After a season of baking and gorging on gooey cookies and cakes, the last thing I want to think about is more rich sweets. Yet parties still happen, dinners continue to take place and I have desserts to make. For a light yet pleasing meal-ender I opt for the small, delicate square cake known as a Lamington. Sized for one serving and dipped in a chocolate glaze followed by a dusting of shredded coconut, it makes a delicious change from winter’s heavy treats.
My first bite of a Lamington happened at a coffee shop in Melbourne, Australia. This was a fitting spot, for Australians have long claimed this sweet as their own. They bake them for Australia Day on Jan. 26, which marks the 18th-century arrival of the British, and for National Lamington Day on July 21.
A sweet treat with a long history
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Several origin stories for Lamingtons exist. Most involve Charles Wallace Baillie, known formally as Lord Lamington, governor of the Australian state of Queensland from 1896 to 1901.
The Australian Lamington Appreciation Society maintains that one of Lord Lamington’s servants accidentally dropped his favorite cake into melted chocolate. Rather than have her discard the sticky sweet, Lamington advised her to roll it in dried coconut, a novel ingredient at the time. By coating the cake in coconut, he could still eat it without getting his hands dirty. Why he wouldn’t have just used a fork remains a mystery.
Two tales involve Lamington’s French chef, Armand Galland. In one, Galland created the recipe as way to use up day-old sponge cake. In the other he took what he had in the Government House pantry — leftover vanilla sponge cake, chocolate and coconut — and whipped up a teatime treat for unexpected guests.
Yet another story credits early 20th-century cooking instructor Amy Schauer of the Brisbane Technical College. She supposedly concocted this confection in honor of Lord Lamington’s wife.
Australians aren’t the only ones asserting ownership. New Zealanders point to the 1888 painting “Summer Pantry” by J.R. Smythe as proof that the Lamington is their creation. In this watercolor, a small, half-eaten cake appears on the counter of a cottage near New Zealand’s Wellington Harbor. They believe the cake depicted is a Lamington.
It all starts with the sponge cake
No matter who came up with the Lamington, the basic recipe remains the same. Slice a vanilla sponge cake into 1 1/2-inch to 2-inch squares. Dunk the cubes into a dark chocolate glaze and dust them with sweetened, shredded coconut. With that, you have this classic dessert.
While these cakes taste delicious as is, variations do exist. Sometimes bakers slice the squares in half and then spread jam between the halves. Jam in place, they squish the halves back together and dress them with chocolate and coconut. Others wait until the cakes have been coated before halving and adding preserves to them.
At Kiwiana in Park Slope, Brooklyn, chef-owner Mark Simmons features both a chocolate and a fruit Lamington on his menu. For the latter he dips squares of sponge cake into a fruit glaze, blankets them with dried coconut and then slices and fills his dazzling cakes with fresh fruit.
“I use the fruit that’s in season and good at the time and freshly whipped cream,” says the New Zealander, who currently offers raspberry Lamingtons at Kiwiana.
Other chefs have been known to use plum jam, lemon curd, vanilla or chocolate custard or whipped cream as their fillings. Purists, though, leave the insides of their Lamingtons bare.
Most agree that what makes a great Lamington is the sponge cake. “Use a delicious sponge, perhaps a day old so it’s better able to soak up the glaze,” Simmons says.
If you’re unfamiliar with sponge cake, think about Swiss rolls, ladyfingers, Victoria sponge, trifles or tiramisu. If you’ve ever tried one of them, you’ve had sponge cake. It’s the backbone of all these sweets.
What differentiates sponge from other cakes is its high proportion of eggs to flour. This gives it the airy, springy texture for which it’s known. Often butter or oil is omitted, which increases its lightness.
To create a sponge batter, egg yolks are beaten together with granulated sugar until fluffy. Meanwhile, egg whites are whisked until stiff and glossy. They are then slowly folded into the yolk mixture, alternating with small amounts of sifted flour.
By whipping air into the eggs and egg whites and gently folding all the ingredients together, the cake needs no other leavening agents. Air provides all the lift it requires.
The next time you find yourself stumped over what to take to a party or simply want a lighter, different dessert to end the evening meal, try Lamingtons. With their ethereal texture, delicate flavors and ease of preparation, they’re sure to make fans of you and your guests.
If you don’t have time to bake a sponge, you can substitute a store-bought sponge cake. It may not be quite as delectable as homemade, but in a pinch it’ll do.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Bake time: 25 to 30 minutes
Total time: 45 to 50 minutes
Yield: 12 2-inch squares
For the cake:
7 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
3/4 cup plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
For the filling:
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon good-quality strawberry or raspberry jam
For the topping:
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup water
3 cups shredded, sweetened coconut
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch spring-form pan with parchment paper.
2. In a medium bowl, beat together the egg yolks, 3/4 cup sugar and vanilla extract until light in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the 1/3 cup sugar and beat until stiff, glossy peaks form.
4. Using a spatula, gently fold a third of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Once the egg whites have been incorporated, fold in a third of the sifted flour. Repeat until you have a soft, fluffy batter.
5. Evenly spoon the batter into the spring-form pan. Place the pan in the oven and lower the temperature to 325 F. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden in color and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
6. To cool, invert the cake on a wire cooling rack. After an hour, remove the cake from the pan. You may need to use a thin, sharp knife to separate the cake from the pan before removing it. Cool completely before slicing. Note that you can leave the cake out overnight, uncovered, before slicing and icing it.
7. Using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, slice the cake in half width-wise. Remove the top half and set aside. Spread a thin layer of jam over the other half, coating the entire top surface. Place the top half back onto the cake.
8. Using a serrated knife, trim the edges on the cake so that you have somewhat of a square shape. Slice the cake into 12 squares.
9. In a medium bowl, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract and water. Place the shredded coconut in another bowl.
10. Using a fork or tongs, dip a cake square into the chocolate glaze. Allow the excess to drip off before dunking the cake into the coconut and covering all sides with it.
11. Place the finished Lamington onto a sheet of parchment paper and allow the glaze to set. Repeat until all the Lamingtons have been made.