Saturday, March 13, 2010

Poofy Woolly Biscuits: Lamington Love

A friend of mine is from New Zealand and as I tend to do, I asked her what her favorite sweet treat from childhood had been.

Without hesitation and in that very cool accent of hers she answered, "Lamingtons."

Of course I love it when I have never heard of a dessert -- it sets my inner Sherlock Holmes at the ready.

I've written before in this blog about taste memories and just how hard they are to replicate. This particular treat also fell into that additional category of sweets much like medialunas or kolaches that are typically bought at a bakery instead of made at home making it harder to find a recipe.

A Lamington is a square piece of cake dipped in chocolate icing and rolled in dessicated coconut (very finely ground coconut). Lamingtons are typically eaten at breakfast and teatime.

And just why is it called a Lamington? What is known for certain is that Lamingtons are named after Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington. Lord Lamington, A British Subject, was Governor of Queensland (a state in Australia) from 1896-1901.

But just as in the creation of the Dundee Cake, Lafayette Gingerbread or Banbury Tarts, the way the dessert came into being is the subject of several different legends.

One story is that Lamington's chef was called upon to provide a dessert to Lord Lamington's guests on short notice. Having only sponge cake left over from the day before -- he improvised with ingredients he had on hand and created the Lamington. Other stories state the dessert resembles the hat favored by Lord Lamington and yet another says the cake was accidentally created when one of Lord Lamington's cooks dropped sponge cake into a bowl of chocolate. The cook then rolled the cake in coconut to make it presentable to Lord Lamington and his guests.

Unfortunately, Lord Lamington wasn't as fond of them as the rest of the nation and referred to the dessert Lamington as those "bloody poofy woolly biscuits." But then again, that could also be legend and not fact.

But of course, it doesn't matter what the creation story is but rather how this humble dessert became the flagship dessert of a nation: in 2006 the Lamington was inducted into the National Trust of Queensland's list of Heritage Icons (it is in good company -- anzac cookies and vegemite are also on that list) and each year on July 21, Australians celebrate National Lamington Day.

And yes, even though this is considered an official Australian sweet, New Zealanders also claim Lamingtons as their own dessert even it is isn't a Heritage Icon of New Zealand.

But probably even more indicative of how Lamingtons are part of the fabric of Australia and New Zealand, is that it is the primary treat sold at most bake sales. In fact, bake sales are typically called Lamington Drives.

Depending on what cookbook or Internet site you look at, the cake part of a Lamington is butter, sponge or pound cake.

And as often happens with a dessert, variations are bound to happen. Some bakeries split the Lamington in half and add jam or custard between the layers. Others have the audacity to cover the cake in pink icing before rolling them in coconut.

But my friend only had disdain for those impostors.

In her opinion, the Lamingtons she found only on trips back to New Zealand were large -- about three inches square -- a yellow cake that she called squishy and were dipped in chocolate.

She encouraged me to give them a try saying that her young son would be so excited to have them again having been introduced to them on a recent trip to New Zealand with her.

In my quest to find a recipe for Lamingtons, I was a bit frustrated to find that most recipes started with the instructions to "first, buy a sponge cake at the bakery."

Not very helpful. The first few recipes I came upon that didn't instruct me to buy the cake were for a simple butter cake. Turns out there is also a special Lamington pan that is used to bake Lamingtons. This pan is 7x11-inches. Of course, I didn't have a Lamington pan so for my tests I used a 9x9 square pan.

I thought it would be easy to give my friend a taste of home. I put together a simple butter cake, mixed together an icing of cocoa powder, milk, butter and confectioners sugar, got out the coconut and assembled.

The process was quite messy but easy. I boxed up my beauties and took them to my friend for a taste test.

She eyed them critically. "The coconut is too big and the chocolate icing isn't dark enough," she said. She took a bite.

"Nope, cake isn't squishy enough," she said.

She told me next time I saw her that her son wouldn't even try them because they didn't "look right."

This Lamington Love was serious business.

Her comment that the cake wasn't squishy enough made me wonder if I should have used a sponge cake. But her description of the cake didn't match my idea of a sponge cake -- American or French.

So I did what most people do these days when they need an answer -- I twittered about my quest.

I knew I had several followers from New Zealand and thought they might be able to help. And I wasn't disappointed. I even had one follower promise to send me her mum's recipe.

During my search I also noticed that the photo on the cover of Karen DeMasco's new book, The Craft of Baking, looked familiar. I quickly turned to that recipe and yes, it was for Lamington Cupcakes. Could a Lamington trend be brewing?! Unfortunately her recipe was a butter cake.

In the end, after I waded through all the ideas and suggestions, I discovered that there is such a thing as an Australian sponge cake. And here are the main ingredients:
self-raising flour, all-purpose flour, corn flour, sugar and eggs. No butter.

The first time I made the cake using a butter cake recipe, it was really difficult to cut the cake in to even and nice looking squares. This time I froze the cake after it was cooled. The next day I trimmed the edges and cut the cake in to nicely shaped squares.

I mention this because believe it or not, my friend said that these Lamingtons were pretty darn close to the Lamingtons she had back home. And her son loved them. Her only comment was that they tasted like day old Lamingtons. Not a bad thing but the cake was not as squishy as it should be. So perhaps if I had only refrigerated the cake for a few hours instead of freezing it, my squish factor would have been higher.

The exacting baker in me wanted to make these several more times until my friend said those magic words, "these are just as I remember them." But I think I had come as close as I could get without the pan and the ingredients that could only be found or perhaps better said, understood, in New Zealand and in the exact bakery where the Lamingtons of my friend's childhood were purchased all those years ago.

1 comment:

  1. Sponge cake, and sponge cake only. No filling, no pink icing, just sponge covered in chocolate icing and coconut. That is all. Anything else is sacrilege.