Saturday, December 04, 2010

Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses On The Record: The 2010 White House Gingerbread House

The 400-pound pièce de résistance, and a look back at other White House creations... 
The White House - President Barack Obama has nicknamed Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses "The Crustmaster" thanks to his delightful pies, which are served at all White House holiday celebrations.   But Yosses is destined to go down in White House history as "The Gingerbread Master" thanks to this year's stunning White House Gingerbread House.  (Above: Yosses with his masterpiece)

The white-chocolate covered house is the sweet centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Simple Gifts" decorating theme, and Yosses has created an elegant, intricate, extremely personal and sugary Obama homage.  Hundreds of ornaments made with Yosses' Holiday Gingerbread Cookie recipe are also dangling from the nineteen Christmas trees around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.   And for this year's White House Gingerbread House. (Above:  Yosses and Mrs. Obama with the cookies and a kid enthusiast)

At 400 pounds, including 30 pounds of honey from the White House Bee Hive, Yosses' pièce de résistance is a very long way from the 1969 rustic A-framer that is credited with starting the annual tradition.

"We're always trying to up our game," Yosses told Obama Foodorama about the ambitious effort.

The first holiday Gingerbread House was created for First Lady Patricia Nixon's unnamed decorating scheme. It weighed a scant sixteen pounds, and there was no attempt to replicate the actual White House.  That aesthetic was put into place after 1979, with the arrival of Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier. During his 25-year reign over the pastry shop, Mesnier's houses grew more elaborate each year. With the exception of one gingerbread castle covered in white icing, all of Mesnier's houses were identifiably gingerbread, with the dark cookie walls visible under mounds of decorative icing elements. (Above: First Daughter Tricia Nixon with the first Gingerbread House)

Yosses has profoundly altered the Mesnier legacy.  Each of his four holiday White Houses, beginning with his first effort in 2007 for First Lady Laura Bush, has been covered in white chocolate, his signature innovation. This year's is a view of the South face of the White House.

At 41 inches wide and 22 inches deep, Yosses said it took about 300 hours to complete, over the course of six weeks. A marzipan replica of First Dog Bo, whimsically and purposefully out of scale, is one of the highlights.

"We wanted to emphasize Bo's importance to the First Family," Yosses said, about creating the oversize pup. "And that a family actually lives in this house."

Mrs. Obama has referred to Bo, only half joking, as "my son."

The marzipan Bo's head is above the level of a second-floor shadow-box cutout of the State Dining Room, which is complete with a working light fixture, Christmas trees, a replica of the famous Abraham Lincoln painting, and other details that are a mixture of chocolate and doll house furniture. A real Bo of that scale would be more than twenty feet tall. Perhaps thirty.

"He's Bozilla!" Yosses joked.

Bozilla was made with a special marzipan that includes gum paste, condensed paste and milk powder.

"It's a special recipe we make for animals, because we get a much more defined look," Yosses said.

During Mrs. Obama's media preview event on Wednesday to unveil the decorations, Yosses' hands were still stained black from molding Bozilla, and putting him in the place of honor. A far smaller version of Bo was included in last year's Gingerbread House, too.

Bo is featured in other White House decorations for 2010: There's a large holiday statue of him in the Booksellers area, where visitors enter the White House; it's made of 40,000 twisted pipe cleaners. Bo has also "signed" the First Family's Christmas card, with a paw print.

The First Lady's decorations include thousands of dried fruit and vegetables--lemons, pomegranates, gourds--a not-so-subtle homage to the importance of her Kitchen Garden. There's a marzipan Kitchen Garden with the White House Gingerbread House, too, just like there was with last year's house. (Above: The marzipan beehive, with the garden hoops visible in the background)

But this year's garden has marzipan hoops arched over the top; the White House installs protective hoop houses over the real garden in the cold months, so vegetables can grow through the winter. Straw is bedded between the crop rows to further warm the earth, and Yosses included this in his marzipan Kitchen Garden, too. There's also a marzipan replica of the White House beehive, complete with tiny bees.

Yosses frequently uses the homegrown honey in his desserts, and he had plenty to work with this year.

"We got 160 pounds from spring to the last harvest, thanks to Charlie Brandts," Yosses said.

Brandts is the veteran White House carpenter who has become the Beekeeper In Chief, the first in the history of the White House.

An American flag flies from the top of the Gingerbread House, just as it does on the actual White House. There's also a special cut-out shadow box view of the East Room, too, which features sparkling Christmas trees (last year's house had one shadow box, of the State Dining Room). Chandeliers for both shadow boxes are doll house editions, but Yosses put Swarovski crystals around the edges.

"It's to add a little bling to the effect," Yosses said.

Along both sides of the Gingerbread House there are magnolia trees, and these are very special, too. To create each tree, Yosses used actual blooms that were taken from bushes planted from President Andrew Jackson's magnolia tree that still stands on the White House grounds. These were then dipped in chocolate, but not just any chocolate. (Detail, above).

"They're covered in green chocolate," Yosses said, and repeated the phrase a few times, because he liked the idea of it so much.

Yes, green chocolate. The blooms are placed on little chocolate stems, and nestled into puffs of "snow," with tiny working spotlights to highlight the effect.

"There's always progress in pastry," Yosses said, laughing, when questioned about using green chocolate, rather than, perhaps, colored sugar.

The window panes for the house are edible sugar, too.

Weighty issues & a team effort...
The Gingerbread House was constructed in the China Room, which is on the ground floor of the White House, and features lit glass cases displaying historic pieces of presidential china. Despite its museum-like quality, the China room is often used as a multi-purpose room, for gift-wrapping, card writing, and other projects. (Above: Morrison, l, Yosses, and Philips at work in the China Room)

Yosses said before assembly, the actual gingerbread weight, minus the white chocolate, was about 150 pounds. It was a team effort: Yosses was helped by Pastry Assistant Susie Morrison, a 16-year White House vet, and Chris Phillips, the in-house master chocolatier. Along with a host of other staffers, Morrison and Phillips worked on last year's house, too.

The gingerbread is baked hard, at a thickness of about an inch, and allowed to dry out, then sawed with a band saw to cut the walls and roof. Layers and layers of the white chocolate are smoothed onto the walls, and more chocolate is poured into special molds for the columns, banisters, rosettes, and other decorative elements.

Hauling the gingerbread house from the ground level of the White House required four workmen, who put it on a rolling cart, then transported it via elevator to the State Floor level.

Yosses said the workmen complain that each year the house is getting heavier.

"We just tell them they're getting older," Yosses joked. Last year's house was about 390 pounds.

The design for the house is an embroidery on the original plans of White House architect James Hoban, with tweaks for the necessities of working with food materials, of course. The 2010 House is far more elaborate than the 2009 House, which was the same South view. (Above: The 2009 Obama White House Gingerbread House)

After the holidays...
The White House is expecting about 100,000 tour visitors to troop through in December, and all will see the Gingerbread House, displayed as always atop a marble console table along a wall in the State Dining Room. After the holiday season, it goes on display at the White House Visitor's Center, which ensures that even more people get to experience its delights, too.

No one will actually eat the White House Gingerbread House, Yosses pointed out; he said by the time the house is constructed, the gingerbread is too old. But he still declined to calculate how many calories might be in his masterpiece.

"I wouldn't want to even guess," Yosses said.

But he added that white chocolate is one of the most fat and calorie-laden sweets in existence.

"There's no calories from looking!" Yosses chuckled.

Looking back...
Yosses joined the White House in 2006, but his first White House Gingerbread House was for Mrs. Bush's 2007 holiday celebration that had the theme "Holiday in the National Parks." It featured marzipan woodland creatures as well as the Bush Scotty dogs--Barney and Miss Beazley; thus Yosses' expertise in creating Bo. (Above: Yosses with Mrs. Bush and his first house)

Roland Mesnier created Mrs. Bush's 2006 house--even though he had already formally resigned his post.  The theme was "Deck The Halls and Welcome All," and every bit of it could be eaten, unlike the Yosses houses.

"It's all real. It's all edible. I actually had a piece of it," Mrs. Bush told reporters at that year's media preview. (Above: Mrs. Bush and Mesnier with the 2006 house; it was classic gingerbread, with brown walls and sugar trim snowflakes)

The bridge between two eras...
Mesnier was wooed back to the White House to make the 2006 Gingerbread House because in between the official end of Mesnier's reign and the start of the Yosses era, pastry chef Thaddeus R. DuBois worked briefly at the White House before fleeing back to private life.

DuBois created the 2005 White House Gingerbread House, and his single effort stands as a bridge between the Mesnier era and the Yosses era: It had gingerbread walls, but white chocolate architectural elements.

The house was a view of the North side of the White House, but the columns, the North Portico, and the roof were all made of white chocolate. The year's theme was "All Things Bright and Beautiful." (Above: DuBois with his creation)

DuBois is now a largely forgotten footnote in White House pastry history, but he's been extraordinarily successful as a private citizen, overseeing the chocolate operations at a major hotel.

*Top photo by Getty; Nixon photo courtesy of Nixon presidential Library; third photo, Bo photo & beehive photo by ObamaFoodorama; 2009 Gingerbread House by EGK/Obama Foodorama; Bush photos by Shealah Craighead/White House; China Room photo by HGTV