The White House in Gingerbread

Having decorated for Christmas at the White House for several years, my fondest memories of the time spent there is the official unveiling  of the intricately detailed candy-adorned gingerbread house.

Bo, Obama’s dog, is posing in front of the 2011 gingerbread White House during the Obama years, the first year I decorated there
Pastry Chef, Susan Morrison, putting finishing touches on Obama’s gingerbread house, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

Gingerbread Construction & Placement

The annual tradition occurs around the last day that we are feverishly decorating, when the enormous and very heavy piece of confection is wheeled into place in the State Dining Room and placed on a mahogany eagle console situated in front of the huge pier mirror. The First Lady always approves the decorating theme and the gingerbread house before the kitchen starts.

The gingerbread house in 2018 represented the Mall in DC

A concealing portable screen is set in front to hide it but I always peered around the corner to see what special surprise the pastry chef designed for that year. Each year, I was in awe of the heights of fancy and attention to detail that the gingerbread house displayed. Hidden from full view until the press preview and the grand reveal party, the Gingerbread creation is months long in the making. Starting with precise CAD drawings, these works of art are put together in the plastic-lined China Room that serves as a adjunct kitchen and wheeled into place when completed. The existing pastry kitchen is too small to accommodate the busy work of gluing together walls, icing the intricate designs, and construction. Band saws, measuring and cutting tools, commercial mixers, and chocolate warmers are all needed to make a successful gingerbread house.

The small kitchen is overwhelmed with all the cookie and treat production for Christmas, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

Where Does It Go After Christmas?

Celebrated with glittering decor, decadent desserts, and great fanfare, the gingerbread house is always the ‘piece de resistance’ of all holiday desserts. And is it consumed?? I asked the pastry chef one year what happened to the retired gingerbread house after Christmas, and she replied with a coy smile “that it goes to the North Pole!”

An early 1975 A-Frame gingerbread house, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
Detail of the fanciful trees decorating the Obama Gingerbread house
During LBJ’s presidency in 1968, this is one of the earliest gingerbread houses, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

History of Holiday Sweets

A recipe for soft gingerbread appeared in the earliest American cookbooks and early First Ladies had their own family recipes. First Ladies Martha Washington and Dolley Madison both used their own soft gingerbread cake recipes and you can still buy soft gingerbread in historic Williamsburg as part of Americana. As early as 1929, First Lady Lou Hoover decorated a tree with gingerbread men and horses and in 1965, Lady Bird Johnson decorated the Blue Room Christmas tree with gingerbread cookies. Assistant Executive Chef Hans Raffert in 1969 started the Gingerbread tradition with a German A-frame style gingerbread house added to the Nixon family decorations.

Reagan era Gingerbread house, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

Through the years, the gingerbread house has morphed into enormous assemblages of gingerbread, chocolate, and marzipan that bear little resemblance to the simplicity of the original A-frame. For example, in 2019, The State Dining Room paid tribute to significant American landmarks with historic places reflected in both ornaments and gingerbread. The gingerbread house featured replicas of the White House’s South Portico, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Space Needle, Mount Rushmore, the Alamo, the Gateway Arch, the Liberty Bell, and the Statue of Liberty. The White House pastry team used 200 pounds of gingerbread dough, 125 pounds of pastillage dough, 35 pounds of chocolate, and 25 pounds of royal icing to recreate these iconic American landmarks.

‘Spirit of America’ was the theme in 2019 and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge was represented in gingerbread, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

How It All Starts

Beginning in June, the White House kitchen starts preparing a half ton of fruit cakes that will be refrigerated so that the flavors can mature. Then the preparations for all the cookie dough will start. Cookie dough is made and then frozen so it can be brought out later to bake fresh during the holiday season. While working at The White House, I binged on many decorated sugar cookies that were fed to hungry volunteers and always admired the intricate decorating – works of art!

Yum! These are as good as they look!!
Served at a White House reception that I attended
This dark chocolate Gingerbread House featured both the West Wing and East Wing for the first time (2015) and was surrounded by nutcrackers
Detail of the marzipan wreath
Closeup of the large nutcrackers done in marzipan
A simple A-Frame German gingerbread house during the Nixon era- photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

I think my favorite White House Gingerbread House was ‘All Creatures Great & Small’ done at the direction of Laura Bush. Featured on the porches and grounds were marzipan figures of presidential pets. There were lots of cats and dogs, but also included were Caroline Kennedy’s pony and John Quincy Adams’s pet alligator! And did you know that Grace Coolidge had a pet racoon named Rebecca? They were all there.

‘All Creatures Great & Small’ Gingerbread House, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

Make Your Own

I have made many gingerbread houses over the years – this is one of my favorites

To learn how Roland Mesnier, pastry chef for five presidents, makes a simple gingerbread cottage, with step by step instructions and images, go to How to Make Your Own Gingerbread Cottage. 

I also own Roland Mesnier’s book White House in Gingerbread: Memories & Recipes, and here is the recipe he used:

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 5 ounces molasses (liquid measure)
  • 5 ounces honey (liquid measure)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ginger
  • 1/3 teaspoon salt
  • 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  1. Mix all ingredients together in the order listed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
  2. Let the dough rest and firm up in the refrigerator overnight.

Shaping & Baking Gingerbread Sheets

  • Once the gingerbread dough has rested and chilled overnight in the refrigerator, you are ready to shape it for baking. You will be creating a supply of gingerbread “wood” from which to cut out the pieces of the house. When baking in the home kitchen, you should use a flat 12 x 18 inch baking pan—the half size of a professional pan. These pans are readily available at stores and fit most home ovens. It is important that your sheets of gingerbread be smooth, of uniform thickness, and perfectly flat. In order to be successful, you must use flat baking pans. Consider buying a few new baking pans if yours are worn. In the end, you will be glad you did.
  • The gingerbread dough must be rolled flat to a uniform thickness. The gingerbread used for the walls of the house should be 3/8 to 1/2 inches thick. The gingerbread used for the roof should be 3/8 inch thick. To achieve these precise widths, buy two wooden boards that are the thickness of the walls and the roof. To roll out the dough, begin by placing parchment paper on a flat surface. Dust the paper with flour to prevent the dough from sticking, and then place a brick of dough in center of the parchment paper with your two boards placed at either end of the paper. Put another sheet of parchment paper on top of the dough and, using a rolling pin, roll the dough down to the thickness of the wooden boards. Trim the edges of the dough to fit in the sheet pan. Using the bottom paper, lift the dough and place both the paper and the dough into the sheet pan. Remove the top paper.
  • Dock the dough by pricking holes with a fork all over the top. This will allow steam to escape and help the gingerbread to bake flat. If you do not dock the dough, you will get large bubbles in your gingerbread. Rest the dough in the refrigerator for one hour.
  • Bake at 350 degrees. A half sheet of dough will take about 25 minutes to bake. It is important to bake the dough fully. Bake it to be very dry, as the completed gingerbread house will absorb moisture on humid days. Toward the end of baking, prop the oven door open with a small ball of aluminum foil to allow the steam to escape from the oven. When done, remove the pan from the oven and let the baked dough dry on the sheet pan.

Mesniers’ book has lots of other decadent dessert recipes that he created while at The White House.

Putting finishing touches on a gingerbread house at one of my gingerbread parties

Gingerbread House Reflects the First Family

Such delicious outlets for creativity, the gingerbread house always reflects the presidential family living in the White House and includes pets, gardens, and the decor used for the real White House. For instance, in 2017 and 2018, the gingerbread house was a simple and elegant creation with no extra frills, but showed that each window was decorated with a simple evergreen wreath with an elegant red bow, just like in the real White House.

Installing all the window wreaths at the White House in 2017
White House in gingerbread with green wreaths in each window, 2017
Detail of The White House in 2019, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

Gallery of Past White House Gingerbread Houses

This photograph of the 2018 White House Gingerbread House was taken by Matthew D’Agostino on November 20, 2018. This gingerbread house was expanded to include replicas of major monuments in Washington, D.C. and the Capitol. For their second holiday season in the White House, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump chose the theme “American Treasures” for their decor. “American Treasures” was inspired by the heart and spirit of America and featured other White House traditions including the historic 18th-century Neapolitan crèche in the East Room, the Blue Room Christmas tree, and the Cranberry Tree in the Red Room. Over 200 hundred volunteers assisted in the decoration of the White House. The decorations included 55 Christmas trees, 105 of Mrs. Trump’s signature wreaths, and more than 20,000 feet of lights. Photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
Laura Bush’s red and white Gingerbread house, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
In this photograph, White House Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier and First Lady Laura Bush talk to reporters in the State Dining Room about the White House gingerbread house during a press preview in December 2001. Inspired by the theme “Home for the Holidays,” Mesnier recreated the White House as it would have looked during John Adam’s presidency in 1800. Photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
Photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
Photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
This photograph of the White House gingerbread house in the State Dining Room was taken on November 29, 2016. The gingerbread house consisted of 150 pounds of gingerbread, 100 pounds of bread dough, 20 pounds of gum paste, 20 pounds of icing, and 20 pounds of sculpted sugar pieces. The holiday theme for 2016 was “The Gift of the Holidays” celebrating the gift of family and friends, reflection and remembrance, and excitement and cheer. The was reflected throughout the White House by LEGO houses representing the 56 states and territories of the United States, decorations using 90 percent recycled and repurposed materials, and a 19 foot Balsam fir showcased in the Blue Room. Photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
Clinton examining his boyhood home created in Gingerbread, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
Each year Chef Roland Mesnier selected a different subject to portray in gingerbread. This gingerbread White House from 1993, built to scale for the Clintons, was titled “The House of Socks.” It featured twenty-two marzipan sculptures of the first family’s famous cat. Photo from The white House Historical Association digital archives
An enormous white chocolate house during the Bush administration, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library
Clinton era gingerbread, photo from The White House Historical Association digital library

 

 

6 Replies to “The White House in Gingerbread”

  1. Claire, thank you for all that you do. Your blog brightens many lives and we learn so much from reading your helpful tips and artful ideas. Have a blessed Christmas and a healthy New Year.

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