Who really invented the fluffy meringue dessert, the pavlova? Usually the answer depends on whether you ask an Australian or a New Zealander, each claiming it as their own. Alexa Johnston, in Ladies, a Plate: Traditional Home Baking puts it bluntly, “Now definitely proved to be a New Zealand invention, despite persistent Australian claims.” I think this statement confirms the provenance of this book, rather than the provenance of the dessert! Yes, Alexa Johnston is unashamedly a New Zealander, who has written a great cookbook.
The “Plate” of the title is the Kiwi way of saying that the event will be a potluck, perhaps the equivalent of the Southern phrase, “bring a covered dish.” From my childhood I remember girls being asked to “bring a plate” and boys being asked to “bring a bottle” thus neatly covering both food and drink.
Alexa Johnston subtitled her book “Traditional” because she has researched the sources for each recipe from old friends and in community and charity cookbooks like 450 Favourite Recipes from St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Pahiatua, 1946 (Louise Cake, page 50). I have been to Pahiatua on numerous occasions as it is down the road from where my grandmother used to live. It is an interesting small town with the distinction (especially for small children) of having a playground with a World War II era plane with a slide coming out of it. A cookbook from Pahiatua in 1946 is certainly an obscure source for American readers and cooks, but the Louise Cake is well worth knowing about as my colleagues can attest when I shared this at the staff meeting.
The book covers many other standards from down-under like ANZAC Biscuits (which I made for ANZAC day in April), cheese scones, and custard squares (vanilla slices in Australia). Sadly, I did discover that if you shove the Chocolate Caramel Slice into the fridge at an odd angle, then the caramel will run out and be lost (and make a dreadful mess of the fridge!).
The measurements may be a little confusing for American cooks as Alexa Johnston lists two sets. She says the first set is how it was written in the original recipe and the second is metric. Many of the metric measurements are given as weights rather than the cup measurements Americans are used to, so cooks may have to do some conversion first.
The book is filled with gorgeous photographs of each treat, some of which are presented on unique and meaningful decorations such as Mrs. Marion Benton’s recipe for Afghans presented on a crochet-edged cloth that she made herself.
My own copy of Ladies, a Plate: Traditional Home Baking is already working up stains and grease spots, a sure sign of a well-used cookbook in my house, so I am glad my sister bought it for me on a trip to New Zealand. Thank you, Elsa!
Check the WRL catalog for Ladies, A Plate