Durable and dessert are not words that go together naturally. Usually ephemeral is the ideal when it comes to sweetness and light.
But this time of year, when you can indulge in the most fleeting pleasure with any old ice cream cone, something sugary that holds up well enough to travel to the beach or the mountains takes on a whole different appeal.
Usually cookies crumble, icing melts. When you try baking a couple of Australian classics, though, you get two for the road. One is a boxy little chocolate-covered cake called a Lamington, and the other is the Down Under answer to the oatmeal cookie, the Anzac biscuit.
I discovered both on a trip to Sydney a couple of months ago. One afternoon I was passing a bakery in a snooty suburb called Woollahra when I heard a little boy with his nose pressed against the window whining to his nanny, “I want a Lamington.” One look, and so did I. What seduced us both appeared to be a tidy chocolate square coated in very fine coconut, but inside was a fluffy yellow cake. It could have been the ultimate Hostess cupcake, before the industrial chemists got involved. The cascading contrast of dark, crunchy and spongy was simple perfection.
The clerk, when I asked about it, would only repeat, “It’s a Lamington” (which she pronounced “Lemmington”). I had to go to a bookstore to learn that it’s the Australian staple of tea parties, bake sales, socials and other eating events. That was about the only fact nailed down, though. Apparently it was named either for a governor of the Queensland region or for his wife in the late 1800s and originated either as a way to recycle day-old cake or as a trick to keep cake fresh in a dry climate.
No matter what the back story, Lamingtons are almost as sturdy as brownies and not as messy in the heat. I carried one around Sydney all afternoon while sightseeing without reducing it to crumbs.
Anzac biscuits were just as common in bakeries, but I first noticed them while languishing at a coffee bar where I attempted to get a cup of tea. I had to try one for the name alone, and it turned out they had a more clear-cut story: By all accounts they were invented in World War I as a nutritious, nonperishable treat to be mailed off to soldiers serving in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
Anzacs are crisp and chewy, almost like round granola bars but wafer thin. Crunchier than an American oatmeal cookie, they have a mysterious toasty undertone, not quite molasses but well past brown sugar. And the coconut is not the stringy, heavily sweetened kind Americans know.
Both Lamingtons and Anzac biscuits took a little work to re-create once I got back home, but my dad’s widow, a New Zealander now living in Florida, turned out to be the key. Not only had she given me an Australian cake cookbook years ago with the classic Lamington formula, but she sent me her own Anzac recipe, which with a couple of adaptations worked better than the ones I had found online.
I did have to search out two oddities before I started baking, though. The coconut used in both recipes is what Australians call desiccated and health food stores here sell as unsweetened and unsulphured -- it tastes only of coconut and is chopped very fine, which means it dusts onto the Lamingtons rather than clumping. And the intriguing flavor in the Anzac biscuits comes from golden syrup, which is something like bronzed corn syrup but is made from cane sugar. Most American supermarkets sell a brand called Lyle’s, from England, that works fine.
The only tricky part of the Lamingtons was the base, the sponge cake, which has to be baked a day before you want to serve them so that it has time to firm up. Otherwise it falls apart.
The batter starts with egg yolks and sugar beaten almost to a meringue state and also has to be baked as soon as you spread it into the pan so that it will rise right.
Once the cake is cut into bars, you just dunk each piece into an easy icing made of powdered sugar, cocoa powder, milk and just a bit of butter. A long-handled meat fork works best for coating every inch on every side. Then you dredge them in the coconut. The finished cakes look straight out of a bakery, not a home oven. And because so little butter is involved, the icing also can take the heat of day.
As for the Anzacs, they’re made more like peanut brittle than a cookie. The golden syrup is heated with butter, then mixed with baking soda dissolved in boiling water so that it foams up before you mix it into the oats, flour, coconut and brown sugar.
The trick, my source Joyce revealed, is to make a well in the center of the dry ingredients before adding the wet so that the mixture forms a batter. Unless you have a reliably nonstick pan, the cookies also have to be transferred to a rack the minute they’re baked or they’ll shatter when you touch them.
Once they cool, though, they’re ready to pack up and go.