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Preface - The White House in Gingerbread

Memories & Recipes

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Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier introduced themed gingerbread houses to the White House holidays. His first display, for the George H. W. Bush family, was an American Christmas Village, with five gingerbread houses in a wintry setting. Here he adds finishing touches while his assistant, Marlene Roudebush forms a marzipan Santa Claus.

Courtesy of Roland Mesnier

My memories transport me back to a time, just a few years ago and a few days before Christmas, when I was the White House executive pastry chef and the annual White House holiday parties have come to an end. We are busily cleaning the Pastry Shop. This is the time of year we go through everything—every refrigerator, walk-in cooler, freezer, and cabinet. Leftover cookies, cakes, and chocolate will be given to the White House staff as a way to say “thank you” for working so hard to make the holiday events a success and to make the holidays a little sweeter for their families who have not seen much of them since Thanksgiving. After a short break, we will get back to work planning the next events of the new year. As always, Christmas will consume a big part of the Pastry Shop’s time in the coming year.

We will go through a list of all the things that need to be addressed, changed, or improved upon. I will even begin planning for next Christmas by reviewing the dessert menu and considering new desserts and decorations for trays and tables.

My memories now take me to a June day when it is time for holiday baking to start. We gather all the ingredients—the nuts and the dried, candied, and macerated fruits necessary to bake a half ton of fruit cakes. We will begin baking fruit cakes soon, even though it is early summer. The finished cakes will be refrigerated—the longer the better for the flavor to mature. Although the holiday baking is officially under way, it must be timed to accommodate the constant flow of official, ceremonial, and private events such as State Dinners, receptions, and first family gatherings. As the weeks go by, we will ease into making and shaping the many varieties of cookies that will be frozen and then baked fresh throughout the holiday season. We start with macaroons, leckerlis, and Florentines.

While we attend to the daily entertaining requirements of the house, we cannot ignore the fact that we are getting closer to the holidays. The Pastry Kitchen is small, so we need to be working from a perfect master plan to accommodate the amount of work required. We must constantly be aware of the need to produce more and more desserts. As we get closer to the holidays we start baking and freezing sheet pans lined with pâte sucrée, sponge cakes, and roulade biscuits for the buche de Noel as well as rings of banana, carrot, and pumpkin cakes. We will make gallons of ganache, mousse, buttercream, and bavarians that are needed to fill and glaze the cakes, and many different flavors of buche de Noel with endless marzipan decorations. During these early months of holiday preparations, the Pastry Shop remains ready to bake for all events on the White House agenda. As we get closer to the holidays we will start baking stollen, panettone, savarin rings, and, last but not least, the twenty-five to thirty full sheet pans of gingerbread needed for constructing the annual showpiece. By now my Pastry Shop assistants have been working for several months to make hundreds of edible decorations out of marzipan, pastillage, royal icing, and chocolate.

And now I am seeing the beginning of November. Things are shifting into high gear. I am hiring part-time workers to help with the increasing work load. This is the time of the year when I concentrate my energy on the special gingerbread house—a project anticipated throughout the White House. The plans for the house have been brought together and adjustments made on the design until the first lady approves.

Now we are ready to build, and our temporary work space is set up in the China Room on the Ground Floor of the White House near the kitchen. The floors and furniture are protected with plastic sheeting, and long worktables are brought in along with the tools needed to create the large-scale gingerbread house—a large band saw, measuring and cutting instruments, a commercial mixer, a personal pastry toolbox, and several chocolate warmers. Construction continues nonstop until about Thanksgiving, when the Operations Crew safely moves the finished gingerbread house to the State Dining Room. Once the gingerbread house is set up, we are now ready for visitors.

The first event of the season is the press preview. Here the first lady unveils the Christmas decorations and the gingerbread house to everyone. The Flower Shop, Electric Shop, carpenters, and plumbers at the White House do a superb job. They are a talented group of dedicated professionals. The first lady leads the press on a tour through the White House and takes questions about the decorations.

Afterward there will be a party for the press preview and the amount of food and drink guests consume is over the top. My calculations for the Pastry Shop were accurate—at least five pieces of cake or cookies per person. In reality, during the three holiday weeks we will serve about 35,000 guests.

Today I am retired, and it is pleasure to share my memories and recipes from the twenty-five years I spent at the White House. Chef Mark Ramsdell and I hope your White House invitation will soon be in the mail for the holiday, but in case it does not arrive, we hope you will enjoy the White House Christmas through this book.

“For the Clintons’ first Christmas at the White House, I decided to create a gingerbread house that would make their family feel welcome, and so I made the House of Socks as a tribute to their family cat named Socks, a black and white former stray.” — Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier

Courtesy of Roland Mesnier