In years gone by I had traditionally written about something from Scotland in honour of Burns Night which falls on 25 January. This year I thought I’d do things a little differently. As Australia Day falls on 26 January, how about something Antipodean instead?
If we’re doing Australian, it just has to be lamingtons. This is not a cake that I see very often, even in a city like London with a decent Aussie population, but I do remember seeing them on Neighbours when I was young and being introduced to the concept of the “lamington drive”. This involved making and then selling lots of these little cakes, and it was pretty much the way of raising money for a good cause. From what I knew, they were pieces of sponge, dipped in chocolate icing and coated in coconut.
They were apparently named either for Lord Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, or after his wife, the surprisingly named Lady Lamington. You can understand why they used his title when looking for a cake name, as his full name (Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Cochrane-Baillie) didn’t really trip of the tongue.
So I set about making a batch of lamingtons. First question: is there some single authentic recipe for making them? It would seem not. There are various different recipes for the sponge (such as genoise, Victoria or pound cake) and chocolate glaze ideas range from a smooth proper ganache to something sweeter and more obviously icing-like. I ignored suggestions to use pink icing on the basis I never saw the Robinson household or anyone else in Ramsay Street making them that way.
I settled on genoise, but then had to decide if I would try to make a deep cake and cut it into pieces, or would I try to include some jam element? Again, I don’t remember seeing jam on Neighbours but I think the right tangy, fruity jam is a good complement to sweet chocolate icing. I decided to make one large thin sheet of cake, which I would cut in two and sandwich the pieces together with apricot jam. That decision was based on what I had in the cupboard, but I think anything that has some sharpness to it would work well, such as raspberry or blackcurrant jam. Something more muted like strawberry would just add more sweetness but no contrast, but if that’s what you like, then go for it.
Many of the recipes that I did see suggested not using cake which was very fresh – you want the cake to be ever so slightly stale (whatever that means) and apparently this was best done but wrapping the cake in cling film and letting it sit in the fridge overnight. I’m not sure whether this really made a difference, or just ensured that the cake really was properly cooled, but it did cut neatly and cleanly into pieces. Given you will be glazing these guys and rolling them in coconut, neat slicing is not really that important as icing can cover a multitude of sins, but I was happy that the pieces didn’t just start falling apart. I took this as a good sign for when I was going to ice them.
For the glaze, I quickly discounted the idea of a ganache. While I have not been to Australia (yet), it is fair to assume it is a warm place for most of the time, and so it would be rather daft to make a cake with an icing that would melt easily in warm weather. So the icing I came up with is made from a warm mixture of milk, butter, dark chocolate and cocoa powder to which you add the icing sugar, then keep the lot warm over a pan of hot water. This keeps the icing smooth and makes it easier to coat the cakes, but then it will set fairly quickly after you’ve rolled the cakes in coconut. While most recipes use just cocoa powder, I also added some dark chocolate to the icing which seemed to help get a good colour and flavour.
The actual glazing process was quite fun – not something I would want to attempt in a hurry, and the first couple of lamingtons took a bit of time to get right. I found it easiest to gently drop one into the icing, then used a spoon to pour glaze over the cake. Once it is coated, you just slip a fork underneath, then allow the extra icing to drizzle off the cake. Then comes the fun part – you need to quickly transfer the cake onto the desiccated coconut, which you have on a large plate right next to you. Then you have to use your hands to form a coconut mountain around the cake, and press it a bit so the coconut sticks to the glaze. Then you need to flip the lamington over, so that all sizes are covered, and then move it to a wire rack. And all the while, the glaze is a bit soft, so you will probably have to fix the shape a bit with your fingers so it looks presentable. After you have done a few of them, you’ll defiantely develop a “lamington technique”.
And speaking of coconut…I was not sure if I should use plain or sweetened coconut for this recipe, so I bought both types. As this is a traditional recipe, I thought it might be made with the sweeter stuff, but to be sure, I tested them both before using them, and this taste test told me that the sweetened coconut was not right. Yes, it was softer and seemed more tender, but it had a rather peculiar aftertaste that I did not like at all – and then I checked the ingredients, it turned out it was just 65% coconut. All that apparent “tenderness” was coming from propylene glycol. I’m not a Luddite, and looked into what this was – it’s safe for food (which I would hope, since it was in that coconut!) but the impact on the flavour meant it was going nowhere near my lamingtons, but straight in the bin. Back to good old-fashioned unsweetened desiccated coconut we went! If you want to try something a bit different, you could toast the coconut, but that’s as far as I would go. You could use chopped nuts if you’re not a coconut fan, but then I think you’re veering away from what a true lamington is.
Finally, I should say that my recipe basically recommends you have a whole packet of coconut on a plate for dipping, but you won’t use all of it. I just think that you’ll struggle to get a good finish if you try to use less, so don’t be puzzled if you have lots left over after your icing escapades.
And how were they? I was all prepared for them to be a bit naff, but I must confess I really liked them. The cake, the set-but-soft icing, the coconut and the jam come together into a really lovely cake. They also looked great piled up high on a plate, so I will definitely be making these again. And not just for 26 January!
To make Lamingtons (makes 16)
For the sponge:
• 2 large eggs
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 60g butter, melted and cooled
• 130g tangy jam (apricot, raspberry, blackcurrant…)
For the icing
• 120ml whole milk
• 30g unsalted butter
• 50g dark chocolate
• 50g cocoa powder
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• generous pinch of salt
• 450g icing sugar
• extra milk, to thin the icing
• 250g desiccated coconut
1. Start wit the sponge. Preheat the oven to 180˚C (350˚F). Line a 20 x 30cm tray with greaseproof paper.
2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat. Put to one side to cool. In a bowl, combine the flour and baking powder and mix well. Set aside.
3. Put the eggs, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk until pale, thick and fluffy (around 3-4 minutes). Gently fold in the flour mixture using a spatula. Finally add the melted butter and gently fold it into the mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and gently level off the mixture as best you can.
4. Bake the cake for 15-20 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cover with a tea towel. Allow to cool completely, then cover with film and refrigerate overnight.
5. The next day, time to prepare the sponge. Cut the cooled cake sheet in half. Spread one piece with jam, then place the other piece on tip. Leave to rest for an hour so that the jam holds the two layers together.
6. Cut the cake into pieces – trim the edges with a sharp knife to get good, clean edges. Now cut into 4 equal strips, and cut each strip into 4 pieces. They should end up roughly cube shaped.
7. Make the icing. Put the milk, butter, chocolate, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt into a medium saucepan, and heat gently until the butter and chocolate have melted. It will become very thick. Add the icing sugar, and beat vigorously until smooth.
8. Transfer the icing to a bowl, and balance it above a pan of warm water (this will keep the icing warm, and it should set more quickly when coating the lamingtons). Now check the icing consistency – you will need to add more milk to get it to a smooth but thick icing which pours easily – you don’t need much though, I only added a further 3 teaspoons of milk.
9. Tip the coconut onto a large plate.
10. Time to decorate. Drop a piece of the sponge into the icing, then use a spoon to coat it with the glaze. When done, put a fork underneath, lift it up and allow excess icing to drop off. Wipe the base of the cake on the edge of the bowl, then transfer it into the coconut. Coat it in the coconut, then transfer to a wire rack and leave to set (allow 30 minutes).