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Gingerbread Wizardry at the Other White House

Jordan Wright
The Georgetowner and Downtowner
November 2009

Chef Mesnier with his gingerbread house - photo credit Jordan Wright

Chef Mesnier with his gingerbread house - photo credit Jordan Wright

“And had I but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.”

So penned Shakespeare in Love’s Labours Lost back in the holly jolly days of the 16th Century. But a pretty penny indeed it would cost him when the heady and alluring cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice used to make gingerbread were far less affordable and available to the masses than they are today.

But it wasn’t until its first publishing on December 20, 1812, when Die Gebruders Grimm spun their fable of Hansel and Gretel with its lure of candy cottages in the Bavarian forest that gingerbread houses began to emerge as a symbol for Christmas.

From the Black Forest of Germany to within ten miles of The White House there lies another famous colonial white house with an older provenance—George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon, an especially enchanting destination over the Christmas holidays.

When I arrived last week I met up with Roland Mesnier, formerly the White House Pastry Chef for 25 years. Chef Mesnier, the uber sweetsmeister and cookbook author who launched the first pastry course at L’Academie de la Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, has been called upon to craft a gingerbread replica of Mount Vernon in perfect detail. Chef Mesnier employed the same level of perfection to this house as he did as The White House Pastry Chef. “The White House was a big production place. Everything should be the very best. If it’s not the best at The White House where else is it going to be the best!” exclaims Chef Mesnier.

The grounds of this gingerbread house features the estate’s farmyard animals, a tree with an American eagle roosting in it, and the iconic dove of peace weathervane—even George and Martha decked out in Colonial attire—all chiseled out of marzipan. Here are some fascinating facts about the Mount Vernon gingerbread house replica:

The 5 x 8 foot replica began last month.

Chef Mesnier checks the angles of his gingerbread house at Mount Vernon - photo credit Jordan Wright

Chef Mesnier checks the angles of his gingerbread house at Mount Vernon - photo credit Jordan Wright

It took 325 pounds of gingerbread and 70 pounds of chocolate to glue the house together. A full pan of gingerbread is baked and cut, after it cools, according to a pattern.

“Equatorial Noir” chocolate from Valrhona with 55 percent of cocoa solids is employed. Every piece of gingerbread is slathered with melted chocolate over its interior side using an offset spatula. This gives it strength.

To achieve a perfect edge-to-edge fit an industrial band saw is used to cut the gingerbread. In any event, the vagaries of humidity can change the properties of the gingerbread causing it to shrink. “There are so many simple things that can totally change the outcome of your dessert,” he offers. (Sound of forehead slap here.)

No interior support system is employed. No cardboard or underpinnings are utilized whatsoever.

Marzipan roof shingles are first tinted terra cotta and flattened with a rolling pin, then cut with a cookie cutter into small circles. Modeling marzipan is used.

Shredded phyllo dough is used to replicate straw.

Handyman’s tools are de rigeur. A level is used to check the slant of the edges.

The gingerbread is made from scratch using the finest ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, baking powder, honey, ginger, molasses, cloves, and cinnamon. (Long ago rosewater and ground almonds were sometimes added. My tasting determined Mesnier’s gingerbread to be divinely delicious—especially with the chocolate backing.) He exclaims, “If I have to use anything less, I’m not doing it!”

Marlene Roudevush, his former White House assistant pastry chef, assisting him with the Mount Vernon gingerbread house replica, creates her figures using Confiseur D’Or Swiss modeling marzipan and applies the royal icing to the house. For that she uses a pastry bag made out of parchment paper with a little hole nipped out by scissors. “We always make our own, ” she asserts. Her research tells her that President Washington bred American Foxhounds and was fond of camels. Martha also claimed a parrot as a favored pet. All of which Chef Roudevush will add to the menagerie.

Many years ago I designed a gingerbread house for Grandma’s House for a fundraising auction in advance of a gala at the Four Seasons Georgetown. There were twenty or so entrants, the preponderance of them, architects. I decided upon Noah’s Ark, replete with wildlife duos and gummy fish aswim in the surrounding sea. Arriving with my humble ark, I saw gingerbread houses featuring minutely detailed colonial buildings with mullions and cobweb windows that could have been registered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It seems my cohorts had chosen a more traditional route.

But it was all about the attempt, I reckoned, and moreover, I learned that gingerbread shrinks…a lot…and buckles with the heat of baking, and no amount of royal icing can cure that. I had a few unresolved personal baking queries for the President of Pastry, and I wanted them on the down low. Monsieur Mesnier was only too delighted to oblige.

I collected a few pearls of pastry wisdom from the master:

“My philosophy on baking is very simple. Measure everything the night before and leave it out on your kitchen counter, even the eggs and the butter. The next morning you will mix your cake in a few minutes because everything is the same temperature, and it will be the best blending you ever had in your life.”

Chef Mesnier cuts the gingerbread with a band saw - photo credit Jordan Wright

Chef Mesnier cuts the gingerbread with a band saw - photo credit Jordan Wright

“A lot of chefs love to complicate their recipes with unnecessary instructions. Half of it you can throw out. They just put it in there because the more complicated it is the more they think they look like geniuses!”

“So many chefs use all these gimmicks to try to make it seem good. What I have done in my books is simplify the language.”

“Buy the best ginger you can buy and check out the strength. You have to watch out because even from year to year it may change in strength. Make a sample of dough, bake it, and test it. There are so many different kinds of ginger and each type makes a difference in the outcome.”

“If you make enough dough in advance you can roll the cookies out and cut them and freeze them raw. Then, without defrosting, you can bake them off and eat them fresh that day.”

“We made 120,000 pieces of cakes and cookies for Christmas in The White House. Most of our cookies were shaped and frozen raw, and later taken out and baked.”

“We had such a small kitchen and very little staff. We started baking for Christmas in the White House in June. We made half a ton of fruitcake, orange cake, chocolate cake, German stollen and applesauce cake, Italian panettone, and yule logs, too. Our Christmas was based on Old World Christmases, like my Bananas in Raspberry Cream (Dessert University, Roland Mesnier, Simon and Schuster 2004). “People would hunt me down for that recipe.”

“We had a lot of diplomats over the holidays and I wanted them to find their own cakes and cookies from home on the table. We wanted to please as many people as we could. That’s the key…to have that special something for everyone.”

Like families today, the Washingtons were not strangers to the tragedies of war, death, and illness, even over the holiday season. In those days, a trip to rendezvous with loved ones could last days, or even weeks, over rugged hills and rutted roads, and might result in a stay of a fortnight or longer. So it was all the more imperative to celebrate the homecoming of family members and friends from afar. Therefore all hands were pressed into service to welcome the guests. You will find that the Mount Vernon of today reflects the warmth and spirit that emanates from the venerable estate.
Chef Mesnier’s gingerbread house will be on display all day at Mount Vernon throughout the Christmas season. You will need to call ahead for tickets for evening tours.

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