Word is well and truly out: Lamingtons can be found at America's inaugural Toby's Estate cafe in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Jill Dupleix
We tend to be obsessive-compulsive about our cakes, and so do our cafes.
For a decade, it was all about the friand. Then it was the carrot cake, for what seemed like a century. Ditto banana bread. The iced cup-cake then reigned triumphant, vanquishing all others.
We've been through the Portuguese custard tart period, the cinnamon scroll era, the blueberry muffin moment ( a passing travesty), the chocolate brownie epoch, and the macaron millennium.
Secret New Zealand business: The Cook & Baker in Bondi Junction serves their lamingtons topped with strawberry jam and cream. Photo: Joshua Oldfield Photography
But always there, in the background, was the modest, domestic Aussie lamington. Not wanting to put itself forward, not remotely fashionable, and as far from trending as you can get.
It's a sensible cake, the lamington, designed to keep a square of sponge fresher for longer, by dipping it in chocolate, then rolling it in coconut so it wasn't too sticky to eat.
Nor does it have an exciting and romantic backstory. There is a tantalising whiff of controversy about it. Was it indeed created by Brisbane cookery teacher Amy Schauer in the early 1900s and named after the benefactor of her cookery school, Lady Lamington, wife of the governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1902, or did we just rip off a cake from the Scottish village of Lamington, or the Warwickshire town of Leamington Spa? Or indeed, from our New Zealand friends, who share our lamington love from across the Tasman.
Luscious lamingtons: LusciousKiki bakes up to 16 seasonal lamingtons with fresh ingredients every day. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Do we even care? Most investigations tend to peter out through sheer boredom, so we may never know.
The plain, uncoated truth is that the lamington is the perfect cake for a nice pot of tea or a double ristretto. It's feather light, texturally intriguing, and has more than a hint of granny glam about it. And it's ours. So why has it taken so long for the lammo to make it big on the shelves of our local cafes?
Rare, early sightings of the lamington outside its natural environment of school canteens and old-school cake shops occurred in the first decade of the 21st century, rapidly increasing by 2010.
By the time the renowned pastry chef and author David Lebovitz arrived in Sydney from Paris in 2011 for the local food festival, I was able to set up an "Introduction to the Lamington" – an important Australian ritual - for him over a caffe latte at Single Origin Roasters in Surry Hills.
The then-chef Matt Rothman baked up a lammo that enchanted David, a fellow small-cake obsessive and a smashing cook, who sent the word out on his blog, read by more than 100,000 followers a month.
David has since posted a terrific recipe of his own for lamingtons, and thanks to his followers around the globe, the word is well and truly out. I even stumbled across a lamington last year at America's inaugural Toby's Estate cafe in Brooklyn, New York City.
Back home, the lamington has well and truly landed. Sydney's Bourke Street Bakery has been making lamingtons with Callebaut chocolate and quince jam for a few months now. Check them out on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Chef Luke Mangan loves his mother's lamingtons so much he pinched her recipe and made it the highlight of the menu at his new wine bar Mojo, tucked into his innovative Headquarters gastroplex in Danks Street, Waterloo.
“Lamingtons have always been my favourite cakes, and mum used to make the best,” he says. “Mojo to me is all about the food I'm loving right now, so it made sense that it should be the star dessert.”
At Café Cre Asion in Surry Hills, normally a shrine to the sweet delights of the macaron, owner and chef Yu Sasaki has successfully fused his Japanese heritage with his Australian cultural life in the shape of a small, freshly baked lamington. It's just that it's green.
“We make a vanilla sponge, and sandwich it with sweet red-bean buttercream [adzuki],” says Yu. “Then we dip it into white chocolate infused with green tea, and roll it in toasted coconut.”
There's some secret New Zealand business going on at The Cook & Baker in Bondi Junction, where their house-baked lamington is served rather magnificently in the Kiwi-style (who knew?), with home-made strawberry jam and cream.
Owners Cherie Bevan and Tass Tauroa unashamedly press our nostalgic antipodean granny buttons with their retro-but-metro range of goodies, including the rarely seen pink lamington dipped in raspberry jelly.
“Tass and I wanted to go back to the old-school home-baking we grew up with in New Zealand,” says Cherie. “People just love the lamingtons – particularly men. I think it's the memories of grandma.”
But now, get this: Sydney has its own ridgy-didge, chocolate-dipped Lady of the Lamingtons.
Kirin (Kiki) Tipping had been in the hospitality business for 20 years, when her niece Lucy, then eight years old, came to her with a proposition. “Kiki,” she said, “I really like cupcakes, but once you've licked the icing off, there's nothing much left. I think you should start a business doing lamingtons. Really different lamingtons.”
Her aunt obediently thought about it, and realised there might just be a market for seriously seasonal, highly creative, absolutely luscious lamingtons.
So she returned to her niece with a business proposition. “Lucy, do you want me to run it for you until you're old enough to take over?”
“No” said Lucy firmly. “By then, I will be too busy working on a submarine.” (Note to recruiters: we need more girls like Lucy in the Royal Australian Navy.)
LusciousKiki (one word, joined as if by jam) now bakes up to 16 seasonal lamingtons, with fresh ingredients every day, from Country Valley dairy product from Picton to eggs from the Central Coast.
As a result, Aunty Kiki gets up every morning at 3am, and retires to bed by 6pm. “It's a solitary life,” she says. “But I see some wonderful sunrises.”
Tipping departs from the classics in that she bakes her own light, soft butter cake (“with real vanilla”) rather than sponge. “I find sponge can get a bit dry, and develop crunchy edges.”
Niece Lucy and her sister are heavily involved in product development, as one would hope. The Chocolate Coma is a big seller, as is the Tart Luscious Blonde of white chocolate, cranberries and vanilla. The Salted Caramel is, quite frankly, breath-taking - a soft, caramel cake, white chocolate chip "dip", and a lady-like shawl of shredded coconut doesn't even begin to describe it. It's enough to make a true lamington lover go all shivery.
So that's it. The lamington is not just another cake; it's a proud symbol of an antipodean childhood, as evocative and as Australian (we'll just put New Zealand aside for a moment, shall we?) as the kangaroo. It should be on the flag, on the oath of citizenship ... and on more of our cafe menus.
There's even a National Lamington Day on the calendar - July 21. You know what to do.
Jill Dupleix is the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Café Guide 2013. The 2013 SMH Good Café Guide is available in bookshops and online at www.smhshop.com.au for $9.99.
LusciousKiki lamingtons are available from Cabrito Coffee Traders, The Fine Food Store, Meadow Cafe, Moreish Fine Foods, Belaroma Coffee, Illie Home & Gift, Balgowlah Heights Deli & Cafe Awaba. LusciousKiki Café is open on Fridays and Saturdays only at 16 Sydenham Road, Brookvale, 0417 499 022.