by Julia Robinson
This week marks the birthday of the second Baron Lamington, Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Baron Lamington – full name Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Cochrane-Baillie – may have been the inspiration for the lamington, a small cake dipped in chocolate icing, rolled in coconut, and considered as Australian as the Anzac biscuit or the iced vovo.
The first mention of lamington appears in print in 1901 in the Brisbane Queenslander a few days before Lord and Lady Lamington left Government House at the end of their antipodean posting. The editor of the ‘Women’s Club’ column replies to a correspondent: ‘Native Born.—Have not heard of a recipe for “Lamington cake”. Can you give some clue to the appearance and ingredients of the cake?’ (14 December 1901)
Three weeks later the ‘Cookery’ column in the Queenslander provided the recipe:
Lamington Cake (from a Subscriber). The weight of two eggs in butter, sugar, and flour, two eggs, half-teaspoonful baking powder. Beat the butter to a cream, add the sugar and yolks of eggs, one by one, then the whites beaten stiff, lastly add gradually flour and baking powder. Bake in a moderate oven. When cold cut the cake like a sandwich and put the white mixture between, then cut into small pieces and cover on all sides with the chocolate mixture. Dip the cakes into grated cocoanut and put in a cool place. The Mixture.—2oz. butter, 6oz. icing sugar, beat to a cream, and divide equally in two basins, and to one half add one and a half teaspoonful cocoa (to be had in small tins) dissolved in three teaspoons boiling water. Beat well. (4 January 1902)
The lamington cake’s popularity grew quickly. Within a year Perth’s Western Mail had printed a recipe, and by 1909 newspaper evidence shows that it was established as a competition item in the baking section of several horticultural shows, in the Victorian towns of Yea and Euroa, and in Grafton, New South Wales. The shortened form lamington occurs around this time too.
There are several accounts of the invention of the cake, and all are set in Queensland (some at Government House) at the time of Lamington’s governorship. In these the lamington is a happy accident (a cake accidentally dropped in melted chocolate and then rolled in coconut to avoid sticky fingers), the result of thrift (a clever way of using up stale cake), or born of necessity (making do with ingredients to hand). In some accounts Lord Lamington himself is present, but in each the cake is named after him. These stories suggest his place in Australian culinary history is assured.
Except it may not be quite that simple. These accounts of the lamington’s creation are all from the 1970s, suspiciously late as evidence. Added to this there is New Zealand evidence of different forms – leamington, lemmington – that suggest there may be a different origin altogether. So despite the circumstantial Queensland evidence from early twentieth century newpapers, the jury is out. Although Lord Lamington is a hot contender for the lamington’s inspiration, at present we are still obliged to say the origin of this little cake is uncertain.