Aside from the cute accent, being married to an Australian has other advantages. We get to celebrate extra holidays, which of course involve food. January 26th is Australia Day, commemorating the arrival of the so called First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. It marks the founding of the penal colony of New South Wales and the first European occupation of the continent of Australia.
One of the foods that is revered as being uniquely Australian is the lamington, a square of yellow or sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and rolled in dried coconut. Holding a similar place in the hearts of Australians as the brownie does for Americans, lamingtons are often served on Australia Day, but can also be found in bakeries and cafes year round. In particular they are the undisputed star of what we would call the bake sale, but which in Australia is simply known as the lamington drive. Any time money needs to be raised for a good cause, scores of people form assembly lines of cake baking, chocolate dipping and coconut rolling. Or they buy commercially made lamingtons at the store (no worries mate, we won’t tell).
It is thought that lamingtons are named for Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who was Governor of the colony of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Supposedly, the governor arrived with guests at his summer home Harlaxton House in Toowoomba, which being in a somewhat mountainous area of southern Queensland is much cooler than the tropical north. His chef, Armand Gallad, was taken by surprise and had only day-old sponge cake to serve for tea. Improvising, he dipped the cake in some chocolate icing and rolled it in dried coconut. While nowadays coconuts grow all over Queensland, they were not as ubiquitous in the 19th Century and dried coconut was not a common ingredient in colonial cuisine. Needless to say, the newly invented tea cakes were a big hit with the governor’s guests who immediately asked for the recipe.
Australians are not known for wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, but they do enjoy Australia Day — any excuse for a barbeque; remember, January is summer time down there. Before we get to the lamington recipe, have a look at this ad for Meat and Livestock Australia made by former Australian Rules Football star Sam Kekovich with his rather opinionated take on what should be served on Australia Day:
Makes 10-12 two-inch squares
You can use any yellow cake or sponge cake for this, but since it is a 19th Century recipe I decided to use a génoise which is an egg-leavened cake that was frequently used to make petits fours and other fancy tea cakes.
Génoise Cake adapted from Julia Child
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅔ cup flour, sifted
3 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1½teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
Preheat oven to 350F
Prepare an 8 inch round cake pan as follows: put a piece of waxed paper, cut to fit, in the bottom of the pan, then butter it well. Finally, flour the pan, knocking out any excess when finished.
Melt the butter and set it aside to cool.
Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt with a portable mixer or a stand mixer for about 10 minutes or until they are very thick and pale colored. When you lift the beaters out of the bowl a ribbon of batter should fall from them and lie distinctly on the surface in the bowl before sinking back in. This is what is known as the “ribbon stage” in baking.
Sprinkle about 1/4 of your sifted flour onto the batter and then quickly but gently fold the flour into it until it is almost incorporated. Do your best not to deflate the batter. Add 1/2 of the remaining flour and fold it in. Next, fold in about 1/3 of the cooled melted butter and then continue alternating between flour and butter until everything is incorporated.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and give it a shake to even it out. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is spongy when pressed and the cake has just started to pull away from the edges of the pan.
Let it cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out on a cooling rack. If the cake doesn’t come out of the pan right away leave it upside down on the rack for a few minutes and it should drop out. Peel off the waxed paper if it has stuck to the cake. When the cake has fully cooled (in about 11/2 hours) wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.
Chocolate and Coconut Coating
Be sure to check the label on your package of coconut. Much of the stuff sold in supermarket has added sugar, which makes it too sweet.
4 cups (about 1 pound) confectioner’s sugar
⅓ cup cocoa powder
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup milk
2 cups dried, unsweetened coconut
Remove your génoise cake from the refrigerator and cut it into 2-inch pieces.
In a double boiler, or a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl), combine the confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, butter and milk. Stir together until it becomes a smooth liquid that is easily pourable. Remove the icing from the stove, but leave the water simmering as you will probably need it again during the process.
Pierce each piece of génoise cake with a fork and dunk it in the chocolate icing until it is completely covered. It helps to use a spoon in the other hand to scoop icing over the cake. Hold the piece of cake over the bowl and allow any excess icing to drip off, then place the cake on a plate of dried coconut and quickly roll it to cover all sides. Finally, put the finished lamington on a rack to set.
As you go, you’ll find that the chocolate icing will thicken as it cools, making it difficult to dip the pieces of cake. Bring the bowl or pot back to the stove, set it over the simmering water and stir to regain a pourable consistency. You may have to do this several times during the icing process. If, towards the end, it is still too thick even after reheating, add a little milk to thin it out.
Continue until all of your lamingtons are iced and rolled in coconut. Once they have set they will keep for several days if stored in an air tight container.
Variation: After the lamingtons are set you can split them with a knife and fill the center with strawberry jam.