Celebrate Mother’s Day with some cherished favourites – made with love over the generations ­– from our new book,Eat your history: stories and recipes from Australian kitchens. 

According to family tradition, the tea table at Meroogal was not considered complete until it was laden with the family’s ‘signature’ sponge cake, which was baked in a loaf tin and served perfectly plain. The sponge was one of many delicious offerings served by the ‘misses Thorburn’ – sisters Belle (Annabella), Kate (Jessie Catherine), Georgina and Tottie (Kennina) – at their ‘At Home’ tea parties in the early 1900s.

The Thorburn sisters on the lawn at Meroogal, around 1922, photographer unknown. Left to right: Tot, Belle, Kate and Georgie. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, June Wallace Papers.

 ‘At homes’ were easier to manage than a sit-down luncheon or dinner. According to Mrs Beeton’s all about cookery (1902),

‘knowing [that guests] will not all assemble at the same time, a great many may be welcomed …’

There was no formal invitation at Meroogal. The first Monday of every month was set aside to receive friends and relatives who knew it was the appropriate time to call. Guests were ‘properly’ greeted at the front door, rather than at the side door, and then ushered into the drawing room with its Victorian-style bay windows.

Meroogal. Photo © Leo Rocker for Sydney Living Museums.

To prepare for their guests, the Thorburn sisters would rise early, as per their usual custom, and bake their special scones, biscuits and cakes including the signature sponge. Tottie and Kate would make the cake together, Tottie beating the egg yolks while Kate whisked the whites on a large flat dinner plate with the blade of a dinner knife. This technique for whipping egg whites is now a lost art, but one well known among traditional cooks – you need a steady arm and plenty of patience.

You can watch the sponge cake being made in the kitchen at Meroogal by the house’s last owner, June Wallace, in this video:

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About the Author

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Jacqui Newling
Assistant curator
Creative Services
Jacqui brings over ten years of ‘visitor first’ interpretation experience to her role as a curator at SLM. She specialises in place-based social history and heritage, bringing meaningful stories from our past to contemporary audiences through various forms of media, from exhibitions to interactive opportunities for visitors in our museums. 

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