Retro baking on the rise

Heirloom treat: Kate Hart shows off the Nan's passionfruit sponge.
Heirloom treat: Kate Hart shows off the Nan's passionfruit sponge. Photo: Peter Rae

When Margaret Fulton bakes a sponge cake, she says she becomes absorbed in the comfort of childhood.

There's nothing quite as satisfying as turning a light-as-air sponge onto a wire rack and sharing it with those you love, says the grand dame of Australian cooking.

''I have such vivid memories of coming home from school to the smell of a hot cake cooking and it's those simple pleasures that have a lot more meaning than material things,'' says the 90-year-old, who has been nominated by the National Trust as an Australian National Living Treasure.

The crowd-pleasing classic comes with lashings of cream.
The crowd-pleasing classic comes with lashings of cream. Photo: Peter Rae

''A cake baking in the oven is like the familiar scent of home and family.

''It's such a joy. If you want to make life good for your kids, bake a cake. It's something that all kids love. What's not to like?''

Fulton's passion has been passed down through her family, with daughter Suzanne Gibbs and granddaughters Louise Fulton Keats and Kate Gibbs all authors of books for cooks.

''I live in Balmain and my daughter [Suzanne] lives three doors away and she came down the other day with a plate of lovely light pikelets to share,'' Fulton says. ''That's a great Australian tradition.

''If you make something you are pleased with, you run it around to the neighbours.''

While food trends come and go, Fulton believes old-fashioned Country Women's Association-style cakes will never fall out of favour and urges home cooks to hang onto family recipes and traditions that trace Australia's culinary heritage.

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''I've cooked the same cakes for 50 years,'' she says.

''A lot of people think what they do in France is the best, but I'd sell my soul to have a lovely big wedge of sponge cake over a plate of macaroons any day.

''I loved cooking cakes for my grandchildren when they were little and one of the cakes they liked best was my luscious upside-down cake.

''By hanging onto a family cake recipe, you are hanging onto history and the happiness that was around the occasion. It's a joyous, simple kind of pleasure.''

Enter Kate Hart, who would make both her late nan and Margaret Fulton proud. The 35-year-old says she has become somewhat of a custodian for the recipes of her nana, Gladys Hart, as she is the only one in her family who knows how to cook Nan's Passionfruit Sponge (see recipe).

''I'm the only one in my family who makes this cake and, to give this recipe to Good Food, it required a family meeting where it was put to the vote,'' says Hart, who as well as running the busy cafe is a mother of five. ''I've been entrusted with the recipe and, let me tell you, it's like holding war medals.''

Don't expect cronuts at the Harts' retro-themed cafe, which is a temple to Formica, doilies, crocheted tea cosies and souvenir teaspoons. Here, the most talked-about sweet treats are all authentic renditions of classic CWA-style cakes, such as a cinnamon and spice sponge, mocha chocolate cake and date loaf served with a big knob of butter.

''Cooking cakes is a link to my nan,'' Hart says. ''I had many happy afternoons as a kid having cups of tea with her and talking about fashion, and those memories are very precious.''

While there's nothing startlingly original about the cakes Hart makes, the one thing they have in common is that they are ''made from scratch with great ingredients and taste fantastic'', she says.

Hardcore cake addict Birgitta Koomen, of The Little Indulgence, is also doing her bit to get many old-fashioned cakes off the endangered list. You won't find cakes with fondant icing or sugar flowers at her stalls at the Saturday-morning markets in Green Square and Kings Cross.

Koomen's customers are hooked on the classics, such as passionfruit madeira, date loaves, raspberry coconut slice, brownies, carrot cake and a rich and dense banana hummingbird cake, she says.

''My cakes are cakes without complication. People are tiring of frou-frou cakes and they really crave the old-fashioned flavours. They want a touch of mum.'' .

''There is a real renaissance happening when it comes to these retro cakes,'' she says. ''If I want a piece of lemon meringue pie, I don't want a deconstructed bit of a pastry with a blob of meringue next to it. I want a nice lovely triangle of lemon meringue pie.''

Koomen agrees that Australians are rediscovering the pleasure of eating these quintessential cakes outside of set celebrations simply because they evoke such happy memories.

She says the main modern-day modification she has made to her classic crowd-pleasing cakes is to sell them by the slice.

Nan's passionfruit sponge

1 dspn of butter

3 tbsp milk

4 eggs, separated

1 cup castor sugar

1 cup self-raising flour sifted three times

1 tsp vanilla essence

For the filling

300ml pouring cream, lightly whipped

1 tbsp icing sugar mixture

6 tbsp good-quality strawberry jam or a handful of fresh strawberries

For the icing

1 dspn butter

1½ cups icing sugar mixture

Pulp from three passionfruit

1 Preheat oven to 180C.

2 Grease and line two x 20cm round cake tins.

3 Whisk eggwhites in a food processor and slowly add the castor sugar until the mixture forms stiff peaks. Add the vanilla.

4 Place the butter and milk in a small saucepan over a medium heat and cook until butter has melted. Remove from the heat and set aside.

5 Gently fold in the lightly beaten egg yolks with the egg whites until combined.

6 Fold in the sifted flour, then carefully add the warm milk and butter.

7 Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake for 30 minutes. The sponge is done when the cake bounces back when the surface is touched lightly. When the cake is cooked, remove from the oven immediately.

8 For the filling, mix the whipped cream with the icing sugar and jam. Spread the sponge with the mixture and sandwich together.

9 Use the same saucepan that you used to melt the butter with the milk to melt the butter for the icing. Add the icing sugar mixture and the passionfruit pulp and mix until you have a smooth consistency. Spread the top of the sponge with the passionfruit icing.

Top tips for making the perfect sponge, from Margaret Fulton

1 Make sure there is no water in your bowl.

2 Weigh out everything in advance.

3 Beat the eggwhites until they stand in peaks.

4 When you add the flour, do it by hand, in figure eights.

Just like the old days

The Jack of Harts and Jude
A notable and charmingly retro spot to nurse a cup of tea and wedge of Nan's Passionfruit Sponge.
Shop 9, Waratah Arcade, 1067 Old Princes Highway, Engadine, 02 9548 6229.

Lorraine's Patisserie
Make the pilgrimage to the pastry queen's patisserie for her New York-style lemon cheesecake.
320 George St, Sydney, 9254 8009, merivale.com.au/lorraines-patisserie.

The Little Indulgence
Birgitta's dense and luscious carrot cake was resurrected from a retro cookbook.
Saturday mornings at Green Square Markets, Joynton Park, Zetland and Kings Cross markets, Fitzroy Gardens, Macleay Street, Potts Point.

La Renaissance
Here, the classic vanilla slice takes the cake and has been made using the same recipe for 40 years, making it a food tourist attraction in the Rocks.
47 Argyle St, The Rocks, 9241 4878, larenaissance.com.au.

Sweetness the Patiserrie
Word has spread about Gena Karpf's old-fashioned coconut ice and chocolate fudge.
38 Oxford St, Epping, 9869 3800, sweetness.com.au.