A piece of cake…

With a new baker, the traditional Lions Christmas Cake is currently being baked and shipped by the hundreds of thousands to eager customers around the country.

Tony Fawcett drops in on the cake bake.

It’s raised more than $60 million for worthy causes, been savored by our troops in Afghanistan and other war zones and become an icon for generations of Australians. For hundreds of thousands it’s a festive must. It is the Lions Traditional Christmas Cake.

Biting into a luscious, moist slice is an occasion to be savored. Yet despite it phenomenal fundraising record, the cake might never have been but for some early Australian Lions who played a hunch. It’s all part of the cake’s colourful history.

First released in 1965, clubs are annually flooded with requests for deliveries of the cake, and some of those requests are far from ordinary. Overseas emails regularly ask that cakes be delivered to loved ones around Australia, and many Australians send cakes to friends and family overseas.

Saving sight

While the cake largely sells itself, in its half century-plus history Lions have excelled at promoting the project in many inventive ways. In 1992 a TV advert queried, “Did you know that eating a Christmas cake can prevent blindness”, a clever reference to Lions’ SAVE SIGHT initiative.

There have been Lions Christmas Cake decorating contests and cakes are regularly served to dignitaries at official functions, making it as synonymous with Lions as the Bunnings sausage sizzle.

Biggest bake names in Australia

While the cake’s traditional recipe has barely changed over the years, it has been produced by the biggest names in Australian baking history, brands such as Big Sister, Arnott’s and Top Taste.

A year ago when Top Taste, the cake’s baker for 35 years, announced it was going out of business some alarmist sections of the media foreshadowed the end of the much-celebrated cake. No way.

Our cake was way too big a favourite for that.

After lengthy research and a bake-off by the final two contenders, Lions Australia late last year announced Melbourne family company Traditional Foods as the new custodian of the cake. Already Traditional Foods-produced Lions cakes are being shipped Australia-wide.

This week the company’s CEO Stephen Heath announced 70% of this year’s expected 400,000 to 500,000 of cakes of various sizes, including a Lions Christmas pudding, had already been taken from the oven and were heading to clubs for delivery. The products include the familiar 1kg and 1.5kg cakes plus an 80-gram slice, along with the 900-gram pudding.

Meet the new maker

For Traditional Foods, established in 1993 by Stephen Heath’s father, it has brought a hefty lift in production at its state-of-the-art, HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) accredited Dandenong South facility. Now the company’s biggest bake job, it’s roughly double that of the next biggest product. The initial bake took just over two months and will be followed by a top-up bake in October-November to satisfy late customers.

“It’s the cooking that takes the most time,” explains Stephen. “The larger cakes take two to three hours to bake, so that limits how many we can do in a day.”

Moist taste

“The recipe for puddings is unchanged,” says Stephen, “but the cake recipe has been modified to our recipes with a slightly greater percentage of Australian ingredients, 49%, than the previous one.” Ideally, Stephen would like to see them containing 100% Australian fruit but supply shortages and/or excessive costs prevent this.

Although he modestly declines to compare his company’s Lions cakes to what went before, he admits it was pleasing to receive feedback when he joined with Lions in offering samples at the May MD201 Convention in Canberra.

“The taste buds are in the eye of the beholder but the feedback there was all positive, and what I’m hearing is that some thought it was moister than the previous cake.”

Likewise, he is thrilled that what his company is producing is of such huge community worth Australia-wide.

“Hats off to Lions for getting this project up and running in the first place, and for sticking with it for all these years,” he says. “It’s a great project to be involved in.”

Story adapted from original by Tony Fawcett.