Thursday, December 12, 2013

Three Centuries Of American History In 300 Pounds: The 2013 Gingerbread White House

Morrison & Yosses with the history-laden showpiece
Gather Around: Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison dish the details on this year's incredible edible Executive Mansion... 
Washington, DC - There's much more than meets the eye in this year's carefully researched and meticulously hand-crafted White House Gingerbread House, which will be viewed by the tens of thousand of guests President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcome to their home this holiday season. 

Simultaneously elegant and sparkling with Christmas cheer, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses' 300 pound edible Executive Mansion pays homage to more than three centuries of American history and artisan food craft.  

The project "took weeks to build," Yosses told Obama Foodorama in a joint interview with Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison, who was by his side every step of the way, and is responsible for the very detailed sugar work.  

A working fountain, Bo & Sunny, electric lights, spun-sugar trees
In a first since Yosses became the Obamas' master builder--this is his fifth effort--the replica White House sits atop a life-sized fireplace covered with more than 1,200 Springerle cookies.  It pays homage to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats, as well as Mrs. Obama's holiday decor theme "Gather Around: Stories of the Season."  

The sugary showpiece displayed in the State Dining Room tells many stories as it includes a number of other firsts.

Based on architect James Hoban's plans for the White House, the replica features the North Portico view.  It includes a working fountain with real water bubbling up - "with a little blue food coloring," Yosses said, chuckling - with working electric lights inside and out, and sugar-transfer images in the lit windows.  

Bo, left, and Sunny are made of dark chocolate
First Dog Bo makes a star turn on the lawn, as he has every year since 2009.  For the first time, he's accompanied by his little "sister" Sunny, making her debut in the Christmas decor after joining the First Family last August. 

The two pooches "are made of dark chocolate," Morrison said, adding that she and the pastry team love the real First Dogs.

"They came to visit us during the construction, and decided to lick the side of the house," Morrison said, laughing. 

The chocolate Bo and Sunny would be about one story tall if they were living; Yosses has in the past referred to the oversized candy renditions of Bo as "Bozilla." The dog duo is also featured on the Obamas' Christmas card, and recreated as larger-than-life topiaries in the East Wing, made from more than 1,000 yards of silk ribbon.

About 70,000 guests will visit the White House for the holidays
The house is flanked by two tall Christmas trees covered with "sugar berries" and glittering, brightly colored blown-sugar ornaments, painstakingly made by Morrison.   

A talented artist who has been delighting Presidents and First Families since she joined the kitchen staff in 1995, Morrison and Yosses have been inseparable since he was appointed by First Lady Laura Bush in 2006.  

Yosses calls Morrison "my partner in crime," and they often finish each others' sentences, as they did when discussing this year's sugary masterpiece.   

Close-up of the sugar berries and ornaments on the Christmas trees
There are 65 ornaments on each lit Christmas tree, as well as "about a thousand sugar berries," Morrison said.    

The green spun-sugar Christmas "bushes" also glow with electric lights.  These are made of pulled sugar, with each layer being heated with a pastry blow torch and then pulled into shape.  It was hours and hours of labor for Morrison.

Furniture inside the mansion, too...
The interior of the mini White House is not easily visible thanks to the windows having sugar-transfer images of the First Family as well as aides, but it is also decorated.  

There are six green sugar Christmas trees with tiny multi-colored ornaments (dots of colored frosting), a chocolate Presidential Seal hanging over a doorway, just as it does over the Blue Room, red carpeting, and chocolate furniture, as well as working electric lights.

Two dozen Christmas trees decorate the public tour areas of the White House this year, with #25 in the First Family's Private Residence. 

The fountain has real running water
The pastry team was as busy as Santa's elves...
The construction process "was a real team effort," Yosses said, using the services of "nine members of the pastry shop" as well as carpenters, a plumber for the fountain, and an electrician to wire the lighting.  White House Curator Bill Allman was brought in for the historic research. 

It was also a real labor of love.  Building went on as the pastry team was in the midst of prepping for their busiest time of year, gearing up for the massive treat making that is necessary for President and Mrs. Obama's thousands of holiday party guests.   There are parties through December 20, and sometimes two a day.

Along with coconut, chocolate, gingerbread and carrot cakes, raspeberry trifles and Yule logs, pumpkin pies, pecan pies, cherry pies, and apple and huckleberry pies (two of President Obama's favorites, said Yosses), and vast, rich sticky toffee puddings, the pastry shop will be making, baking and decorating 25,000 cookies, Morrison said.  All by hand.

That's not a misprint.  The two most popular cookies are, of course, shaped like Bo and Sunny, each wearing a holiday-red dog collar.

Yosses lays gingerbread bricks on the wood fireplace frame
Wooden frames beneath the cookies and dough...
In another first, neither the mini White House nor the fireplace is completely edible.  The White House is made with a dough that uses white cake flour and white bread flour, Yosses said.  This is then layered over a wood frame, which includes a wood floor and roof. 

The fireplace is also a wood frame beneath the cookies, and has small metal wheels hidden underneath to make it easier to move.  Thus the carpenters as part of the construction crew; the work can be seen in a a time-lapse White House video of the building process at the end of this post.

It should be noted that calling the project the "White House Gingerbread House" is merely a nod to the tradition that began when First Lady Patricia Nixon featured a rustic A-frame gingerbread house in her unnamed holiday decor scheme.  It weighed a scant sixteen pounds, and there was no attempt to recreate the actual White House. 

That aesthetic was put into place after 1979, with the arrival of Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier.  During his quarter-century reign over the pastry shop, Mesnier's houses grew more elaborate each year.

Gingerbread is used only inside the Roosevelt fireplace
Gingerbread White House?  Not really...
Though he has a terrific White House gingerbread recipe that makes tasty cookies as well as lovely ornaments, Yosses has never been a fan of gingerbread for his holiday White Houses.  

His first three for the Obamas hid the gingerbread beneath dense layers of smooth white chocolate.  Last year's house was made with a "speckled decorative dough," which used buckwheat and rye flour to recreate the original Aquia Creek sandstone that is beneath the layers of white paint that give the Executive Mansion its name.

This year, the Roosevelt fireplace is the only place where gingerbread is used:  The interior is lined with gingerbread bricks, which Yosses laid into the wood frame with a thick "mortar" of molten chocolate, smoothing it with a trowel. 

The building took place in the China Room, which is located on the ground floor.  Painted red, the room features glass cases filled with priceless pieces from the Presidential china collections.  Despite that, it is often used as a work space, for big projects such as addressing invitations to State Dinners.  

A rubber mat and canvas tarps were laid over the floor to protect it as the pastry team turned the historic room into a hive of blow torching, chocolate melting, and sugar spinning.

The sugar tiles include cracks that are on Roosevelt's originals
President Roosevelt's Delft tiles...
While the body of the fireplace is built with the Springerle cookies, the fireplace opening is surrounded by square cookies that are replicas of the real Delft tiles that Roosevelt commissioned for his own White House fireplace. 

These "celebrate the stories of Washington, DC, and American history," Yosses said.  

The images include the Presidential Seal, the White House, the Lincoln memorial, and the Washington Monument.

These are exact sugar replicas made from photos of Roosevelt's real fireplace tiles, which curator Allman got from the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.   

Roosevelt passed away in April of 1945 before his fireplace was finished, but President Harry Truman had it installed in the White House Library, Yosses said.  It was later dismantled when Truman renovated the White House, and the tiles were then sent to Roosevelt's family home. 

So some of the sugar fireplace tiles even feature cracks that occurred when the real tiles were removed during Truman's renovation, "to be historically accurate," Yosses said.

To make the tiles, the photo images were put on projector paper, Yosses said: "We poured sugar on it and then peeled it off."   

The same process was used for the images in the White House windows.  

The Springerle molds feature Christmas images & honey bees
An homage to German food artisans....
The Springerle cookies that make up the bulk of the fireplace date back to 1710, when German immigrants moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Yosses said, bringing with them the tradition of flat cookies made in hand-carved wooden molds, beloved in Austria and Bavaria for centuries.

"Each family had their own molds with images that told the stories of births, betrothals, and weddings," Yosses said.  

He selected molds that reference Christmas:  A wreath, a stag, a nutcracker, and Father Christmas himself.  There's also a cookie mold that features a bee, a beehive and a beekeeper, a reference to the real beehive that is on the White House grounds, installed at Mrs. Obama's behest in 2009 beside her famous Kitchen Garden.  

"Between five and ten pounds of honey from the beehive was used" for the cookies, Yosses said. 

Last year's house used thirty pounds of honey, but this year the cookies "are not very sweet," Yosses said. 

The fireplace cookies were dried "for seven days before being baked at a very low heat," Morrison said.  For just about twenty minutes: The low heat ensures the cookies harden but do not brown.

Check out Yosses' White House recipe for decorative Springerle cookies; it calls for baking at 250 degrees.  He's also shared his White House recipe for edible Springerle cookies, which uses sugar and flavoring.

The cookie molds were purchased in Lancaster, Yosses said, and are available online by mail order for interested home chefs.  More holiday recipes are on the site sidebar.

A blessing from President Adams is front and center
A blessing from President Adams...
The fireplace also features an inscription plaque made of sugar placed front and center on the mantle, with a quote in scrolling script from President John Adams.  

America's second Chief Executive, Adams was the first to live in what at the time was called "The President's House."  He moved into the unfinished mansion on Nov. 1, 1800.

The next day, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail Adams, and the fireplace quote is from that epistle.

"Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it.  May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof," Adams wrote.

The next honest and wise man moved in just months later, when Adams lost his re-election bid to President Thomas Jefferson.

Mrs. Obama with military guests invited to view the decor
A nod to past White House tradition, but no candy Kitchen Garden...
In yet another first, Mrs. Obama is the lone First Lady who has not posed for a formal photo with any of her Gingerbread White Houses, a longstanding tradition that Mrs. Obama eliminated in 2009.  The photo above, taken when Mrs. Obama unveiled her decor, is as close as it gets.  The height of the edifice can be seen:  Mrs. Obama is 5'11''.

There's one more detail on the fireplace that is something that perhaps only First Families, White House staffers, and those obsessed with traditions at 1600 Penn can appreciate.  

Previous gingerbread  houses have always been displayed on an antique console table in the State Dining Room, which has a marble top that's mottled with brown veins.  The top of the fireplace recreates the marble. 

It was made with poured molten sugar, then fired with a blow torch to give the look of the marble veining.  Like the decorated but barely visible interior of the White House replica, this detail speaks to the obsessive artistry and attention to detail of Yosses and his crew. 

A rope keeps the President and Mrs. Obama's guests from nibbling
The house and fireplace sit beneath the same golden, wreath-bedecked mirror where the marble-topped console table and past houses have always been located.  On display during the holiday parties, it features a log with a fire made of hardened sugar in the fireplace.  There's also a golden rope stung in front of the structure so guests do not touch it.

A final first:  For the first time since 2009, this year the replica is missing the marzipan, sugar paste and chocolate version of Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, which was a key feature of Yosses' previous four houses.

The garden "is in the back of the house," Yosses joked.  "You just can't see it."

At 300 pounds, this year's project is not the heaviest Yosses has made; his house in 2009 weighed 390 pounds, while the 2010 and 2011 houses weighed 400 pounds.  Last year's weighed close to 300 pounds.  But this year's project is the tallest, thanks to the fireplace, which makes it more than six feet tall including the candy American flag that waves on top.

The ghosts of gingerbread houses past...
Though Yosses joined the White House kitchen in 2006, his first gingerbread house was for Mrs. Bush's seasonal celebration in 2007, themed "Holiday in the National Parks."  The mansion was covered in white chocolate, and featured marzipan woodland creatures as well as the Bush family's Scotty dogs.   

In reverse order, Yosses' four houses for the Obamas:

The 2012 White House
2012: Joy To All
Yosses'  2012 White House Gingerbread House was a gingerbread base covered in what he dubbed "speckled decorative dough," designed to look like the Virginia sandstone that is beneath the white paint that covers the Executive Mansion.  The nearly 300-pound extravaganza was Yosses' first North Portico view, and had white chocolate columns.  

It featured a very detailed candy replica of Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, which included the hoop houses that cover the plot in winter.

There was also an oversized candy Bo, and shadow box views of the East Room and the State Dining Room, which featured chocolate furniture and special photos in the windows, made with sugar transfers of real photos.  It featured working electric lights, Santa and his reindeer on the roof, and Christmas trees made of blown sugar globes.  CLICK HERE  for Yosses' recipe for the speckled decorative dough.

The 2011 White House
2011:  Shine, Give, Share
Yosses' 2011 White House Gingerbread House featured a South Portico view, and was a 400-pound showpiece of gingerbread covered in white chocolate.  It had working lights, four fully furnished rooms, a replica of Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden and beehive, and a seated Bo.  

The house was surrounded by a forest of Christmas trees made with macaroon cookies.  About thirty pounds of honey from the White House beehive was used to create the house, as it was for the 2009 and 2010 houses. 

The 2010 White House
2010: Simple Gifts
Yosses' 2010 White House Gingerbread House was solid white chocolate over gingerbread, and weighed 400 pounds.  It featured a South Portico view with two shadow-box rooms, the East Room and the State Dining Room.  There were working lights, and a large marzipan Bo.   

A rendition of Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden in chocolate and marzipan included the beehive that sits nearby, complete with tiny bees.  The house itself was made with 30 pounds of honey from the beehive.

Lit trees made from chocolate-dipped magnolia blooms were on the sides of the house.   These were actually taken from the magnolia trees planted by President Andrew Jackson on the White House campus.  

The 2009 White House
2009: Reflect, Rejoice, Renew
The 2009 White House Gingerbread House was Yosses' first for the President and Mrs. Obama.

It was also solid white chocolate over gingerbread, with a South Portico view.  It weighed 390 pounds, with 250 pounds of chocolate and 140 pounds of gingerbread.

The house featured working lights, a shadow box view of the State Dining Room, and a small Kitchen Garden replica, the first, because Mrs. Obama had launched her garden in 2009.  There was a smallish marzipan Bo, and green chocolate Christmas wreaths hung over the windows. 

Yosses with Mrs. Bush and his first Gingerbread White House in 2007
*Photos and text by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama, except for last photo, courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library