News & Politics

Former White House Assistant Pastry Chef Mark Ramsdell on Building (and Taking Apart) the Perfect Gingerbread House

In short: “They’re complicated.”

Mark Ramsdell (right) and the late Roland Mesnier with one of their creations: “No screws, no nails, no wire,” says Ramsdell. Photograph courtesy of White House Historical Association.

“If you go into a hotel with a gingerbread exhibit, it’s not uncommon for those to be plywood with gingerbread glued to the outside. You can see why—they’re complicated and people don’t know how to put them together.

“In DC, we don’t know in December whether it’s going to be 80 or 20 degrees, raining or snowing. Gingerbread absorbs moisture, so if you get the wrong setting on the wrong day, it will collapse. Roland Mesnier figured that out. We decided if you bake gingerbread appropriately, then put a thin layer of tempered chocolate on the back, it becomes hard as a rock. And here’s a cool thing: If you’re putting on a large flat roof, you roll thin sheets of gingerbread and bake, then glue three or four together with the chocolate, and you’ve created gingerbread plywood. I can stand on it—it literally is as strong as plywood.

“Roland started to use gingerbread veneer: I used a band saw to cut off an eighth of an inch that was very flexible. I could glue a piece around [a chocolate column], and it would look like solid gingerbread. One of the things Roland lived by was that everything had to be edible. No screws, no nails, no wire, nothing.

The White House in Gingerbread: Memories & Recipes by Roland Mesnier with Mark Ramsdell. Photograph courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

“When we wrote our gingerbread book, we did a massive model of the White House at the Decatur House. It had to come in in modules—it wouldn’t go through any door. Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, said, ‘Oh, the children at Children’s National are going to love this!’ We found out [right then] that he had donated it [after we were done with the exhibit], so it had to be taken apart. I had to go back and re-engineer what walls would be cut, etc.

“So NPR comes in, and Roland starts saying, ‘No, seriously, there’s no artificial support in there.’ He asks me to take the house apart, and here’s this guy with the huge camera, and Roland says, ‘Put your camera in there!’ I wish I had a picture of this reporter with almost his entire camera in there and Roland going, ‘Can you see? Can you see? No plywood!’

“Children’s hospital had it up for ten days or two weeks. Boy, the kids loved it, though. Oh, my God, did they love it.”

This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Amy Moeller
Fashion & Weddings Editor

Amy leads Washingtonian Weddings and writes Style Setters for Washingtonian. Prior to joining Washingtonian in March 2016, she was the editor of Capitol File magazine in DC and before that, editor of What’s Up? Weddings in Annapolis.