Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The 2009 White House Gingerbread House

The traditional holiday White House Gingerbread House has some very Obama elements: First Dog Bo, the Kitchen Garden...
UPDATE, 2011: Click here for all the details about the 2011 House
UPDATE, 2010: Click here for all the details about the 2010 House
Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses has been as busy as an elf in Santa's workshop--for months. In addition to a loaded schedule that includes making the thousands of sweets for all the White House holiday events (17 parties, 11 Open Houses)--and for private Obama family consumption--Yosses has also had a whole architecture project going on for the past six weeks, during the creation of the annual White House Gingerbread House, a holiday tradition that in the past was brought to stunning heights of creativity by former White House Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, the only chef to last for 25 years in the Executive Mansion. (Above, the 2009 White House Gingerbread House). 

Yosses's 2009 edition debuted today at First Lady Michelle Obama's Holiday Decorations Preview, and it can can hold its own with past holiday gingerbread extravaganzas. It was a big team effort, according to Yosses, something of a pet project for White House staff.

"We had everyone working on this," Yosses said. "Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, lots of staff." (Yosses, above, speaking with the media)

And, according to Yosses, Malia and Sasha Obama also came in to check on holiday house progress, and loved what they saw. The incredibly detailed, 390-lb white chocolate- covered gingerbread house (250 pounds of chocolate and 140 of gingerbread), at 56 X 29 inches, is based on White House architect James Hoban's original design, but cheats a little: Windows are missing from the South Portico, so it doesn't have the dramatic "bow" effect of the real South Portico, and the doors at the base of the Portico are straight on top, rather than arched.

The balconies for both levels are not true to scale, either; these are where the President speaks during big events on the South Lawn. That's quibbling--the house is a masterpiece. Mrs. Obama referred to Yosses as "brilliant" in her holiday remarks.

A video of the creation:


Yosses became Exec Pastry Chef in January of 2007, and this year's White House Gingerbread House is his third. Last year's, for First Lady Laura Bush, was also a white chocolate-covered house, with a view of the North Portico, and featured a marzipan fife & drum corps. The Obama version contains some personalized Obama elements: A marzipan replica of the White House Kitchen Garden, and an over-sized Bo the First Dog sitting at the bottom of the South Portico stairs.

The south wall of the State Dining room has been removed, so there's a shadow box view into the room. White House Beehive honey was used to bake the gingerbread. That honey has now been used in a lot of projects; most recently, Yosses used it for the desserts for the State Dinner, and in the thousands of cookies that were handed out on Halloween to Trick or Treaters. The White House bees are now asleep for the winter, and Yosses estimates that there are about 70 pounds of honey left, down from the original 134 pounds.

The marzipan Kitchen Garden is complete with veggies that were actually grown during the late Summer/Fall season, with eggplant, radishes, carrots, cabbages, peas, cauliflower--and tiny handwritten signs that have the names of the vegetables on them. (Detail, above)

"The garden has been so important to us this year," Yosses said. "So we wanted to include it."

The "dirt" in the mini Kitchen Garden is dried chocolate cake, which Yosses explained was crumbled up in a food processor. A group of visiting elementary school kids got a marzipan modeling lesson from Yosses last weekend, and helped create the garden. That's pretty fun, because it replicates the various school groups that have worked in the real Kitchen Garden: Students from Bancroft and Kimball elementary schools in DC have been garden helpers.

The not-to-scale marzipan replica of Bo sits at the base of the South Portico stairs; the edible version is over-sized, like Bo's personality. (Above: Bo, in marzipan)

Reporters at the preview event, apparently unfamiliar with how Bo really looks, kept asking Yosses "What is in Bo's mouth?"

Yosses patiently explained that Bo has a white patch on his chest, not something in his mouth, but added that the real Bo frequently does have something in his mouth, as a very active pup.

The shadow box state dining room is complete with dark chocolate furniture and chocolate flooring, with a real brass light fixture that works (a dollhouse light, and LED, of course). Everything inside is edible, except for the light fixture, obviously, and the one small painting leaning on the back wall, which Yosses explained was "screened for detail."

Yosses noted that Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison was the "general contractor" for the project, and charged with cutting the 1-inch thick pieces of the gingerbread on the 50-year-old bandsaw that sits in the White House kitchen. The gingerbread had been allowed to sit out and become solid and stale before being cut (Above: The shadow box State Dining Room).

"That was a sight," Yosses said, because Morrison, a fifteen-year vet of the pastry kitchen, is not very tall.

The gingerbread house is coated in white chocolate in order achieve the tiniest architectural detail, such as rosettes on the tops of the pillars. Yosses himself is a seasoned chocolatier, but he credits Chris Phillips, "master chocolatier," with all the molding, pouring and sculpting for this year's gingerbread house.

The final construction occurred in the China Room, because the pastry kitchen is relatively tiny (and busy), and the China room could accommodate a big work crew--and the big house. The China Room, on the bottom floor of the White House, has glass-cased displays of historic presidential china lining the walls, but is frequently used for all kinds of other activities, such as putting together invitations for special events.

No eating the decorations, please...
The non-food writers at the holiday preview kept asking Yosses when the White House Gingerbread House is going to be eaten...and the answer, repeated many times by Yosses: "We hope never," because by the time the gingerbread is being put together as a house, it is already stale...and then the Gingerbread House sits in the State Dining Room for the entire holiday season. After that, it gets sent across the street to the White House Visitor Center so even more people can see it. But Yosses noted that by the end of every the holiday season, he's noticed that the gingerbread always seems to be nibbled on....

Related: Update: Dec. 23: Yosses' recipe for Holiday Gingerbread Cake is here. On Dec. 22, Yosses wrote a blog post about the gingerbread house here. Yosses's recipe for White House Honey Cupcakes is here. His recipe for White House Apple Pie is here; his recipe for healthy Baked Apples is here. Yosses gives a video tour of the White House pastry kitchen here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama