Raspberry Debacle

7 June, 2007

Lamington Cupcakes and Lamington Truffles

Filed under: afternoon tea, cake, food origins, spring, vegetarian — Holly @ 1:47 pm

Lamington cupcakes, with a floral background.

One of my favourite things about food is that every recipe must have been invented by someone. Somebody decided, in the days before electric mixers, to beat egg whites with sugar for half an hour and then plop them in the oven; someone decided to stick some chopped-up cow inside the cow’s own intestine. It’s as if Archimedes, getting in his bath and noticing the water level rise, had cried out “Eureka! We can use this to measure the volume of objects, oh and also I bet if we took the displaced water and made it really warm and put carrots in it then they’d go soft and a bit delicious.”

Because a lot of foods are the result of what seem to be massively unintuitive decisions, a lot of food origin stories will attribute a new recipe to a happy accident; someone left corn out on the bench too long, someone else cut their french fries too thin in order to aggravate an awkward customer. My very favourite food origin story concerns the lamington, an Australian cake made from squares of sponge, often joined together with strawberry jam, dipped in chocolate icing and then desiccated coconut. Wikipedia’s version of the story:

Lamingtons are most likely named after Charles Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. However, the precise reasoning behind this is not known, and stories vary. According to one account, the dessert resembled the homburg hats favoured by Lord Lamington. Another tells of a banquet in Cloncurry during which the governor accidentally dropped a block of sponge cake into a dish of gravy, and then threw it over his shoulder, causing it to land in a bowl of desiccated coconut or peanut butter. A diner thought of replacing the gravy with chocolate and thusly created the lamington known it today.

This is the most fantastic food origin story ever, replying on:

  1. a baron; who
  2. eats sponge-cake over a dish of gravy; and who on
  3. dropping the cake into the gravy is sufficiently infuriated to
  4. fish it out only to
  5. throw it over his shoulder, where it meets the work of
  6. somebody who left a dish of desiccated coconut lying around at a banquet, and who is probably not the same person as the one who
  7. naturally responds to this by looking at the gravy and suggesting it be replaced with chocolate.

This is without even addressing the claim that the dish might not have contained coconut, but instead peanut butter. Or the alternative suggestion that lamingtons might have been named after the baron because of their resemblance to his homburg hats, which… well, this is a homburg hat, from Hats in the Belfry:


A homburg hat

And this is a lamington:

A lamington
(from manthatcooks)

I don’t know, perhaps barons get special homburg hats that are shaped like boxes and covered in diamond shards.

The main trouble with lamingtons, for those of us who don’t live in Australia and can’t get them at the local bakery, is that they’re a pain to make; you have to stab the sponge cake with a fork and drip chocolate icing on it while you rotate it slowly (dropping the squares in the chocolate and then tossing them over your shoulder doesn’t actually give you a complete covering, it turns out, and also can get really messy when you miss the bowl of coconut). My current solution is to make lamington-style cupcakes, with a swirl of jam in the batter and lamington icing on top. Non-Australians will also bite into these without fear, which is not necessarily the case with the traditional lamington; whether you consider this an advantage or not depends, I suppose, on how much you like them.


21 March, 2007

Simnel Cake: it’s an anagram of Anemic Elks

Filed under: cake, food origins, fruit, gluten-free, special occasions, spring, sweets, vegetarian — Holly @ 4:21 pm

An apostle ball on a slice of simnel cake

There are three stories of the origin of Simnel Cake. The first alleges that the name comes from “similia”, Latin for the fine flour from which the cake was originally made; this story is both plausible and dull. The second, more exciting, claims it was invented by Lambert Simnel, a fifteenth-century ten-year-old who impersonated the Earl of Warwick (also age ten), was crowned King Edward VI in Dublin, fought against Henry VII, and was later - aged eleven by this time - pardoned and given a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. Better.

The final story of the origin of the Simnel Cake comes from an old woman from Salop, who was told the story as a child:

An old Shropshire tale has it that long ago there lived an honest old couple, Simon and Nelly, and it was their custom to gather their children around them at Easter. Nelly had some leftover unleavened dough from Lent, and Simon reminded her there was some plum pudding still left over from Christmas. They could make some treats for the visiting family.

Nell put the leftovers together, and Sim insisted the cake should be boiled, while she was just as certain that it should be baked. They had a fight and came to blows, but compromised by doing both. They cooked the cake over a fire made from furniture broken in the scuffle, and some eggs, similarly broken, were used to baste it. The delicacy was named after this cantankerous couple.

I’m very fond of stories about how particular food came to be. I recently left some balsamic vinegar to reduce on the stove and forgot about it, and found it a couple of hours later reduced to a black sponge with the texture of brittle plastic. Since I’d read a lot of stories about food origins, I took a bite, assuming it would be delicious and that in a few months I could languidly tell reporters the story of how I discovered BalsamiSnax and became a millionaire. The fact that it tasted horrible is no reason why some other unlikely concatenations of food mightn’t turn out delicious, and any food origin that involves a married couple hitting each other with stools until they break and then using those stools to bake their new cake is a story it would be churlish to disbelieve.

These days, the qualifications for a simnel cake are a bit less stringent than they used to be: stool-smashing is optional, and there’s no boiling required, for a start. Other people’s simnel cakes seem to establish a simple but clear set of rules:
1. The cake must be made on, or for, Mothering Sunday (the 18th of March, this year) or Easter Sunday.
2. It must be a fruit cake.
4. There must be a layer of marzipan inside.
3. There must be another layer of marzipan on top.
5. There must be eleven marzipan balls on top of that, representing the Apostles, except for Judas who, as punishment for betraying Christ, was denied the right to be represented in confectionery form.
6. There must be some other endearing but slightly silly decoration on top, which should be related to Easter and rebirth in some way.

Unfortunately, I don’t like marzipan (presumably it was invented when Zeppo Marx fell into a giant pan of almonds just after he’d been for a swim in a pool that was unexpectedly filled with sugar, at which he was so angry that he broke eggs all over himself and rolled around until he was covered in a thick white paste; it certainly tastes like it).

I’m also not really very enthusiastic about fruit cake (except in the very broad sense that, say, an orange cake or a bar of chocolate with sultanas in it is a fruit cake).

Also, I realised it was Simnel Cake Day at four-thirty on Mothering Sunday, half an hour before the local supermarket closed, and one of my housemates ā€” the one who told me about Simnel Cake in the first place ā€” is gluten-intolerant. Fortunately I had already chosen to discount the “similia” fine-flour origin story.


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