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Gingerbread House: A Blue Mountain Fairytale

Gingerbread House: A Blue Mountain Fairytale

The artisans behind Sydney’s boutique chocolate store, Josophan’s Fine Chocolates, have embarked on a sweet new endeavour; a bakery-café set in a century-old church amongst the rolling hills of Katoomba. Australian Baking Business catches up with Jodie Van Der Velden at the delightful Gingerbread House to discuss Easter workshops, the tourism market and, of course, chocolate.

How would you describe The Gingerbread House in a few words?

Fun, character-filled, welcoming, relaxed, quirky and delicious.

There are a few savoury items on offer, including fresh soup and sandwiches, but let’s be honest, it’s all about the sweets! what’s on the menu?

We serve our signature Josophan’s cakes: Mexican dark chocolate cake; flourless dark chocolate torte made with roasted and ground almonds and local hazelnuts; milk chocolate salted caramel cake; and a white chocolate and mascarpone cheesecake. All of these cakes, as well as our brownies and blondies, are made with Fair Trade certified couverture chocolate.

Of course we also have our house-baked gingerbread, a range of cookies and our date, chocolate and gingerbeer scones, which are sprinkled with gingerbread dust and served with house-made jam.

Alongside the baked offerings, we also serve local Serendipity ice cream and fresh coffee from nearby roaster Generao B, which has a company called Umami Coffee.

The mexican chocolate cake really stands out as a great product – it’s simple and delicious. what’s in it?

This is a no-frills dessert. It’s just a real chocolate cake, made using beautiful ingredients – no cocoa powder or milk – just pure melted chocolate. It’s topped with more chocolate and dusted with cocoa powder. I use 70 per cent Fair Trade certified Callebaut Belgian coverture chocolate, which is decadent and delicious.

The recipe was given to me by a colleague of Mexican descent, hence the name, but it doesn’t have any Mexican spices in it. It’s by far the most popular of our cakes for weddings and celebrations. I have been asked if it contains Mexicans and, whilst it was very tempting to say “yes”, no Mexicans are used in the recipe – just a pinch of their heritage.

Is everything made onsite?

Yes, we bake everything onsite at the Gingerbread House, apart from the sourdough bread, which is produced in a bakery around the corner.

The Gingerbread House was started off the back of two very successful chocolate businesses, in Leura and in the Sydney CBD, as well as a café. what prompted you to expand and try a different format?

The Gingerbread House is such a beautiful and distinctive space. When I saw it I felt it was begging for a unique business to find its home. The space had been empty for six years and I was really excited about opening it up to the community again.

We’ve tried to fill the entire space with interesting gingerbread house details, which are lots of fun, without compromising the integrity of the space. There are lots of quirky details and surprises around every corner. As the business evolves and finds its feet, I’d like to continue to make the space even more magical.

Unlike the chocolate stores, which are high end and boutique, this space is relaxed. And, unlike the café, there is loads of room, complete with communal tables and a beautiful secure outdoor area with a gingerbread-themed cubby house and slide.

It’s definitely a kid-friendly space. did you specifically set out to create a bakery-café where young families would feel welcome?
Children were certainly in our minds when we saw this space. We have such a tiny space in our café in Leura, it’s a struggle to welcome groups and I’d always wished we had a larger space where children could experience quality food, ice-cream and sweet treats, rather than ‘fast food’.

I was looking at this space and thought how perfect it would be for a combination of what we already do; great drinks, light meals and a focus on chocolate, desserts and all things sweet. What’s more, we have room for children to run safely and for parents to relax.

The business is housed in a former church building that is 100-years-old. how does it feel to be the new custodians of a building with so much character?

Last year marked the centennial anniversary since the church was officially opened to the public, so the space has a lot of history. Throughout the years it’s been home to a number of different congregations. Originally, it was a Presbyterian church and when numbers dwindled, it was taken over by the Uniting Church. It was then empty for a long time before a new-age church took over in the 70s. There is still an ‘om’ symbol painted on the wall outside! We may not be offering religion to the community, but it’s great to see the space being used once again, to draw people together and to lift their spirits.

The Christmas gingerbread house workshops proved popular, particularly with children. did you offer similar classes in the lead up to easter?

We’ve had a lot of interest in running workshops throughout the year because, after all, gingerbread houses don’t have to be reserved for Christmas. For Easter, we held a workshop where we decorated the houses with bunnies, Easter eggs and lollies. They are always popular with children and their parents and grandparents, because it’s a really inclusive, shared, fun activity with a delicious take-home result.

How would you describe your approach to baking?

At the heart of our baking is a refusal to compromise on quality. We use quality ingredients, including coverture chocolate in everything – and we certainly don’t take shortcuts. Not surprisingly, we want to let our ingredients speak for themselves, which is achieved by keeping our recipes fairly simple.

We don’t have a lot of complex processes in the construction of our desserts, as the labour cost is prohibitive, so we’re simply baking delicious sweet treats!

Your husband David and daughters Sophie and Hannah are often found helping out behind the scenes. is it generally ‘all hands on deck’ at the gingerbread house?

We’re a small family business, so when the pressure is on, everyone does their part. David will do anything from the accounting to construction, depending on what’s needed. In fact, David has fitted out our shops and built many of the furnishings. He’s even laid floorboards and constructed the gingerbread house within the Gingerbread House.

Hannah and Sophie will pack chocolates and lollies and fold boxes – whatever needs doing. We all pitch in. Hannah was sewing the colourful flag banner minutes before we opened to the public in October last year, while Sophie was decorating cookies.

Katoomba is a major tourist destination in the Blue Mountains region. do you make a concerted effort to cater to people visiting the area?
The Gingerbread House is definitely a destination for tourists and as we continue to establish ourselves, the tourism market is a growth area we’re counting on. But we’re also a great location for locals to gather, from morning mothers’ groups who need room for prams, to aged groups who can drive their mini bus right up to the gate and use our on-site parking. It’s even a destination for an afterschool ice cream and milkshake.

With big, communal tables there is room for the entire town, which is important because David and I see our local customers as just as important as our tourist base.

The bushfires late last year, no doubt, deterred a few tourists. did the severe weather impact your business?

The devastating bushfires happened just three weeks after we opened and proved a major speed bump. The media sensationalising the entire Blue Mountains was on fire really hurt our local tourism industry. Around $66 million revenue loss occurred in the 15-week post-bushfire period – in bookings, accommodation, weddings and events – and we became a ghost town.

It devastated many local businesses, some of which had to close down – others are still recovering. The bushfires never affected the Katoomba/Leura area, however, people were terrified to visit. This is what happens when the news coverage suggests it’s Armageddon!

Why is it important for you to use quality local produce and to support ethical food producers?

Frankly, we consider ourselves a local producer in many ways, so we understand the challenges for small business and want to support local businesses wherever we can. We focus on quality and sustainability, rather than price, and we truly believe customers – when educated and aware – will support this.

Our hazelnuts are a great example. I did quite a bit of work with a local hazelnut nursery and the Department of Primary Industries, encouraging local farmers to plant hazelnuts.

We use a lot of hazelnuts in chocolate manufacturing and also in our desserts. Typically, the hazelnuts we would be offered from food distributors would be coming from Turkey and were held in cold storage, often for up to two years.

Now, we’re seeing amazing hazelnuts coming from local suppliers and I couldn’t be more thrilled about the taste.

Today, the Gingerbread House uses big, crunchy Ennis hazelnuts from Orange and Mudgee. When you taste them freshly roasted, you know there is no comparison.

Where do you see the business in a years’ time? what do you hope to accomplish?

I’m hoping we can recruit an actual witch who can fatten up children! That would be quite the tourist attraction. Seriously though, I’m hoping the space will become a busy, dynamic hub filled with fun and laughter.

David and I are expecting it to establish itself as a relaxed, enjoyable and interesting destination that’s a “must visit” for locals and tourists alike.

I’d like to have events with live music, but above all, I’d love the see the space and the food and drinks associated with having a unique experience.


Brownies

Ingredients:
• 500g Callebaut dark couverture chocolate 53.8 per cent cacao solids (fair trade)
• 250g Callebaut dark couverture chocolate 70 per cent cacao solids (fair trade)
• 750g unsalted butter
• 500g castor sugar
• 200g brown sugar
• 12 eggs (free range)
• 2 tsp vanilla
• 500g plain flour
• 1 cup extra Callebaut dark couverture chocolate callets

Method:
1. Melt chocolate and butter together, stir to combine.
2. Add sugar, stir to combine.
3. Add eggs (lightly beaten) and vanilla.
4. Fold in sifted flour.
5. Finally, fold through extra chocolate callets.
6. Bake in 600mm x 400mm baking tray, lined with baking paper.
7. Bake at 180°C until barely set in the centre (approximately 30 minutes).


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