Gingerbread White House

Every holiday season, the first family's pastry chef builds a gingerbread White House. Food Network Magazine found out how it happens. Illustrations by Tom Garrett.

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White House executive pastry chef Bill Yosses starts brainstorming gingerbread plans in July. The White House has had a gingerbread house every year since 1969, though early versions were basic and only about 2 feet tall. Former executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier upped the ante when he created a massive White House replica in 1993, and pastry chefs have outdone themselves ever since. "We're up to a 400-pound monster," says Yosses, who started making the houses in 2007.

Yosses tweaks his designs throughout August and September, incorporating elements that are unique to the current administration, like Bo, the Obamas' dog, and the White House Kitchen Garden. Yosses submits ideas to the first lady's office for approval. It's a thorough vetting process: Once, Laura Bush's office asked to see the list of titles that Mesnier planned to put in the gingerbread library to ensure none of them were controversial.

In October, Yosses and assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison consult the original White House architectural drawings from 1791 so they can accurately shrink it down. Meanwhile, they start baking 2-foot-long sheets of gingerbread, which they then let dry and harden for weeks.

When the gingerbread has hardened, Yosses uses a band saw to cut the pieces to size. Shortly afterward, he, Morrison and local chocolatier Chris Phillips start creating architectural elements, like intricate moldings, out of white chocolate. They also carve furniture from dark chocolate or gum paste, make gelatin windows and re-create landscaping details out of marzipan and royal icing.

Although the president doesn't attend gingerbread-house planning meetings, he sometimes comments on specific parts he likes. Word gets back to Yosses, who then accentuates or adds more of the commander in chief's favorite features.

In the last few days of construction, Yosses' team works around the clock: They add a white chocolate coating to the walls and assemble the main structure. The furniture is placed, then an electrician installs the lighting, the only nonedible part. The house is then moved to the State Dining Room, which is no easy feat: Last year's creation contained 33 pounds of icing, 15 pounds of marzipan, 150 pounds of chocolate and 200 pounds of gingerbread.

About 85,000 tourists get to see the gingerbread house when it's on display. To be one of them, you have to contact a local Congress member up to six months in advance and request a White House tour. During the season, Yosses performs routine maintenance, like fixing cracks in the walls and replacing burned-out bulbs. Last year, one of the ceilings collapsed. "Redoing that was not easy," he says. "It was like surgery."