refrigerator.

Tip 2: Experimentation Is the Name of the Game

Whether you’re working with materials and techniques you “researched” by watching hours of reality TV baking shows or trying something on a lark, experimenting is key. For example, prior to this build I had never worked with isomalt crystals, a sugar substitute that won’t turn brown when it liquifies. This material is great for creating water and “glass” elements such as windows, but it took some time to understand how it behaves. After some trial and error, I had a feel for how long it stays pliable before hardening. Through testing (and happy accidents), I also discovered that candy melts can be used as a quick-setting icing. Caramelized sugar is painfully hot but makes great fish eyeballs, and baked spaghetti works well for anything that requires very straight lines.

Tip 3: Prepare to Struggle Before You Succeed

The photo below is of what I affectionately started referring to as the salvage yard. Failed bridges, broken houses, cracked isomalt windows, and discarded roofs made their way to this pile. Sometimes you realize that the train station you painstakingly put together is disproportionally large. Other times you drop a bridge or crack a river. And maybe once, you chop a grove of gingerbread trees in half with your forearm as you reach past to add more snow to the landscape. It happens. Each time you learn a little bit more about what works, what doesn’t, and that you can overcome challenges. To quote the bigmouth buffalo: “It’s not always easy swimming upstream, but it’s worth it. I mean I did it. I don’t mean to brag, but…” (We had to cut him off here. He tends to go on and on. Big mouth.)

Discarded gingerbread pieces are piled up on a flour-dusted piece of parchment paper. The shapes include pieces from a gingerbread house frame, chocolate-iced roof pieces, and a version of the Station Road bridge turned on its side. Some of the pieces are iced in a pale-yellow icing the color of the Brecksville Train Station.

I’m not sure how many hours it took to complete the Station Road scene for the Great NPS Bake Off, but I enjoyed being creative and collaborating with others. Arrye’s project idea, knowledge of CVNP, and fish research (with the help of Ryan Trimbath) were invaluable. She even made the template for the bigmouth buffalo cookies! Volunteer photographer Bob Trinnes took reference shots from all angles (see image below). These were priceless once construction began. Others from the Conservancy and NPS cheered from the sidelines, offering baking and decorating tips. To me, this felt like a group effort. That’s the beauty of community—when we work together, we can make things happen, both small (like making a gingerbread landscape and some fish cookies) and large (like restoring a river that runs through a national park).

The two arches of the tall bridge that carries Route 82 through the valley is shown at an angle. Underneath the arches is the Cuyahoga River. Rocks can be seen in the river and along the banks. Bare trees and thick brush are part of the landscape. The sky is bright blue.

We hope you try your hand at baking something for the Great NPS Bake Off and share your creation on social media: #GreatNPSBakeoff!

Kelly McGreal is the marketing & communications coordinator for the Conservancy for CVNP.