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To get to the place where you’re about to be shown one of the first family’s favorite recipes, you’re first escorted down a hallway with a ceiling made of snowflakes, past the first dogs—Sunny and Bo—playing fetch. (They get the run of the house.) Casual.
After your lucky encounter with the real McCoys, you stumble on two larger-than-life replicas of the dogs, husky yarn structures made from seven thousand yarn pom-poms lovingly crafted from fifty-five thousand feet of yarn. Through a grand hallway and up the stairs past the presidential portraits (these rotate per term, like the national, wall-art version of musical chairs); then through the State Dining Room and past the almost 500-pound gingerbread house. (It has electricity. It has East and West wings. You briefly consider asking if you can have a tour of this, too.)
It’s been 20 minutes, and you’ve passed many glitzed-up trees (at least 7 of the whole house’s 62, plus one constructed entirely from gumballs, four thousand of them), probably 100 ornaments (of the whole house’s 70,000), and you-don’t-even-know how many representations of holly or pointsetta or other such festive, bushy Christmas plants. You’ve seen a 6-foot teddy bear and a family of penguins in glittering sleighs (they fancy) and enough garland to string the distance from D.C. to New York and back again. This is the White House, and you are in its holiday wonderland.
It’s a little like Narnia, with more security: Instead of entering through a wardrobe, you find your way through a few gates—at one of which you dial a number quickly dictated to you into a phone hidden behind its own little door—and down the front drive with an escort. And it’s just as disorienting, at times: You are inside for a moment, looking at yarn dogs and Paul Bunyan-sized trees, and then you are outside, walking through a corridor, and then you are back in. You might ask your guide how long it took her to learn her way around the grounds; she’ll probably laugh and say she’s been here years.
And then you’re standing in the kitchen of the White House with executive chef Cris Cumerford and she’s making you cauliflower mac and cheese, full of multi-colored florets and an exuberant amount of cheese and a little bit of mustard for good measure. Cris helms the kitchen through the epic marathon of White House parties: 12,000 guests in 20 days, she’ll tell you. She’ll steam the cauliflower while telling you she’s been cooking at the White House since the Clinton administration; while the water boils, she’ll let you in on why this recipe is so good: It's all about the breadcrumbs you blanket over its top. The kitchen hums in the background. The 20 days aren’t yet up.
The mac and cheese she’s making is requested by the first family often; it’s also perfect for the quiet moments after the house—White or otherwise—is restored to its pre-holiday state. When the decorations are down and the guests have gone on their merry way. But if that day feels a little too distant, put it on your holiday table—who says cheesy pasta doesn’t belong? If your family protests, just tell them it’s a direct order, straight from the White House.
- 1 pound penne pasta
- 1 cup 2% or skim milk
- 1 pound shredded cheddar cheese (or a mixture of your favorite melting cheeses)
- 1/2 head cauliflower, cut into florets
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- Salt and pepper to taste