I have new admiration for the marvellous ladies who provided the backbone of Australia’s school fetes for generations. For some reason, we always thought lamingtons were easy objects to put together. They were, to all appearances, not a lot more than a cake, cut into mouth-fitting cubes, covered with chocolate icing, then dredged in desiccated coconut.
Appearances can be deceptive. There is nothing automatic about making lamingtons. Nothing to suggest they are an easy item to toss together to make a few shillings to finance the kids’ new gym.
Lamingtons are said to be one of Australia’s few recipe contributions to the world of cooking. The trouble with that theory is that I’ve never seen them in a patisserie in Lyon, or a deli in Manhattan. Stiff cheddar to the Lyonnais and the New Yorkers, you might say. Debates about lamingtons and pavlovas and such are for historians.
The history books say that the lamington is named after a Lord Lamington who looked after Queen Victoria’s affairs in Queensland from 1895 to 1901. You can have 1000/1 and a free lunch in the committee room that the Governor had anything to do with their creation. Sadly, there is no known claim from the first person who put together the classic mix of cake (most likely yesterday’s bake), cocoa and shredded coconut, but it seems to me that classic Australian ingenuity is involved here.
The base of a lamington is a cake. Most recipes will give you a creamed sugar and butter version, but some will go for a genoise, or sponge base. Our preference is the classic pound cake, Jane Grigson’s variation at the forefront (see page 26). Then comes the ingenuity, the preservation of the base cake, combined with the lure of cocoa and coconut. Note that the extras that make up a lamington are dried goods, available a million miles from anywhere, plus a touch of butter, compliments, no doubt of the paddock cow and butter churn: coating the cake are icing sugar, butter, water, cocoa and desiccated coconut.
There would not be a pantry, north, south, east and west of anywhere in Australia circa 1900 which would not have been replete with these.
Consider the process. Mum or grandma makes several cakes at one go, on the basis of a) one shift, plenty of results b) why make the house hot when you don’t have to c) save wood. So, she thinks, we’ll have a sponge for afternoon tea, but what am I going to do with the rest?
What about coating the cake with chocolate icing? The kids will love that.
If we sprinkle the wet chocolate with desiccated coconut, think of the texture, and colour and flavour. Dad will be intrigued by that. Bingo! The lamington is born.
I hardly ever thought to make lamingtons in my days at home. Why bother, when mum’s always made ’em? But I went at it, and the result, if the kids were any indication, was well worth it. When we did the cook-off and photo shoot for this magazine, the big kids loved them too.
So here they are, my version of Mum’s lamingtons. You might need to double the mix if you have a large tin. Her recipe calls for a lamington tin, which is a rectangle with reasonably high sides. Remember, the mix will rise somewhat. Once you have baked the cake, allow it to cool, remove the outer crust, and cut the cake into cubes.
For the icing
1. Mill the sugar to make icing sugar consistency 5 seconds/speed 9. Set aside.
2. Melt the butter, 1 minute/50 degrees/speed soft.
3. Add the sugar to the bowl, with the cocoa and water. Stir together: 5 seconds/speed 5. Cook 4 minutes/80 degrees/speed soft. The mix will not be stiff, nor pourable. Spreadable, I guess, is the term. Add more, or less water to get the right consistency.
Making the lamingtons
1. Cut the cooled cake into cubes, about 4 centimetres all around.
2. Spike with a skewer and dip into the icing, covering all sides.
3. Work through desiccated coconut; some cooks (my mum included) toss the chocolate-coated cake pieces in a plastic bag filled with the desiccated coconut. Move the cake all about until well covered with coconut.
4. Spread out on an airing tray until dried, and any excess chocolate icing has dripped away.
5. Serve whenever you like, perhaps not for breakfast unless you’re on the eighth hole on Medal Day, on a roll, and looking for added strength, for mind and body.
TRIAL & ERROR
1. As noted, the choice of cake base is really yours. I haven’t much time for sponge cake. I reckon the traditional butter cake or pound cake kills it for flavour. But, in the case of the lamington, the flavour of the cake is not really an issue. The cocoa dominates most other flavours.
2. We tried all sorts of ways to instil a new, different, but not necessarily better flavour into the lamington. We a) soaked the cake in cherry brandy before rolling it in the chocolate. We b) painted the cake with warm jam, then added the chocolate. We c) used freshly grated coconut instead of the desiccated variety from the packet. We d) varied the amount of cocoa. The results were: a) waste of time. Chocolate still wins. b) jam comes through, but you’ve really created a version, rather than a preferable product. c) surprisingly, there was no noticeable difference. Again, the chocolate dominated, and the coconut is there as much for texture and colour than true flavour. d) This is up to you, and depends on your need to go troppo over chocolate.
3. There is no easy way to paint the lamingtons with chocolate and then dip them in the coconut. My late mum, who was born about the same time as the lamington (that’s a dozen years after Lord Lamington left town), professed to have made “thousands of the buggers”. Her recipe, which follows, says: “No matter which way you go, they are beastly things to do.” However, she volunteers one tip: Toss a handful of the desiccated coconut into a plastic bag. Once the cake cubes have been covered with the chocolate icing, toss the coated cake into a plastic bag. Shake about, and out it comes, a lamington!
4. This one is from me. I suggest you make sure you have enough batter to make a cube that has an edge between 3 centimetres and 4 centimetres. This serves two purposes. You get more individual lamingtons from one bake, which puts value into the cake stall, but more importantly, the thick cubes put more value into the cake. After all, these days we’re not about preserving the day’s bake, we’re about making the best possible lamingtons.
5. The biggest deal about making lamingtons is about making the cake. In the end, as described earlier, the cake is knocked over by the chocolate icing and the coconut, so for those who want it done quickly, go for either of the following: i) buy a cake from your favourite cake shop; ii) make it from a packet (I know, I know. It’s OK. Relax. The flavour and influence of the lamington comes from the cocoa mix); iii) make a double batch of Jane Grigson’s pound cake batter and use the excess for a cobbler.