Lumberjack Cake Coconut Topping

Cake Week at The Great Kiwi Baking Blog

In my travels through old Kiwi cookbooks, I have learned about a number of cakes I’ve never heard of before. Dolly Varden Cake sounds colourful, Khaki Cake much less so. Jewish Cake sounds interesting, with its sultanas, cinnamon and passionfruit, and Yankee Doodle Cake was, rather disappointingly, lacking in macaroni.

But this week, I want to talk about a cake that isn’t in those early New Zealand cookbooks and, in fact, doesn’t have Kiwi heritage at all. Its heritage is actually a bit confused. It is, however, a cake I first became acquainted with in New Zealand*, you’ll find it in many modern Kiwi cookbooks, and it has come to be a Kiwi café favourite, so I feel it still merits a place on the Great Kiwi Baking Blog.

How we met:

One early morning at the restaurant where I worked when I first moved here, I was trying to be friendly and make conversation with the pastry chef. She was the only other female in the kitchen and seemed like potential friend material. So I asked her what the CoD – or Cake of the Day – was going to be. She said “Lumberjack Cake”. I asked “What’s that?” She laughed “Have you not heard of it before? I thought it came from America! Or maybe Canada? They have it a lot in Australia.” I shrugged and told her I’d never heard of Lumberjack Cake but maybe I knew it by a different name.

Lumberjack Cake Coconut Topping

As it turns out, I didn’t. I knew it’s cousin – Sticky Date Pudding – pretty well, but I had definitely never encountered Lumberjack Cake before*. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t be from somewhere in North America – it’s a pretty diverse area, after all!

So what is it?

Well, pretty much every recipe I’ve read uses either “squidgy” or “old-fashioned” to describe it. It’s dense and dark and moist, usually made with dates and apples, though I’ve seen combinations including ginger/feijoa, fig/apple, apricot/apple, and date/pear, so there doesn’t seem to be a hard rule regarding the makeup of the fruit component. The really important bit* seems to be that after the main baking time has elapsed, a shredded coconut and butterscotch topping is put on top and the cake is returned to the oven for a quick flash.

That’s it – it’s a simple cake, but delicious and a general crowd pleaser. Naturally, I wanted to know how it ended up being called Lumberjack Cake and where it came from…. and that’s where things got interesting (to me).

Since most of the initial recipes I was reading were coming from Australian sources, I assumed that it had its origins in Aussie, where the distinct coconut topping seemed to make sense: Anzac biscuits have coconut, Lamingtons have coconut…. The trouble was that these sources attributed the recipe to Canada. I also found recipes from the UK, England, Italy, and even one from the US that all attribute the cake to Canada – once to Toronto, once to Edmonton, but most to just generally “Canada”.

But jumping over to search sources from the Great White North only yielded attributions to Australia! In response to my emailed query, food writer Valerie Lugonja replied that she’d only heard of it as an Australian cake and knew nothing about any Canadian origins. Other Canadian food bloggers explicitly state that they had never heard of it until friends who had lived or visited Australia told them about it. Canadian Living has no recipes for it. The government archives do not include it in their Heritage Gourmet recipes. Wikipedia – for those so inclined – does not include it on the “Canadian Cuisine” page.

What’s in a name?

So perhaps the key to its origin story lay in the name. Several authors and bloggers assert that the name is a result of the caloric density of the cake – it was designed for lumberjacks who were burning lots of calories. But Alison, over at One Crumb at a Time out of Australia, wondered if the ingredients specific to this cake – dates, apples, and coconut – were somehow specific to lumberjacks. Following this train of thought, I began researching lumberjacks and found an astonishing number of sources about the life and times of lumberjacks over the last 150-200 years.

Here’s the (sort of) pertinent stuff I learned:

The actual word “lumberjack” was first printed in 1831 in a Canadian newspaper, in a Letter to the Editor complaining about the behavior of “…an incorrigible, though perhaps useful, race of mortals called LUMBERJACKS…” The letter was signed by “The Trent Bridge”, and the bridge’s chief complaint was that some lumberjacks failed to probably secure a raft on one of their jaunts into town, it broke loose and hit the bridge, apparently doing substantial damage.

Estimated calorie consumption of lumberjacks ranges from 4,000 (16,700 kJ) per day to 8,000 (33,400 kJ) per day, depending on the source, so they definitely needed to consume a lot of calorie-dense food.

Ingredients used in the camps were usually preserved or naturally shelf-stable or such items as could be foraged from the surrounding areas. For baking purposes, this meant flour, prunes, raisins, other dried fruit, fresh apples, brown and white sugar, molasses, lard or shortening and, to a lesser extent, butter. Desserts specifically mentioned in these sources include dried apple pie, “shoepack pie”, lorangin pie, and vinegar pie.  “Shoepack Pie” was lemon flavoured and named for the pack of cardboard insulation that lumberjacks often built in their shoes over time – adding more layers each day until eventually the whole pile would be too thick to dry overnight and it would need to be replaced. The pie apparently resembled the sodden mass, and it was thusly christened. I could find no description of Lorangin Pie, but Vinegar Pie was a one-crust wonder with a filling made of brown and white sugar, flour, nutmeg, butter, eggs, and vinegar. Looking at the ingredients for our modern Lumberjack Cake, it seemed that the dates and apples weren’t too far off the bat, but the coconut?

And as I ploughed through all these sources online, I saw photo after photo of lumberjacks at work, standing in the forest, surrounded by piles of woodchips…

Lumberjack wood chips

Those woodchips strongly resembled the coconut topping of the Lumberjack Cake. A fairly reasonable hypothesis began to form: the cake likely evolved in Australia, out of similar cakes – with a combination of dried fruit and fresh fruit – that had been brought over from the UK. The Aussies added the coconut topping, and christened it the Lumberjack Cake because it looked like it was littered with woodchips on top. Since the word “lumberjack” was first coined in Canada, it made sense that somewhere along the way, someone assumed the cake itself had its origins in Canada.

And then….

Boom!

I just happened to be flipping through The Great New Zealand Baking Book for the umpteenth time and a picture of a Lumberjack Cake caught my eye… but when I looked at the recipe on the page opposite, it was for something called Queen Elizabeth Cake. Turns out the recipe for Queen Elizabeth Cake is almost identical to the recipe for Lumberjack Cake. The only difference: instead of apples, it used walnuts.

So I dove back down the rabbit hole of cookery books and cake recipes looking for Queen Elizabeth Cake and it turns out to be very popular in Canada. Originally from England, the cake was supposedly created for the 1937 coronation of Queen George and named for the Queen Mother OR for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and named after her. Some sources point the to small amounts of sugar, fat, and eggs and say surely that was a result of the rationing in England after World War II, so it must have been for QEII, but rationing occurred during World War II as well, and there are sources that mention the recipe during the 1940s, so I’m casting my vote for the earlier date and it being the namesake of the Queen Mother.

As the Queen Mother enjoyed immense popularity in Canada, particularly during World War II, it is reasonable to believe her namecake shared in that popularity. And as it made its way to Australia, probably during or after World War II, either from the UK or Canada, walnuts got swapped for apples – likely a byproduct of what was readily available in the southern hemisphere vs the northern hemisphere at the time. If you recall, I mentioned that in the Lumberjack Cake recipes I’d gone through there seemed to be a great deal of latitude regarding the fruit content of the cake – it was the coconut topping that was distinctive* and the coconut topping was what was preserved on its journey south. So it seems even more reasonable that, in fact, Lumberjack Cake and Queen Elizabeth Cake are one and the same. Just compare the following recipes – one for QE Cake from The Great New Zealand Baking Book and one for Lumberjack Cake from the New Zealand Herald’s weekly food magazine:

1 cup dates, pitted and chopped

1 cup dates, pitted and chopped

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking soda

1 cup boiling water

1 cup boiling water

1 ½ cups plain flour

1 ½ cups plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

½ tsp salt

½ cup chopped walnuts

2 peeled, cored, and finely chopped apples

65g butter

126g butter

1 cup white sugar

1 cup white sugar

1 egg

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup toasted shredded coconut

1 cup shredded coconut

½ cup packed brown sugar

½ cup brown sugar

120g butter

60g butter

¼ cup cream

¼ cup milk

Eh? Eh?? Even the total amount of butter called for ends up being the same between cake and topping! And, I mean, I know all cakes have the same basic ingredients but even other “basic” cake recipes in my cookbooks from the 1940s don’t match up to this degree.

And the name change?

Well, I still think there’s a decent case to be made for the name change being the result of the coconut topping resembling the woodchips created by lumberjacks…and maybe because apples grow on trees and lumberjacks cut down trees…and if the cake was exceedingly popular in Canada and Canada was known to have lots of lumberjacks…and Australia had lumberjacks too (just look at the old Australian 20 pound note)…

Cue the Monty Python sketch

The absolute best part is that regardless of where it comes from or what you want to call it, it’s a delicious cake that’s easy to make.

Stay tuned… in my next post, I attempt my own “Signature Challenge“…

 


*As it turns out, I likely encountered Lumberjack Cake on a restaurant menu in San Francisco in 2013 and took no notice of it. However, Frances’ version is without the distinctive topping. Instead, they fold the coconut into the batter itself and, during my research, I found another American recipe that includes the coconut in the same way. Neither recipe mentions Canada or Australia and Frances doesn’t currently have anyone from Australia or New Zealand working there.

One comment

  1. Now, this is a very compelling read. You must link it to the other recipes! Thoroughly enjoyed the writing and research!
    Sincerely,
    Valerie

    Like

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