Back when I was wearing a red apron at the newly opened Omaha location of a national retail chain, they had just returned to Omaha after a six-year absence, my primary responsibility was to introduce different world foods and beverages to customers and talk about their traditions and history. The holiday season was the obvious time to introduce the flavours of Christmas cookies, cakes, and fruitcakes from around the globe; stollen from Germany, mincemeat tarts and fruitcake from England, ginger snaps from Sweden, and panettone from Italy. And I shared my enjoyment and memories of mum’s fruitcake and nanna’s plum pudding with the shoppers gathered around the displays of Dunedin and Welsh fruitcake, European light fruitcake, boxes of Walkers mince pies and tarts, plum puddings, tins of Cadbury Jumper Biscuits, and jars of mincemeat; and they shared the memories and family traditions of their holiday season. Fruitcake has been one of my favourites ever since I was a young lad. Sometimes on mum’s sift, blend, mix, beat, stir, whip, and bake Sunday’s, she would make a fruitcake. It was always a light fruitcake; rich and luscious, and we would take slices of it for the next week wrapped in greaseproof paper, in our school lunches.
When I offered samples of fruitcake and shared its heritage and history with all of the shops Christmas patrons I presented bite-size pieces of Dundee and European fruit cake, paired with samples of Winter Spice Tea. I cut small bite-size chunks from the cellophane-wrapped cakes and put each moist sampling into a plastic portion cup, and the cups were arranged in straight lines on clear trays on a mobile wooden demonstration cart. I gestured and motioned toward the plastic portion cups and greeted the Christmas shoppers approaching me with fruitcake just like what was served when Princess Diana married Charles. Most of the shoppers when they caught sight of the moist fruitcake chunks turned down the sample by telling me: Americans don’t like fruitcake. The more I’ve mused over Americans dislike for fruitcake the more I have come to the conclusion that Americans just don’t like cake. I think it’s safe to say that Americans like pies more than cakes; pies served with ice cream, pie a la mode.
And I think that this is indeed unfortunate because most countries can be identified with a cake that they call their own.
Italy; Tiramisu. Layers of ladyfingers dipped in coffee and heaped with mascarpone whipped with eggs and sugar.
America’s cake list comes down to red velvet cake, American cheesecake, and angel food cake; I don’t think of chocolate brownies and doughnuts as cakes. Red velvet cake is not really inspiring; it’s a simple chocolate layer cake with cream cheese on top, and it’s only red, bright red or a reddish-brown colour because of food colouring. And angel food cake is a type of sponge cake made with egg whites, flour, and sugar, but no butter; how can a cake be admirable if it doesn’t contain butter. Besides, angel food cake never seems to stand alone. It’s always served with cream or some berry fruit; a great cake should be able to stand alone. And American cheesecake is a cake made only with cream cheese, sugar and eggs; but it isn’t uniquely American. There are Australian, Brazilian, Colombian, Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Dutch, Belgium, Polish, Russian, Swedish, and United Kingdom and Irish style cheesecakes. So I don’t think America has a national cake, a cake to call its own, a cake that could stand alongside the bald eagle, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, or the Great Seal.
As well as lamingtons, Australia is also known for its vanilla slices, matchsticks, butterfly cakes, jam-filled swiss rolls, jam tarts, coffee scrolls, and cream puffs. Either cake would not be out of place alongside any of Australia’s well-known icons; the big red kangaroo, emu, golden wattle tree, Akubra hat, or Sydney Opera House. Unlike America, you’re going to find a large collection of cake shops in most of The Land Down Under’s cities and towns.
Acland Street is nestled in the heart of St Kilda; a short tram ride from Melbourne’s CBD. It’s known for the consummate cake shops that own the footpaths. I still have sweet memories of wandering Acland Street, and with all the other shoppers smudging the outsides of the cake laden windows. If it was creamy, sticky, crunchy, smooth, sweet, zesty, or tangy it would be either a cheesecake, eclair, meringue, macaron or a pie or tart, from one of the street’s famous five European cake shops.
After it was wasn’t okay to hold your mum’s hand in public but it was still okay to be seen with her I would sometimes go into Melbourne with mum and nanna on one of their shopping days; most times it was just a window shopping day. They always stopped in at the Hopetoun Tea Rooms in the Block Arcade for sandwiches, or if it was later in the day, scones and a cup of tea. The main room seated about 50 people and you just walked in and found yourself one of the empty, small, marble top tables amongst the other window shopping ladies. The room always hummed with conversations and the clinking of stirring spoons in teacups. The days of the shopping ladies, the well-heeled and fashionable matrons, and the genteel old-world ambience has mostly gone; now roped off queues form outside the Tea Rooms and wait for a table. And the cake choice has grown from scones, lamingtons, sponges, and vanilla slices to a bewildering choice of forty-five delectable cakes and tarts. The bulging Hopetoun Tea Rooms window display is said to be the most photographed window in Melbourne.
I probably first drifted into Carlton when I was still at Footscray Tech; around when college first started to interfere with my learning. Carlton is an inner-city residential neighbourhood of Melbourne; it was and still is, populated with students, Italian immigrants, artists, and aspiring hipsters. And it was there that I was introduced to the mysterious lattes, espressos, and cappuccinos that were produced by the Faema espresso machines. Carlton brought a culinary and cafe culture to Melbourne; some of the first wave Italian restaurants, coffee shops, and delicatessens are still colonising the streets and laneways. Brunetti’s is still a small piece of Italy and is now nestled in Lygon Court; a small shopping arcade. Banks of illuminated display cabinets overflowing with cakes, pastries, éclairs, and macarons welcome you to the magical land of cakes.
Beechworth is Victoria’s best-preserved historic gold mining town. The town is cradled in the foothills of the Australian Alps in north east Victoria and is a comfortable three-hour drive from Melbourne. Built during the riches of the early gold-rush days the town’s attractive two main streets are lined with elegant buildings and historic shop-fronts; more than 32 buildings are listed by the National Trust. Walking into the Beechworth Bakery gives you a taste of yesteryear; the glass-fronted display cases are crammed with custard tarts, coffee scrolls, apple squares, lamingtons, jelly slices, vanilla slices, date scones, beestings, lemon slices, orange & almond cakes, and jam tarts; just to name a few. The cakes, pastries, and pies carry you back to your kitchen on mum’s Sunday baking day; when you waited to lick the wooden spoon that she used to mix the batter for her butterfly cakes.
Yea is a scenic township about 60 miles north of Melbourne; the suburbs of Melbourne are relentlessly moving in on the town and transforming the surrounding rural countryside into bedroom communities. Many of Yea’s historical buildings are heritage sites and there are still gorges and fern gullies close by; a reminder of what the area was thousands of years ago. And Yea is no exception to the rule: Every small town and suburb of Melbourne has a cake shop. It could be a pie or a sandwich shop but you know you can always treat yourself by just ordering a flat white coffee and lamington. My grandad lived for a while in Yea during the early 1900s. He was probably one of many who smudged the glass with their face when coveting the lamingtons, fruit scones, and vanilla slices in the windows of the bakeries lining the main street.
Omaha is nestled into Nebraska and is the 42nd largest city in the United States. The city and its metropolitan area is home to over 900,000 people. Omaha claims to be the mother of Butter Brickle Ice Cream, the Reuben sandwich, Raisin Bran, the frozen TV dinner, the first Duncan Hines cake mix, and the Eskimo pie; each one of these delicacies is not only a rich addition to the American national food menu but an influence on the way the world eats. For as long as I can remember Omaha has always had the Delice European Bakery and Cafe; a Xanadu of gateaus, tortes, tarts, rich cream-filled cakes, scones and cookies. And more recently the Le Petit Paris French Bakery; a rich source for mousses, tarts and macaroons, and classic pastries. So maybe Omaha is the American exception to the adage: Unlike America, you’re going to find a large collection of cake shops in most of The Land Down Under’s cities and towns.
The Cheesecake Factory is at the WestRoads Mall; they claim to have 50 signature cheesecakes and desserts. I think I will stop by The Cheesecake Factory and suggest a lamington cheesecake as a dessert option.