Lamingtons are the stuff of an Aussie childhood. Making regular appearances at birthday parties, morning and afternoon teas and community fundraisers across the country, these seemingly simple cakes have a complicated lineage.
The Larousse Gastronomique (2001) describes a lamington as “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”.
Most accounts of the history of the lamington mention Lord Lamington, but there are many different versions of how it came to be. One version tells how a maid accidentally dropped Lord Lamington’s favourite sponge cake into some melted chocolate and, so as to avoid food waste and messy fingers, the cake was dipped in coconut – a maid’s error turned into a delicious success.
Another story suggests that Lord Lamington had unexpected guests and, since the cupboard was bare but for a stale sponge cake, the chef (who was French) had to improvise – he coated the cake in chocolate and rolled it in coconut to disguise the staleness. Lord Lamington is thought to have approved of the chef’s creation, although was later reported to have referred to the cakes as “those bloody poofy woolly biscuits”.
It’s said that the society ladies who tasted the lamingtons loved them so much they requested the recipe, and it was subsequently 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! 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.
Although there may be many versions of the lamington’s history, no matter who really invented it or where and when, today it’s one of Australia’s national dishes – it was placed on the National Trust of Queensland’s 2006 list of Heritage Icons. There’s even a National Lamington Day every 21 July! I can’t remember a birthday party not having lamingtons on offer and very few afternoon teas in Australia miss them out. For many, the mere mention of the word might conjure up images of the quintessential “lamington drives” – whereby kids would assemble and sell the lamingtons to raise money for their 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 white or butter cakes too. My cake recipe is adapted from one of my Nana’s cakes that works well here – it’s a little sturdier which means it’s easier to dip in the chocolate icing. This recipe makes bite-sized lamingtons, which are perfect for parties.
Mini homemade Lamingtons (makes 30)
For the cake
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
200g (1 ⅓ cups) all-purpose (plain) flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
110g butter, melted and cooled
For the icing
75g unsalted butter
250ml (1 cup) milk
65g (1/2 cup) cocoa powder
435g (3 cups) icing sugar
Around 6 cups desiccated coconut
Method for the sponge
Preheat the oven to 350˚F/180˚C/gas 4. Grease and flour a 20cm x 30cm pan, lining the base of the pan with parchment paper. Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl with an hand mixer (medium-high speed) until pale and thick (around 3 minutes). Sift the flour and baking powder over the egg and sugar mixture and use a rubber spatula to gently combine the dry ingredients. Add the melted butter, about ⅓at a time, gently mixing with a rubber spatula until completely combined, then pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. The cake should spring back when lightly touched in the centre. Turn cake onto a wire rack to cool.
Cut cake into even, bit-sized pieces about 4-5cm. You will probably end up discarding the edge pieces, as they won’t be completely square. At this stage you can refrigerate the cake for a few hours or leave the cake overnight in an airtight container, because a slightly less fresh cake will be easier to dip in the chocolate icing.
When you are ready to dip the cakes, set up an area large enough to accommodate bowls for the cake pieces, the chocolate icing, the coconut and also a large tray topped with parchment paper and a cooling rack. You will need to work quickly to dip the cakes so having everything organised in advance will help.
Method for the icing
Sift the icing sugar and the cocoa powder into two different bowls. In a large saucepan, melt the butter, then mix in the milk. Next, using a whisk to stir, start to add the cocoa powder. Once the cocoa powder is completely dissolved, add the icing sugar about a cup at a time, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. When all the icing sugar is combined, pour the chocolate mix into two separate bowls – that way when one mix gets full of crumbs you can switch to the next one.
Working quickly, using a fork, dip the cake cubes into the chocolate mix and roll them around with the tines of the fork to completely coat. Drain any excess mixture off the cakes then drop them in the coconut and roll them around lightly to coat evenly with coconut. Set the cake cubes on the cooling rack placed over parchment paper to drain. You can refrigerate the cakes to help set the icing, then bring them to room temperature before serving.