When I read that a new stage musical of Groundhog Day is to have its world premiere at the Old Vic in London next year I thought about the time loop that mum had engineered for herself; repeating the same week again, and again, and again. For as long as I can remember Sunday was always cake baking day and included a roast lamb dinner, Monday wash day, Tuesday cleaning and vacuuming, Wednesday soaking the delicates and catch up washing, Thursday part shopping, and Friday the main shopping day.
Washing the clothes and bed sheets and anything else my mother deemed washable was a day’s work. The washing was always soaked in cold water at least a day before washing. Mum would sort the clothes before soaking; one of the wash troughs was for the whites and the other for the coloureds. Before we upgraded to a washing machine, washing the clothes was performed by boiling them in the copper kettle: the copper, as we called it, stood on metal legs and the water was heated by gas. On washing day the combination wash house bathroom would steam up and it would become its own rain forest ecosystem: It was a small room detached from the house but contained in the back veranda. We just called it the bathroom because opposite the wash troughs and copper was the bath with a gas fired water heater that provided hot water for a shower or bath.
I remember when the bathroom was remodeled; we got a stand alone water heater that was outside the wash house bathroom and it supplied both the kitchen and bathroom with hot water. The copper kettle was replaced with a washing machine that had a clothes ringer mounted on top. Mum now had running hot and cold water to the wash troughs and the washing machine; but the washing process stayed the same. She would soak the clothes for a day, agitate the clothes in the washing machine in hot soapy water, and rinse and wring out at least twice to get rid of all traces of soapy water. The clean, slightly damp, clothes were taken outside into the backyard and hung on the new rotary clothes hoist to air dry. Mum had a bucket that she would use to carry the left over water from the one day soaking of the clothes into the backyard to water the passion fruit vine and her other assortment of flowering plants.
We lived one block down from the powerhouse; it stretched from the corner of North Road and Douglas Parade, past the Strand to the Yarra River bank, and at least six blocks along Douglas Parade to Digman Reserve. The original powerhouse was built by the Victorian Railways in 1918 to supply electricity for Melbourne’s expanding suburban railways. Later two other power stations were built and integrated into the original to assemble what was claimed in 1953 to be the largest powerhouse in the southern hemisphere. Brown coal briquettes were later used to fire the boilers to produce the steam to turn the turbo alternators. When the boilers were fired up the collection of powerhouse chimneys would belch relentless clouds of briquette soot. And this powerhouse soot was the curse, the bane, of my mother’s washing day life. If the wind was blowing toward Peel Street mum’s clean, sun dried, rotary clothes hoist hanging washing would be covered with black grit. A guttural, shrieking, cry of soot, soot, soot would echo the house as mum ran to the backyard to gather the washing to return it to the soaking troughs, washing machine, and wringer.
The Newport powerhouse was replaced in the late seventies with a gas powered power station; it’s one, long, chimney dominates the surrounding suburbs. And there is no soot.
Mum was acknowledged by everyone in the family as a breathtaking all round cake maker; it was agreed though that her older sister Peg could make a better sponge cake. After the Sunday roast lamb dinner the kitchen counter tops became mum’s combination baking tables and pastry boards. She always used the counter top alongside the sink and below the window that looked onto the high side fence; the counter top was formica, or what we knew as laminex. Mum was clever and artful in how she planned her Sunday afternoon routine. A light sponge cake, and puff pastry, recipes were the foundation of Sundays baking and they allowed mum to create her lamingtons and butterflies, and vanilla slices and matchsticks.
The lamington is an Australian culinary icon; it is a sponge cake dipped in chocolate icing and liberally sprinkled with desiccated coconut. There are many accounts of the creation of the lamington but all attribute the name to Lord Lamington who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. I like the claim that the delicacy may have been created through an accident at work by a maid-servant of Lord Lamington. It is said that the maid-servant was working at Government House in Brisbane when she accidentally dropped the Governor’s favourite sponge cake into some melted chocolate. Lord Lamington was not a person of wasteful habits and suggested that it be dipped in coconut to cover the chocolate to avoid messy fingers; he devoured this new taste sensation with great delight and the maid-servant’s error was proclaimed a magnificent success by all. And mum’s lamingtons were indeed enjoyed by all.
Mum’s butterflies were created by first carefully cutting and removing a cone shaped section from the top of a small cupcake; we only knew the small cupcakes as fairy cakes. The fairy cakes were made with the same light sponge recipe that mum used for her lamingtons. The cavity left in the top of the cake was filled with whipped cream and sometimes jam. The cone shaped cut top was halved and the inverted pieces were anchored in the cream to form butterfly wings atop the cake.
Mum never seemed to weigh or measure any of the ingredients when she was making her baking staples; and the puff pastry for her vanilla slices and matchsticks were no exception. Her vanilla slices would leave you basking in the glory of their wonder. She made the puff pastry and custard from scratch and when she rested the firm vanilla yellow custard between two buttery pieces of her puff pastry the result was a stunner.
It was contradictory to call mum’s vanilla slices by their colloquial name snot block.
Her matchsticks were vanilla slice puff pastry filled with fresh whipped cream and jam and sprinkled with icing sugar. The matchsticks were rich and sweet and should have come with the caution; consuming mum’s matchsticks may produce a sugar overdose, a sugar high, or a diabetic coma.
Each Sunday was repeated again, and again, and again; sift, blend, mix, beat, stir, whip, and bake; Monday was washing day, Tuesday cleaning and vacuuming, Wednesday soaking the delicates and catch up washing, Thursday part shopping, and Friday was the main shopping day.