Saturday, January 01, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Cake: A Global History by Nicola Humble

Let them eat cake! What birthday, wedding, bar mitzvah or children's party would be complete without it? It is the ultimate food of celebration in many cultures around the world, but how did it come to be so?

Cake: A Global History explores the origin of modern cakes and its development from sweet bread to architectural flight of fancy, together with the meanings, legends and rituals attached to cake through the ages.

Nicola Humble reviews the many national differences in cake-making techniques, customs - the French, for example, have the g√Ęteau Paris-Brest, named after the cycle race and designed to imitate the form of a bicycle wheel; in America there is New England's Election Day cake or the Southern favourite, Lady Baltimore cake - and what they reveal about the nations that make them. From Proust's madeleine to Miss Havisham’s decaying wedding cake, the symbol of her betrayal in Dicken's Great Expectations, Humble also relates food's place in literature, art and film, and what it can symbolize and illustrate: indulgence, feminity, motherhood and guilt. 

With a large selection of mouthwatering images, Cake will appeal to the many readers with an interest in food history, social, cultural, literary and art history - or, indeed, just in cake.

I don't know why, but I really don't read much non-fiction. This book is the first, and only, non fiction book that I read in 2010. There's no real reason, because when I connect to the subject matter I do enjoy reading non fiction! And let's face it, it's not that difficult to connect with the subject when it is cake!

I hadn't heard about this book, or the series it is part of, until Stephanie from Read in a Single Sitting mentioned an interview that she had heard with the author on ABC's The Book Show. I listened to the podcast and straight away ordered the book through Inter Library Loan.

I mentioned above that the book is part of a series called The Edible Series which is being published by Reaktion Books. The series is "a revolutionary new series of books on food and drink which explores the rich history of man’s consumption. Each book provides an outline for one type of food or drink, revealing its history and culture on a global scale. 50 striking illustrations, with approximately 25 in colour, accompany these engaging and accessible texts, and offer intriguing new insights into their subject. Key recipes as well as reference material will also accompany each title." (source). Other books in the series that I might be interested in reading include Cheese, Chocolate, Pancake, Soup and oh so many more!

The books aren't long, or at least Cake wasn't, but it was a really fun read. The books looks at the origins of cake and the way it has evolved over the years, the different cultural emphasis placed on cake over the years, the role of cake in literature (with one of the most obvious cakes to my mind being the decaying wedding cake that was so symbolic in Dicken's Great Expectations), and the changing face of cakes given the current popularity of cupcakes and modern structural cakes like those that you can see on shows like Ace of Cakes and The Cake Boss!

When I saw this section, I knew that when I posted about the book for Weekend Cooking, there was one thing that I wanted to concentrate on. This particular section about an Australian icon caught my attention for obvious reasons. This quote comes from page 54 and 55:

And then there is the Lamington, which is virtually the patron cake of Australia. A small square single-portion sponge cake (baked in a sheet like petit fours and then sliced up), a Lamington is dipped in chocolate icing and then rolled in coconut. The cakes are believed to be named after Baron Lamington, the governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Different sources assign the connection either to his kitchens (claiming the cake was invented there, perhaps, prosaically, as a way to use up stale or burnt sponge cake), or to his wife (said to have a keen interest in household matters), or to a homburg hat the governor was given to wearing which alleged resembled the cakes. Lor Lamington was said to loath his namesakes and to refer to them as 'those bloody poofy woolly biscuits'. For reasons I have been entirely unable to ascertain, Lamingtons  attained the status of an institution in both Australia and New Zealand. The earliest published recipe so far known dates from 1902, when the Queenslander weekly newspaper published a recipe contributed by 'A Subscriber'. Fund raising cake sales are often referred to as Lamington Drives - a nomenclature which may be evidence of the popularity of the cake or may in part contribute to it.
Reading that, what else could I do for this week's Weekend Cooking post but share a recipe for lamingtons. I have to say, I am not generally all that fond of these. When they are done well they are very yummy, but I have had some very average versions in my time.

This version of lamingtons looks a little different than most mainly because usually the coconut that is used is dessicated coconut but this recipe calls for shredded coconut.

Once again the recipe comes from my trusty favourite recipe website -

Photography by Chris Chen

Makes 16
Prep time 45 mins
Cooking Time 15 mins


4 eggs

125g caster sugar

125g plain flour

1 tsp vanilla bean paste

50g unsalted butter, melted

200g shredded coconut

Chocolate icing

25g unsalted butter

160ml (2/3 cup) milk

500g icing sugar

50g (1/2 cup) Dutch cocoa (see note)

  1. Preheat oven to 190C. Grease and line the base and sides of a 20cm square cake pan with baking paper. Fill a sink one-third full with water. Place eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Place bowl in sink and whisk for 2 minutes or until mixture is runny and slightly foamy. Remove from sink.
  2. Using an electric mixer, whisk on high speed for 4 minutes or until mixture is pale and triples in volume. Using a sieve, sift just enough flour to cover the top of the egg mixture. Using a large metal spoon, fold in flour in one light motion. Repeat sifting and folding with remaining flour until just combined.
  3. Combine vanilla and butter in a bowl, then add a large spoonful of batter and stir to combine. Gently fold the butter mixture into batter until just combined, then spoon into the prepared pan.
  4. On a work surface, spin the pan to level, then bake for 25 minutes or until centre springs back when pressed with your fingertip. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Freeze for 20 minutes; this will make the sponge easier to cut.
  5. To make icing, stir butter and milk in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water until butter is melted. Sift over sugar and cocoa, then stir until smooth. Turn off heat.
  6. Using a large serrated knife, trim sides of sponge, then cut into 16 cubes. Scatter coconut over a tray. Insert a skewer into the crust side of a piece of sponge (don’t go all the way through). Holding skewer over icing, and, holding a spoon in the other hand, spoon icing over the sponge, rotating the skewer to coat evenly. Shake off excess, then slide sponge off the skewer onto the tray of coconut. Scatter coconut over the top and sides of sponge, then transfer to a tray lined with baking paper. Repeat with remaining sponge cubes, icing and coconut. If the icing starts to thicken, stir in a little water to thin.


  • Dutch cocoa is treated with an alkali, which gives it a darker, redder brown colour than regular cocoa, as well as a more intense chocolate taste. It is available from delis. Alternatively, substitute regular cocoa.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs.


  1. A book about cake? How could I say no? This sounds wonderful!

    Oh, and a happy 2011! (I didn't know where else to say it, but wanted to wish you all the best for the new year).

  2. Happy New Year Marg. Well this book sure sounds good (LOL in more ways than one).

  3. I love this kind of foodie book and I love the story of Lamingtons (which I've never heard of). You know that I'm going to have to give themn try one of these days.

    I'm going to have to see if I can get the series.

  4. Happy New Year, Marg! Thank you for the Lamington recipe, which I must try. Previously I have only sampled bought Lamingtons, none of which made my tastebuds sing. But since the ingredients appeal I am determined to find a version that lives up to its Aussie status!

  5. Those look so good, and I really, really want to get the chance to read this book!! Thanks so much for posting this recipe. I will be making it for sure! Happy New Year to you!!

  6. Oh, I really must get my hands on this book! I found the interview fascinating, and I'm glad to hear that the book lived up to your expectations.

    I baked rock cakes today, but have to wonder whether they fall under the category of 'cake', 'scone', 'biscuit', or something in the middle!