Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The great lamington debate

A plate of lamingtons at a work morning tea has been the catalyst for a great debate among my colleagues: should lamingtons have jam in the middle or not? My answer is an unequivocal no!

First, some background. A proper, home-made lamington is a true delight: a cube of light, airy butter or sponge cake, dipped in chocolate icing and rolled in desiccated coconut. Lamingtons are one of my favourite cakes and there is nothing more delightful for morning tea when made properly. Get it wrong, though - the cake is too dry and crumbly, or the icing is not the right consistency - and there's nothing worse.

There's no clear indication of when or how lamingtons were first baked, with many weird and wonderful anecdotes on the internet. Some stories say that a cook improvised when discovering that the sponge cake to be served up for afternoon tea had gone stale and the chocolate icing and coconut was used to disguise this and make it more palatable. It is thought that the cakes were named after Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901.

However they came into being, lamingtons have become a recognisably Australian cake - indeed, in 2006 the National Trust of Queensland named the lamington as one of Queensland's 12 favourite icons. When I was growing up, lamington drives were very popular as fund-raisers for schools and the football and netball clubs. I think this is where some people developed a preference for jam-filled lamingtons, as these lamingtons were flatter and drier than home-made ones and the strawberry jam helped to moisten and flavour the cakes.

The classic Australian cookbooks all agree that lamingtons do not have jam or whipped cream in the middle. The Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union (PMWU) cookbook (first published in 1904), Cookery: the Australian Way (the standard home economics textbook for secondary school students, first published in 1966) and Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion all feature similar recipes for butter cake and chocolate icing, although Stephanie prefers a Genoese sponge cake to butter cake.

It is easy to get lamingtons wrong. The cubes should not be too big, nor too small (too many bakeries sell gigantic lamingtons that are disappointingly dry and tasteless). The cake should be moist and not dry or crumbly. The cubes are much easier to cut and ice if you make the cake the day before and leave it in the fridge overnight. I like the contrast of the butter cake with sweet chocolate icing and the coconut. To me, a filling of jam or whipped cream makes the cake too sweet and detracts from the lamington's pure simplicity. Those who prefer otherwise say that the jam adds a sweetness and texture to what is an otherwise bland cake.

Let me know what you think - jam or no jam?


Jason S said...

There is nothing as disappointing as biting into a massive block of lamington and finding nothing but sponge. What tastes good for the first two bites quickly descends into a bland and dry culinary experience. If the lamington can switch between butter cake and sponge, why can't we as easily switch between jam and no jam? Food is an evolutionary beast. Have a look at the humble Italian panettone. Traditionally it was just a lump of sweet, airy bread, but now is filled with everything from chocolate to zabaglione. All for the better, I say ...

Melinda said...

Hi Jason - thanks for your spirited defence of jam-filled lamingtons! While I agree that food must evolve, there is also a place for classics that should not be tampered with. When we pass on recipes, we are also passing on history and tradition that are part of life's great tapestry. The sense of continuity between the generations is part of what makes food so fascinating. Some recipes benefit from a modern update but we'll have to agree to disagree that lamingtons fall into this category!:)

Miss Eagle said...

If you pop over to my blog, Oz Tucker at, you will find a great deal about Amy Schauer. Amy Schauer invented the Lamington. She also trained generations of Queensland's domestic science teachers. The great Australian artist, now deceased, Lloyd Rees claims that when he was a boy of 13 he was at a friends home playing tennis when Amy Schauer came in a said "You know what we made at college to-day." So the provenance of the Lamington is quite clear. As for antecedents, well cooking is like folk lore and myth - there are always antecedents.

Melinda said...

Hi Miss Eagle. Thanks for the information on Amy Schauer. It's such a shame that she is not more well-known, because her name did not come up once in all my research. Sounds like another classic Australian cookbook and author for me to track down!

kel said...

Jam or no jam? It's all in the sponge!

A bad experience with a bought, plastic wrapped, jam filled, lamington as a kid, has left me scared for life. Plastic tasting lamingtons filled with jam for the sole purpose of diverting your attention from the taste sensation???
Sometimes the traditional recipes handed down through the generations are better left as they are. Grandma's lamingtons didn't need any jam.

Melinda said...

Hi Kel - I couldn't agree more! It's funny how run-ins with food in your childhood tend to scar you for life.