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November 14, 2009

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Pie on a high for White House chef

POOR Bill Yosses. He's the White House pastry chef. He makes desserts for a living. He works for Barack and Michelle Obama. They talk about healthy eating. All the time.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?

Not at all.

Yosses' creations - especially his pies - have won over even the Obamas.

The president calls him "The Crustmaster."

The first lady points to pie-on-demand as one of the big pluses of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I'm the dark side," Yosses jokes in a recent interview. "They love our pies."

In truth, Yosses says, there's no contradiction to being the pastry chef for such an avowedly health-conscious first family.

"They did reassure me that they love dessert," Yosses says of his first days in the Obama White House. "But they don't want it there for themselves or their children every day."

Yosses, 56, doesn't cook just for the Obamas. His team whips up treats for dozens, hundreds and thousands of guests attending a never-ending stream of parties, receptions and other special events at the White House.

On a recent visit to the pastry kitchen, Yosses offered a rare insider's view of the operation.

Menus for nearly a dozen coming events were taped to metal shelves. Trays of Halloween cookies were stacked 18 high on a rolling rack. A freshly baked pie shell sat on the marble counter, awaiting its filling. Housekeepers and groundkeepers helped stuff cellophane goody bags for 2,000-plus trick-or-treaters. A tray held dried sugar pieces destined to become part of a circus centerpiece for a still-to-be determined event.

Yosses, in his white jacket and apron, was just back from the South Lawn, where he helped Mrs Obama and schoolchildren harvest vegetables from the first lady's kitchen garden. Earlier, he'd baked oatmeal raisin cookies for the youngsters, the snacks sweetened with maple syrup to avoid refined sugar.

For all that's going on, Yosses, bald and bespectacled, never seems to lose his easy manner and broad grin.

"We're kind of used to the idea that, oh, there's going to be 1,200 guests tomorrow," he deadpans.

Yosses says there's a set rhythm to the start of each day - a quick 7:30am meeting where all the White House departments coordinate the day's plans. Then structure gives way to the varying demands of the day, with Yosses shuttling between the main pastry kitchen and a smaller chocolate shop and decorating area tucked into White House nooks. About 6:30pm, he heads home - to fix a quick salad for dinner.

Yosses, who co-authored "Desserts for Dummies" and another cookbook, had been executive pastry chef at a series of top restaurants before he arrived at the White House in January 2007, two years ahead of the Obamas.

When a new first family arrives, Yosses says, "we start from zero, getting to know a whole new situation."

Within days of the inauguration, Mrs Obama sat down with the cooking staff to talk about the importance of healthy eating, Yosses says, but she also let it be known that desserts were still welcome on the menu. Now, nine months into the Obama presidency, Yosses can anticipate what will please the family's palates.

"Once in a while they'll say I'm really hungry for X, Y or Z, but basically they pretty much leave it to us," he says.

Specifics about the first family's tastes are closely held, but some have filtered out over the months.

Obama loves pie. Banana cream pie. Huckleberry pie. Fruit pies of all sorts.

When the president was asked in July to reveal a secret about the White House, he said this: "The pastry chef makes the best pie I've ever tasted, and that is causing big problems for Michelle and myself. I mean, whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you've ever eaten."

Yosses says the secret to his pie lies in the crust. It's hand-mixed, to avoid overworking the dough. The bottom crust is pre-baked to keep it from being doughy. For fruit pies, the filling is cooked on the stove, then placed in the cooked pie shell and covered with the rolled-out top dough. The top is then brushed with egg-wash and the whole thing is baked again.

As Yosses explains his pie protocol, there is a pre-baked pie shell sitting on a nearby counter, still filled with the metal beans that weighed down the crust during baking so that it wouldn't bubble up "like a volcano in the middle," in the words of longtime assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison.

For all their enthusiasm about pie, the Obamas are disciplined enough to limit pie consumption to about once a week, Yosses says.

And nobody binges from the cookie jar, or puts out the call for late-night snacks.

"Nobody's a cookie fan," says Yosses. "No, there's never any raiding."

Inevitably, some dishes don't go over that well - anything with meringue, for one.

"No meringue," says Yosses. "Not baked. Not fresh. Not boiled, if there is such a thing. No meringue."

Yosses also made some pies with rhubarb from the South Lawn garden early in the summer that went over well - with the adults.

For the kids? "Not so much."

Yosses seems adept at juggling the duties of family cook and chef for thousands.

One minute he's helping the Obama kids make desserts with friends, the next he's plotting strategy for events like the first state dinner on November 24.

Even in October, the state dinner plan was well in hand - and a well-kept secret. The Christmas gingerbread house was on the drawing board, and planning was under way for feeding the hordes who will flock to White House holiday receptions. Already, the idea of gardens and nature was being incorporated into the holiday theme.

All this food and energy emanate from what Yosses jokingly calls his "ivory tower," a long, narrow kitchen on a mezzanine between the first and second floors of the White House. The full-time pastry staff consists of Yosses and Morrison, but they bring in help as needed from restaurants and hotels in the area.

For big events, nine or 10 people may cram into the kitchen, about 9 meters long and 3 meters wide.

Not a centimeter is wasted. Racks of trays are suspended from the ceilings. Attachments for mixers hang from the walls. A display case contains marzipan and chocolate creations from events past. Photos show greatest hits from state dinners.

Yosses and Morrison proudly point out their view of the White House front lawn; they don't seem to mind that one must stoop to peer out a floor-level window that ends below the waist. To help visitors get a fix on their location, Yosses whips out a US$20 bill, which has a picture of the White House on the back. The pastry kitchen's low window is actually the top portion of the window in the bottom right corner of the currency.

He's right on the money - in more ways than one. BILL YOSSES' APPLE PIE Start to finish: 3 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)

Servings: 8

For the crust:

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt

283 grams of unsalted butter, cold, cut into small chunks

85 grams of lard, cold, cut into small chunks

1/2 cup ice water

For the filling:

0.9 kilograms of apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup honey

1/3 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

For the egg wash:

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

Sugar, for sprinkling

To make the crust, in a food processor pulse together the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter and lard, then pulse briefly until the mixture forms small crumbs. Add the ice water and pulse just until a dough forms.

Divide the dough into two pieces and shape into discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour or overnight.

To prepare the pie shell, on a floured surface roll out one disc to a 35-centimeter circle. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased, deep 22-centimeter pie pan, leaving a 2.54-meter overhang. Refrigerate the crust in the pan for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

When ready to bake the bottom crust, heat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Line the cold crust with foil and fill with baking weights, rice or dry beans to hold it in place. Bake the pie shell for 30 minutes. Leave the oven on once the crust is done.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. In a large saucepan, toss together the apples, sugar, honey, cornstarch, vanilla, cinnamon and lemon zest and juice. Let sit for 20 minutes.

Bring the fruit mixture to a boil over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the fruit thickens. Let cool. When the bottom crust is baked and the filling has cooled, pour the fruit into the crust.

Roll out the second disc of dough to about 30 centimeters.

In a small bowl, beat the egg with the salt. Use a pastry brush to brush the egg on the edges of the cooked crust. Place the top crust over the filling. Gently crimp the top crust, sealing the pie around the edges.

Puncture the top of the crust with a paring knife in several places to create steam vents. Brush egg wash over the crust, then sprinkle with sugar. Bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, or until the filling is bubbling and the top crust is golden brown.

Let cool for one to 2 hours before serving.

(Recipe adapted from Bill Yosses, White House pastry chef)


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