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 and roast lamb dinner day, Monday washday, Tuesday cleaning and vacuuming day, Wednesday soaking the delicates and catch up on the washing, Thursday do part of the shopping day, and Friday was 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 mum, washed the clothes by boiling them in the copper kettle. We called it the copper; it stood on metal legs and used gas to heat the water. On washing day, the combination wash house and bathroom, which we just called 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. It was a small room detached from the house on the back veranda, and on clothes washing day or when you had a shower, it would steam up and become a rain forest ecosystem.
I remember the bathroom remodel. A washing machine with a clothes wringer mounted on top replaced the copper kettle, and a stand-alone water heater installed outside the wash house bathroom to supply both the kitchen and bathroom with hot water. Mum now had running hot and cold water for the wash troughs and the washing machine, but her washing process stayed the same. She’d soak the clothes for a day, agitate the clothes in the washing machine in hot soapy water, and rinse and wring them 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 she’d use to carry the leftover 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 Riverbank, 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 structure to construct the largest powerhouse in the southern hemisphere. Brown coal briquettes were used to fire the boilers to produce the steam to turn the turbo-alternators, and when the boilers fired up, the powerhouse chimneys belched relentless clouds of briquette soot over the neighbourhood. 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.
Everyone in the family acknowledged that mum was a breathtaking all-round cake maker. But it was agreed though that her older sister Peg could make a better sponge cake. After the Sunday roast lamb dinner, the kitchen countertops alongside the sink and those below the window that looked onto the high side fence became mum’s combination baking tables and pastry boards. The countertops were 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, a handheld bite-size piece of sponge cake dipped in chocolate icing and liberally sprinkled with desiccated coconut, is an Australian culinary icon. There are many accounts of the lamington’s creation, but everyone attributes its name to Lord Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. I like the one of it being created from a work accident by the maid-servant of Lord Lamington. Apparently, while working at Government House in Brisbane, she accidentally dropped the Governor’s favourite sponge cake into some melted chocolate. Lord Lamington wasn’t a person of wasteful habits, so he suggested 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 used the same light sponge recipe for the butterfly cakes she used for her lamingtons. Her butterflies were created by first carefully cutting and removing a cone-shaped section from the top of a small cupcake. She filled the cavity left in the top of the cake with whipped cream and sometimes jam. She cut the cone-shaped section into two and anchored the inverted pieces 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 insulting to call mum’s vanilla slices by their colloquial name snot blocks.
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 that consuming mum’s matchsticks may produce a sugar overdose, a sugar high, or a diabetic coma.
Mum repeated each week again, and again, and again. Sunday was sift, blend, mix, beat, stir, whip, and bake, Monday was washing day, Tuesday cleaning and vacuuming, Wednesday soaking the delicates and catch up on the washing, Thursday part of the shopping, and Friday was the main shopping day.