• Lamingtons are much-loved for good reason. (Alan Benson)
The classic sponge cake has a surprising history. Bakers are updating it by adding riberries, salted egg yolk and black ants.
By
Audrey Bourget

20 Feb 2020 - 11:09 AM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2020 - 11:29 AM

Like with many other Australian sweets, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the origins of the lamington, the cubic sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and desiccated coconut. 

But for Maurice French, emeritus professor at the University of Southern Queensland and author of The Lamington Enigma: A Survey of the Evidence, there’s no doubt: “It’s definitely Australian and, even more so, definitely from Queensland.” 

French started investigating the story of the cake at the request of a journalist. “I’m from Toowoomba, in Queensland. Many older people here believe the lamington was invented here by a cook working for Governor Lamington when he was staying in his summer residence,” he explains. “It became mythology in Toowoomba.”

After going through old recipe books and cookery columns, French came to a different conclusion. The most likely scenario is that the lamington was invented in a cookery class at Brisbane Technical College, in the early 1900s. While it's often believed that the cake was named after the Queensland governor at the time, French says it was more probably named after his wife, Lady Mary Lamington, who spent a lot of time at the college.

“But it’s quite misleading to pinpoint one individual that invented the lamington,” he adds. “One thing I found in looking at food history is that it’s almost impossible to say one person invented a particular dish, whether it’s the lamington, the pavlova or the Anzac biscuit. The nature of cooking is that it tends to be a collective experience: somebody will have an embryonic recipe and other people will add to it.” 

After publishing his book in 2013, French found an even earlier lamington recipe from 1900 featuring a layer of icing, a precursor to the jam and cream layers often seen today.

The ultimate Australian lamington

Since the 19th century, the lamington has gone from a cake baked mainly at home to a bakery staple. It has even experienced a bit of a renaissance in recent years.

Fine-dining restaurants like Bennelong and Attica have created high-end versions of the desserts with ingredients like liquid nitrogen coconut milk parfait or black ants.

Many bakers also like to add their little touch to the classic. At Melbourne’s Beatrix, the cake is covered in roasted coconut flakes. At Sydney’s Flour and Stone, the sponge is soaked in panna cotta and has a berry compote centre.

In Singapore, Australian pop-up Tokyo Lamington flavours the cake with salted egg yolk, pandan kaya or black sesame.

"It’s almost impossible to say one person invented a particular dish, whether it’s the lamington, the pavlova or the Anzac biscuit."

If you think these stray too far from the original, think again. Colourful and flavoured lamingtons are not new. “Coloured lamingtons like pink lamingtons, were very popular in the Depression of the 1930s to brighten things up,” says French.

Smith’s even launched lamington-flavoured potato chips on New Year's Day.

The ultimate Australian Lamington

It’s hard to make the lamington more Australian, but we believe Nornie Bero has done just that at her Indigenous cafe Mabu Mabu by incorporating native ingredients.

“We’re an Indigenous Australian business, so we tend to use riberry, quandong and hibiscus jam. We want to keep it native and celebrate native Australian fruits. Riberries have a very unique taste. It’s a bit sour, so the mix of sweet and sour works well with the lamington,” explains Bero. “We also use strawberry gum to dust the lamingtons sometimes.”

Her lamingtons are available via catering, but she plans on making them a staple at the cafe this year.

“I really want to keep it Australian. We get to experience so many delicacies here in Melbourne; beautiful French patisseries and Italian desserts, but it’s great to keep it Australian,” she says.

“I really wanted to bring back the lamington because it’s an Australian dish. The generation growing up now will know it’s Australian and a part of us.” 

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