It’s Australia Day today and if I were home, I’d have the day off work. Sadly, it’s not the case here (and it’s also definitely not Australia Day-like weather!) but I thought I’d share one of my favourite Australian treats from my childhood here today. Lamingtons. Enjoyed at birthday parties and morning teas and a ubiquitous bake sale item… but did you know that these simple cakes that many of us having grown up with them take for granted have a complicated history?
Of the lamington, the Larousse Gastronomique (2001) says “a small Australian cake, made from a square of sponge cake and coated in chocolate or chocolate icing (frosting) and dipped in desiccated coconut. The cakes were named after Lord Lamington, the governor of Queensland from 1896-1901” whilst Oxford Dictionaries Online suggests they are “a square of sponge cake dipped in melted chocolate and grated coconut. [A]pparently from the name of Lord Lamington, Governor of Queensland (1895–1901).”Many people know the story of Lord Lamington giving his name to the cake, however there are many accounts of how the cake was invented. One tells how a maid accidentally dropped sponge cake into some melted chocolate and, to avoid food waste and messy fingers when the cake was being eaten, it was dipped in coconut – an error turned into a dessert that Lord Lamington loved!
Another story suggests that Lord Lamington had unexpected guests but the cupboard was bare except for a stale sponge cake. The chef had to improvise and coated the cake in chocolate and rolled it in coconut to disguise its staleness. Though Lord Lamington was reported to have referred to the cakes as “those bloody poofy woolly biscuits”, it is said that he actually quite enjoyed them and his guests loved them so much they requested the recipe.
A recipe was published in the Queensland Ladies Home Journal under the name ‘Lady Lamington’s Chocolate-Coconut Cake’, soon after known as simply the lamington. Queensland Country Life published a recipe for “lamington cakes” in December 1900, another early recipe appeared in the Queenslander Magazine in January 1902 and in 1909 Amy Schauer, a cookery teacher at the Brisbane (Central) Technical College included the recipe in The Schauer Australian Cookery Book. Others claim the lamington might even have been invented in Scotland or New Zealand and there are versions of this in countries all over the world. Today there’s still debate about whether a lamington includes a jam or cream layer inside – there are arguments for both, as well as for a plain cake square (my favourite!).
In any case, no matter who really invented it or where and when, today, it’s one of Australia’s national dishes – in 2006, The National Trust of Queensland named it a “Heritage Icon” and there’s even a National Lamington Day every July 21! As for me, I can’t remember a birthday party without lamingtons. For many, the mention of the word might make them think of the quintessential “lamington drives” – where lamingtons are sold to raise money for school, Scouts, or other community organisations. I haven’t lived in Australia for quite some time now but apparently the lamington drive is still alive and well (with a lamington running around $1 per piece).
Traditionally the lamington is made of a sponge cake, although some use use white or butter cakes too. My cake recipe is adapted from one of my Nana’s cakes that works well – it’s a little sturdier which means it’s easier to dip in the chocolate icing (the messiest part of the whole procedure!).
Want to make lamingtons for yourself? Check out my recipe for bite-sized lamingtons (perfect for parties) over on JamieOliver.Com!