"Phenomenal," proclaimed First Lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday, as she described Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses' 2012 White House Gingerbread House to the military families invited to be the first to view this year's 'Joy to All' holiday decor. And it is phenomenal: The nearly 300-pound extravaganza is a North Portico view, and features a detailed candy replica of the Kitchen Garden, an oversized marzipan First Dog Bo, shadow box rooms with chocolate furniture, special photos in the windows, working electric lights, Santa and reindeer on the roof, and Christmas trees made of blown sugar globes.
Yosses' fourth house for the Obamas is not the largest he's created, but it is his masterpiece, made of traditional gingerbread overlaid with a special pale gray "speckled" bread (the recipe is here), with white chocolate columns.
"It’s beautiful," Mrs. Obama said, and noted that gingerbread White Houses have been a tradition since the 1960s. The house will be displayed on a marble-topped console table in the State Dining Room throughout the holiday season, a showstopper to delight the close to 90,000 guests who will visit in December. Mrs. Obama's decor theme is a joyous homage to military families, presidential history and holiday tradition, and the gingerbread house was designed to "celebrate the craftsmanship of the White House by those first builders," Yosses said. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her holiday remarks)
Rye, buckwheat, and whole wheat flour were used to create the gingerbread and "modified" gingerbread walls that replicate the special Aquia Creek sandstone from Virginia that was used to build architect James Hoban's real White House. The rye flour was pressed into the white chocolate North Portico columns, too, Yosses said.
The look is accurate to the color before the mansion was painted white in 1798 to protect the stone. "We matched the color from the unpainted parts of the walls that are down on the lower level," Yosses explained. He annually consults Hoban's plans during the building process. This year's North Portico view is his first on a gingerbread house for the Obamas. (Above: Yosses with Top Toque Cris Comerford)
The "spackle and mortar" that holds the gingerbread structure together are also white chocolate, and Yosses used silicon molds to create the architectural details around the windows and doors; that process alone took more than two days to set and harden. His previous three Obama Christmas houses were all white chocolate-covered gingerbread.
Yosses took photos of the Cross Hall, the Queen's Room, the Lincoln Bedroom and the Treaty Room, and real photos of some of the residence staff, including himself and Executive Chef Cris Comerford, and these create a personal and glimpse into White House life.
"We switched the rooms around a little bit, we took some liberties," Yosses laughed, noting that some of the photos in the windows are on the wrong floor.
Last year's house had shadow box views into the East Room, the Red Room, the Green Room and the State Dining Room, and this year's house does, too. The furniture that is visible is made of spun sugar and chocolate, with crystal chandeliers. Yosses submitted his elaborate ideas to the First Lady's office this summer, he said, and it was met with enthusiastic approval.
The candy version of Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden that sits on the left side of the house is exceptionally detailed this year. It is a winter garden, with tiny marzipan cool-season vegetables--kale, collard, mustard greens, cabbage, mache, parsnips, spinach, radish, onion, endive, lemongrass--in raised beds of chocolate dirt. There are tiny scripted row markers, and tiny hoop houses, too--special covers that sit over the crop rows in the real 1,500 square foot Kitchen Garden during the cold months. Of course, there is a marzipan beehive.
The garden "is very elaborate because it is the focus of our work here," Yosses said.
"It has been a huge part of life for Cris Comerford and myself, we use it every day, for First Family meals, for State Dinners...and we always use honey from the beehive, too."
Mixing the growing seasons, the garden replica also has sweet potatoes, berries, and the famed Jefferson fig tree, leafless. And if you look closely, there are beets, that controversial vegetable that the President and Mrs. Obama have both publicly said they gravely dislike: "People who love beets love them and people who hate beets can't stand them," Mrs. Obama announced in 2010. "Neither the President nor I have the beet gene."
But yes, beets have been grown in the Kitchen Garden, despite reports to the contrary. And now they're part of Christmas, too.
First Dog Bo is also a huge part of everyone's life at the White House, and he is recreated in an elaborate, oversized model. The Portuguese Water Dog, made of marzipan and gum paste, with fur that is "sprayed" on, would be about 30 feet tall if he were alive.
Just like in 2011, images of Bo are all over the holiday decor; child tour guests will be given a bookmark with a checklist to spot images of the First Dog around the mansion. A life-size version of Bo, wearing a Santa hat and made of 18,000 black pompoms and 2,000 white pom poms, is the centerpiece of the East Garden Room. More than 40 handmade “Bo-flake” ornaments hang from the 54 Christmas trees on display throughout the White House.
The decor in years past has been relatively low on Santa and reindeer imagery, but this year Santa and five reindeer, made of white chocolate, are on the roof of the gingerbread house. A snow globe starring Rudolph has pride of place in the Library.
The President and First Lady will "host holiday parties for volunteers, members of Congress, White House staff, Secret Service personnel, White House reporters and Americans from across the country," said an East Wing aide. About 14,000 people will attend the 24 White House dinners and receptions, and approximately 77,000 visitors will tour the mansion in December. Click here for a post about the holiday menus.
In years past, the White House Gingerbread House was sent across the street from 1600 Penn to the White House Visitors Center, so more people could see it. But the center is closed for renovations this year.
"We'll put the house down in the East Wing entrance after the holidays so visitors can see it," Yosses said. "But then we'll be getting ready for the inauguration, so that will be that."
*Click here for Yosses' recipe for White House Gingerbread Cookies. Click here for links to all posts about the 2012 holidays, including new holiday recipes for the home chef, craft projects, and holiday menus.
Update, Dec. 23, 2012: The White House released this behind-the-scenes video about the huge gingerbread construction project:
The 2011 White House Gingerbread House...
Yosses' 2011 White House Gingerbread House featured a South Portico view, and was a 400-pound showpiece with working lights, four fully furnished rooms, a replica of the Kitchen Garden and beehive, and a seated First Dog Bo. It was surrounded by a Christmas forest of trees made with macaroon cookies.
The 2010 White House Gingerbread House...
2010 White House Gingerbread House was solid white chocolate over gingerbread, and 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 also starred. Lit trees made from chocolate-dipped blooms from the President Andrew Jackson Magnolia trees on the White House campus were on the sides of the house.
The 2009 White House Gingerbread House...
The 2009 White House Gingerbread House was also solid white chocolate over gingerbread, with a South Portico view. It featured working lights, a shadow box view of the State Dining Room, a small Kitchen Garden replica, and a smallish Bo. Green chocolate Christmas wreaths hung over the windows.
Download: The Official White House Holiday Tour Booklet [PDF]
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama. With additional reporting by Marian Burros.