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From the sublime to the slightly ridiculous - lamingtons

"essentially, plain cakes with frills". Felicity Cloake

It seems almost insulting to turn to Lamingtons - a supremely ordinary if excellent ordinary food - after losing Max. But alas life goes on. In many ways that is the worst thing about thinking about one's own death is it not? One dies, but the rest of the world continues. The sun rises or sets, the birds continue to sing and your family go about their lives, albeit sadly, even grievously at first, but ultimately as usual. What happens to them and to the world? You will never know.

So today I am sitting in my garden again but turning to the most ordinary thing - lamingtons. Wikipedia is almost dismissive:

"A lamington is an Australian cake made from squares of butter cake or sponge cake coated in an outer layer of chocolate sauce and rolled in desiccated coconut. The thin mixture is absorbed into the outside of the sponge cake and left to set, giving the cake a distinctive texture. A common variation has a layer of cream or strawberry jam between two lamington halves." Wikipedia

I have to say that somehow or other I had the idea that the strawberry jam was actually part of the coating, and the jam is definitely the controversial bit about lamingtons. The purists, I think, say no jam - or cream either.

Felicity Cloake who is, of course, British, nevertheless does her 'perfect' thing (those are hers at the top of the page). She does, however, mention that they are an Australian thing and not known anywhere else.

"Lamingtons are one of those things, like Tim Tams and toad racing, that are big in Australia but, despite the best efforts of the residents of Ramsay Street, almost unknown elsewhere."

Which is really interesting isn't it? I mean my first reactions was, well it's just sponge cake rolled in chocolate and coconut. Desiccated coconut was around in my childhood as a common feature of all sorts of ordinary cakes and biscuits, so why hadn't this been invented in Britain? I mean it's Australian, but definitely anglo Australian. The British make lots of things like this.

Well I sort of found the answer. The snootily aristocratic young man on the right is Charles Cochrane Baillie the 2nd Baron Lamington, and later in his life governor of Queensland. And yes he went to Eton and Oxford and was very conservative - he did not approve of Federation for example. And the Lamington is definitely named after him, although really the credit should go to a Frenchman - his chef - Armand Gaillard about whom I can find nothing. The probably mythical story goes two ways. One that faced with a large number of unexpected guests Armand cut up some leftover sponge cake, rolled it in chocolate sauce and then coconut. The second and, I have to say, the least likely version is that he dropped a sponge cake in a dish of chocolate sauce and had the inspired idea of coating it in coconut to make it look better. And why did he think of coconut anyway? Well his wife was from Tahiti. Don't we all love these stories of disasters turning to triumph? But, tongue in cheek, you could in fact say that it's a French invention. Although some think it was either Lord Lamington himself or his wife who invented them. I go for the cook. Lord Lamington doesn't look as if he's ever even been into a kitchen.

The most important thing I learnt about this though is that at this time - Lamington was governor of Queensland from 1896-1901 - coconut was not really known or used in Europe, which is why it was not a European invention. But then other European countries - Hungary, Croatia, Romania have similar things apparently - as do Cleveland, Ohio, South Africa, Mauritius.

In 2014 The Guardian thought they would have a laugh on April Fool's Day and ran an article that said it was really a New Zealand invention, originally called the Wellington. Now I don't know whether it was because of that article but certainly some New Zealanders do claim it as their own. But that's what Australia and New Zealand do all the time don't they? Mostly in fun I have to say - what's yours is really ours, but with a different accent.

Perhaps more surprising is that lamingtons are not well-known elsewhere. After all Felicity Cloake does say "I will say that whoever came up with them was a clever little sausage." If tiramisu can take the world by storm, why not lamingtons? Dare I ask whether, fundamentally, they are not that great?

Well yes and no. I have to say I'm not a huge fan, but I suspect I have not had any really good ones, because I suspect that it's one of those 'simple' things that are really hard to get right. Mostly because as Felicity Cloake says: "a lamington asks a lot from its cake base". Without an excellent cake the whole thing falls in a heap - both literally and figuratively. I thought they were made with ordinary old sponge cake - and of course some are but according to many a butter cake is better - being moister and tastier.

"Barbara Skein of the Canberra Country Women’s Association, who has been making them since she was a child, told ABC news that “there are two ways to make lamingtons. You can use a sponge cake or a butter cake mixture.” While we tend to use the word sponge to refer to most fluffy cakes, technically speaking, a sponge relies on large volumes of whisked egg for its light and airy texture, and contains very little, or no other fat. Butter cake, as the name suggests, is heavier on the fat and thus requires a raising agent such as baking powder to make it rise. It also tends to be softer and moister, and, if, like me, you dream in butter, much, much tastier." Felicity Cloake

But having made (or bought if you are cheating) your cake you have to first cut it into squares and then coat it:

"Lamingtons are one of those cakes that recipes say are easy to make, but most are just downright lying to you. The first few times I made them involved screeches of frustration and serious foot stomping. I emerged on the other side looking like I’d been in a mud-wrestle with a plate of something that barely resembled the neat squares you see in this post." Nagi - Recipe Tin Eats

Her solution was to freeze the squares which makes the cake easier to handle although:

"You’ll get coconut everywhere making them and eating them. But that’s all part of the Aussie experience. It’s how we do it Down Under!" Nagi - Recipe Tin Eats

And the results from her Recipe Tin Eats website do look pretty good. The best thing about her recipe though is the way she takes you through the whole process step-by-step and listing the potential pitfalls along the way. So a good place to start if you want to make some.

Very popular on Australia Day which is coming up soon of course, although National Lamington Day - yes there is one - is on 21st July.

So when checking out recipes I first of all went to the obvious,; Australian Women's Weekly and Maggie Beer - all of them fairly ordinary looking, although I note that Taste went for the jam filling:

delicious. has a selection from the ordinary to the experimental - including a Vegemite version, a panna cotta; a marshmallow version, and mango framlingtons which are made with friands rather than cake. Which led me to search for other variations - there are a huge number out there - but I'll just give you these three variations on the theme: Lamington chocolate cake with marmalade and coconut from Helen Goh; Lamington coconut popsicles from Donna Hay and Bill Granger's Pineapple lamingtons - no recipe online I'm afraid - it's in his Australian Food book. The pineapple is in the cake and the chocolate is white.

But of course you can go to extremes. We have our own Heston Blumenthal here. What you have on the left is from Ben Shewry. And that's not chocolate - it's ants - yes ants.

"His stand-out dessert is set to be the Black Ant Lamington, an ice-cream lamington accompanied with black Australian ants and coconut, paired with chocolate grown and handmade in the Daintree Forest of Queensland." delicious. on Ben Shewry

He originally made it for one of those posh marquees at the Melbourne Cup but it now appears on the menu at his restaurant Attica here in Melbourne.

In Sydney at Bennelong Peter Gordon makes a Bennelong Cherry jam lamington in which

"The coconut appears not on the lamington itself but as curls of coconut-milk parfait that surround a square of ganache-coated sponge cake and cherry-jam and coconut ice-cream." Gourmet Traveller

The wispy bit that you see in the picture is liquid nitrogen. You can see a very quick 'how to make' video if you click on the link - but it won't tell you anything useful like quantities - and anyway do you have any liquid nitrogen?

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