Following in her footsteps yesterday, the current first lady turned the elegant cream-and-gold State Dining Room into an arts and crafts center, however briefly, for children of Marine Corps families stationed in Washington.
After greeting the families in the East Room, Mrs. Obama led the 23 mostly tiny children in their party best to get their hands dirty decorating gingerbread cookies; turning old newspapers and magazines into wreaths, and adorning Christmas cards with fruit and vegetable stamps. She worked diligently alongside them. (You and your kids can duplicate their work by looking at the how-to instructions on WhiteHouse.gov. You can also download a copy of the White House Christmas tour book.)
The theme for this year’s White House Christmas is “Simple Gifts,” with an emphasis on sustainability: recycling paper by turning it into Christmas trees, garlands, and swags; and repurposing decorations, like gold-sprayed leaves, dug out from years past. Dried pomegranates, artichokes, and yellow pear gourds were turned into modern wreaths in the East Colonnade.
Daniel Shanks, an assistant usher who has seen it all, is particularly keen on this year’s decorations. “I’m so excited,” he said. With good reason: The house looks more elegant, and at the same time more festive, than it has in a long time.
Simple Gifts, Healthy Food
For the holidays the first lady has chosen to highlight the two projects she cares most about: military families and healthful food.
She's once again highlighted the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation; one of the residence's 19 decorated Christmas trees is dedicated to military families, with decorations representing all the branches of service. The tree is crowned with a dove of peace.
Another tree, festooned with gingerbread men, was decorated by 330 children from military families.
Even the first lady’s Let’s Move initiative to reduce childhood obesity is part of the Christmas celebration: For the first time, more healthful versions of Christmas sweets and savories will be on the buffet tables at all of the 20-plus parties the Obamas will be giving between now and the holiday. Chances are White House guests won’t be able to distinguish the healthier holiday recipes from the traditional over-the-top holiday indulgences found on the groaning dessert table with its yule logs, lemon-layered cakes, coconut cakes, chocolate truffles, frosted cookies, and mounds of whipped cream.
Like Mrs. Obama, who says there is room for french fries and greasy burgers “once in a while,” White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, who has been at the White House since 2005, feels that “At Christmastime people can cut loose a little bit if they have a generally healthy lifestyle. There still is a need for a pastry chef at the White House.”
But, he said, both the White House kitchen garden, started in the spring of 2009, and Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign “permeate everything we do.” And he added that he and Cristeta Comerford, the White House executive chef, and Sam Kass, senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives, hadn’t thought about giving guests a choice of healthier fare at parties before. “It never occurred to us in the past,” he said.
So this year, Yosses whipped up an apple cake with maple glaze, redolent of sugar, honey, and cinnamon. There are people who prefer it to warm chocolate cake. He also poached some winter fruit in hibiscus and honey and served it with sweetened yogurt.
“There are definitely healthier options among the more indulgent ones,” said Comerford, who this year is making tiny herb-roasted potatoes and two highly flavored dips, one hummus and one with perfectly seasoned yogurt ranch dressing, to serve with steamed and roasted vegetables.
These new holiday recipes will sit right alongside the roast beef and smoked salmon. (Long gone are the chicken-fried steak with white gravy that George Bush demanded.)
The First Family Dog Bo by the larger than life decoration of himself in the Booksellers Hall of the White House Nov. 30, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
And in a place of honor in the dining room sits the 400-plus pound White House gingerbread, with a completely out-of-proportion model of Bo, the family dog. Asked why it was way out of scale, Yosses said: “We made Bo larger to symbolize his increased presence in the house.”
The dog, however, did not make an appearance (though as you can see, he posed for adorable photos at another time).
Read on to see the healthy holiday recipes offered at the White House this year, all tested by the author.
Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
2 pounds fingerling potatoes, cut in ½-inch pieces, or peanut-size potatoes, washed and dried
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 sprigs fresh thyme
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 lemon, zest and juice
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Place a baking sheet lined with foil into the oven to preheat.
3. In a bowl combine the potatoes, rosemary, thyme, garlic, lemon zest, and juice. Drizzle with the olive oil and mix thoroughly.
4. Spoon the mixture onto the preheated pan. Roast for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are browned on the skin and tender inside. (Poke with a fork to check for doneness.)
5. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, rub the garlic on.
6. Serve warm.
Roasted and Steamed Vegetables with Hummus and Yogurt Ranch Dip
Yields 8 or more servings as part of a cocktail party
1 pound green beans, trimmed
1 pound baby carrots, peeled*
1 pound baby brussels sprouts, trimmed
3 Tablespoons olive oil
3 sprigs fresh thyme
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
*Use actual young carrots, not "baby" carrots that are regular carrots cut to a small size.
Divide the vegetables into one batch for roasting and another for steaming, in whatever proportions you prefer.
Directions for roasted vegetables:
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roll the vegetables in olive oil and put them in separate pans that have been lined with aluminum foil. (They take different amounts of time to cook; roast until tender but not flabby.)
2. Add the thyme and garlic to each pan.
3. Roast each pan of vegetables until done (The brussels sprouts should take about 15 minutes; the carrots, 4–6 minutes, the green beans about 10 minutes. Check frequently and remove the vegetables when they're tender.)
4. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm with dips.
Directions for steamed vegetables: Lay the vegetables flat on a vegetable steamer basket and steam until tender-crisp. It will take 4 to 6 minutes. Chill immediately in an iced bowl. Drain and set aside.
1 15-ounce can low sodium chickpeas, drained and washed
1 Tablespoon olive oil
4 Tablespoons tahini paste
1 teaspoon harissa or hot sauce
1 teaspoon cumin
2 cloves garlic
Juice of 3 to 4 lemons
Salt and pepper to taste
Blend all the ingredients together in a food processor until emulsified. Adjust seasonsings, adding a little more lemon juice if mixture is too stiff.
Yogurt Ranch Dip
½ cup low-fat mayonnaise
½ cup nonfat Greek yogurt
Juice of 1 lemon, juice
1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl until incorporated. Season to taste.
Fruit Poached in Hibiscus and Honey
Yields 8 servings
4 quarts water
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
4 tea bags hibiscus tea (Author's note: Celestial Seasonings sells this as Red Zinger)
1 lemon, cut in half
1 orange, cut in half
1. Bring water to a boil in stainless steel pot; add cinnamon, sugar, honey, hibiscus tea, lemon, and orange and turn heat to simmer.
2. Peel and core apples and pears, leaving them whole, and immerse into simmering liquid; poach for 20 to 30 minutes until fork-tender.
3. Chill and serve with Sweetened Low-Fat Yogurt (recipe below).
Sweetened Low-Fat Yogurt
1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt
6 Tablespoons honey
Stir to blend thoroughly and serve over poached fruit.
Makes a 10-inch cake
¾ cup canola or safflower oil
½ cup light brown sugar (tightly packed)
½ cup honey (local if possible)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup peeled, grated apples (Granny Smith or Golden)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease one 10-inch cake pan, or a 9-inch Bundt cake pan, and place parchment paper or a silicone sheet on the bottom.
2. Combine oil, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, and eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer—a handheld mixer can be used as well. Sift dry ingredients into a separate bowl: flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.
3. Add half of sifted dry ingredients to the liquid mixture, and mix on a low speed.
4. Once everything is combined, add the grated apples and the remainder of the dry ingredients. Finish mixing by hand, and pour into greased cake mold.
5. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Take out of the oven and let cool before unmolding. When ready to unmold, run a paring knife around the edge of the cake pan. Place a serving dish on top of the upside-down cake mold, and then flip cake over onto the dish, carefully lifting the cake pan off the cake.
¼ cup maple syrup
? cup confectioner’s sugar
1. Once cake is in the oven, mix together maple syrup and confectioner’s sugar over low heat until combined.
2. Increase heat and boil for 30 seconds. Set aside on the stovetop, off the heat.
3. Pour glaze over cake once it is finished baking and on the serving dish. You may need to reheat the glaze slightly to make it easy to pour over the cake.
Author's note: You may want to decorate the cake plate with bits of greenery and peeled orange segments for color. The author tried making the cake using pears instead of apples, with excellent results. Be sure to squeeze most of the liquid out of the pears if you go that route.