Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses On The Record: The 2011 White House Gingerbread House

This year's 400-pound showpiece has working lights, four fully furnished rooms, a replica of the Kitchen Garden, First Dog Bo, and a Christmas forest...
Were he alive today, White House architect James Hoban might be stunned to discover that his most famous building is annually re-created in gingerbread for Christmas at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The tradition became a yearly part of holiday celebrations when Roland Mesnier, who ruled the pastry kitchen for more than a quarter of a century, made houses each Christmas during the Carter Administration. Mesnier's houses became more and more elaborate over the ensuing Presidencies, but his successor, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, has taken the building project to a whole new level. All five of Yosses' White House Gingerbread Houses have been covered in white chocolate, and the 2011 house is his best and most detailed effort yet.

Every element is edible, with the exception of the working electric lighting that's inside and outside. There are four interior rooms, a model of First Lady Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden and beehive, First Dog Bo, and a forest of Christmas trees. Displayed on a marble-topped console table in the State Dining Room throughout the holiday season, the house is a showstopper that delights children and adults.

Yosses (l) first came to the White House at the invitation of First Lady Laura Bush for the 2006 holiday season. But he built his first Gingerbread House for Christmas 2007; Mesnier came out of retirement specifically to do the 2006 house, Yosses told Obama Foodorama. "What a relief!" Yosses added; the idea of building such a grand project during his debut months was apparently a bit daunting, even for someone who was already an acclaimed pastry chef, hailed for work that was described as "unfailingly elegant, restrained and imaginative."

Each of Yosses' three houses for President Obama and Mrs. Obama have all been the same view of the South Portico because "it got great feedback," Yosses said.

The pastry master references copies of Hoban's original building sketches as he works. The white chocolate architectural details, such as columns, banisters, and rosettes, are poured in special molds, and are historically accurate. Yosses began his culinary career while living in France, and was mentored by Pierre Herme, the nation's premier pastry chef. It was then that he learned the arts of chocolate decor and sugar blowing. (Above: A view of the left side of the house)

Building the White House Gingerbread House takes months, and Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison acts as "general contractor." The gingerbread was baked in late September, in order to allow it to go stale and become hard. It's more than an inch thick, and so hard a band saw is used to cut the walls and roof, Yosses said. The recipe is the same used for the White House Gingerbread Cookies, but on a far larger scale.

The project is a group effort for White House staff that extends beyond the pastry kitchen. The house is assembled in the China Room, a ground-floor room where presidential china is displayed year-round in lit cabinets (the room is currently being used for the holiday tour, and features a Christmas dinner table set with the Clinton State China).

"We have the electricians do the lighting," Yosses said. The working lights inside and out are environmentally friendly, and glow softly. "Plumbers, carpenters, engineers get in on it, too."

The 2011 house weighs about 400 pounds, and is 41 inches wide and 22 inches deep. Its four furnished rooms are two more than were in the 2010 Gingerbread House, which had shadow-box views of the State Dining Room and the East Room. Those rooms are also in the 2011 house, but so are the Green Room and the Red Room, drawing rooms on the State Floor. All are visible through windows covered with clear-sugar panes. (Above: The State Dining Room and Red Room are visible through the window behind Bo, as are working silver floodlights)

"The Social Office wanted us to develop new rooms, so it was more like a Christmas doll house," Yosses explained.

The 2009 Gingerbread House had only the State Dining Room visible as a shadow box. This year, the interior furnishings, including sofas, tables, and paintings, are made of white and dark chocolate, with marzipan and food coloring for accents. The details are "very time consuming," Yosses said.

"It takes a lot of patience to get shape and proportion right."

Bo is depicted in many incarnations in the 2011 holiday decor, thanks to the fact that "he's the most famous member of the Obama family," according to the First Lady, who selected "Shine, Give, Share," as her theme, designed to honor military families. Yosses dubbed his 2010 marzipan and gum paste rendition of the First Dog "Bozilla" because he was oversized; his head went up to the second story of the house. This year's Bo is Bozilla on steroids: He's even larger, and would be about the size of a Chevy Yukon if he was real.

"If Bo looks a little fluffier, it's because we used royal icing, so he can be shaped more precisely," Yosses said.

Bo is indeed fluffier. In 2009, Bo was far smaller, but his larger-than-life depiction is a metaphor for his importance to the Obama household, Yosses said last year.

The Kitchen Garden and the beehive...
The model of the Kitchen Garden, created with marzipan, sugar and gum paste, shows the South Lawn garden in winter. The beds are in chocolate powder dirt, and are covered with sheets of pastry to replicate the protective hoop houses that cover the real garden so it can grow vegetables year-round. Two other boxed beds, made of chocolate, are "dormant" for the season, and covered with "straw." There's a line of winter lettuces visible, as well as the composter that sits beside the garden. (Above: The garden and the beehive)

Tiny shovels sit in the chocolate dirt, and dark chocolate squares are used for the slate stepping stones in the real garden. The White House beehive has also been replicated.

Yosses routinely uses honey from the beehive for his many desserts. The hive is the first to ever be on the White House grounds, and is depicted complete with tiny bees. The yellow line on the candy beehive is actually a strap that's on the real beehive. It's designed to keep the hive in place so it doesn't blow over when President Obama arrives on the South Lawn in his helicopter, Marine One. (Above: The bees are visible on the beehive)

About thirty pounds of honey was used to make the Gingerbread House, as it was in 2009 and 2010.

The Christmas forest...
The forest of four Christmas trees on each side of the house is a new addition for 2011. The cone-shaped trees are made with white and dark chocolate macaroons and marzipan, as well as molded fruit, and wrapped with sparkling ribbons and dusted with silvery sugar powder.

"Bushes" along each side of the house are created with real Magnolia flowers. These are taken from South Lawn bushes planted from President Andrew Jackson's Magnolia tree that still stands on the White House grounds. Each is dipped in green chocolate, and embellished with red chocolate "flowers." (Above: The Christmas trees and Magnolia bushes on the right side of the house)

While the house is made of edible materials, it is not intended to actually be eaten. All the same, each year, architectural elements have gone missing, Yosses said, either eaten or taken by tour guests as "souvenirs."

"We notice sometimes a few pieces missing like parapets and windowsills and pediments, so we make extras and they can be replaced right away," Yosses said.

More than 85,000 visitors will tour the White House during the holiday season. A few thousand more will attend between 15-18 open houses and receptions that the President and Mrs. Obama will host.

Not the heaviest White House Gingerbread House...
At 400 pounds, the 2011 house is not the heaviest Yosses has created, he said: The open interior spaces for the four rooms reduces the weight. Yosses' heaviest house was built in 2008 for the last Christmas of the Bush presidency; the whopping 475 pounder, for "A Red, White and Blue Christmas," was 350 pounds of gingerbread and 125 pounds of white chocolate. The Bush family pets were in a rooftop sleigh, and an Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, all edible, marched in front. Mrs. Bush dubbed the house "unbelievable" and "beautiful." (Above: A view of the house from the right side)

The White House Gingerbread House is usually sent to the White House Visitors Center after the holidays, where it is put on display so more people can see it. But this year, there's another exhibit, and the final destination for the masterpiece is still undecided. (Above: Yosses, Morrison, and pastry chef Chris Philips assembling last year's house in the China Room)

Yosses, the cookbook author...
Last summer, Yosses published "The Perfect Finish," a collection of recipes from his vast personal repertoire. Co-authored with Melissa Clark, it's loaded with delicious creations that are accompanied by detailed instructions and beautiful photos, and makes a terrific holiday gift. It was the first cookbook published by any White House chef while "still in office." Before he began at the White House, Yosses also published "Desserts for Dummies." Despite its title, it's a very good book, too.

The 2010 White House Gingerbread House:

Check the sidebar of the blog under "Dessert Recipes" for all of Yosses' White House creations that have been publicly released.

The 2009 White House Gingerbread House:

*With additional reporting by Marian Burros.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama. China Room photo from HGTV.