On a Roll

Harrison farm by Menzies Gibb

Harrison farm by Menzies Gibb

My grandmother Ngaire was related to the Harrisons of Christchurch in all sorts of complicated ways. With twenty-three children in the Harrison family, it was probably hard not to be related to them.

The Harrisons’ house ended up on Francis Avenue when their farm was subdivided around 1910, and a number of the children built in the street as they married and left home. William Menzies GIbb’s painting ‘A bit of old Christchurch’ is of the original house, with the Port Hills in the distance.

Choc Roll Pudding2Gertrude Harrison (who is said to have commissioned the painting) was married off to Ngaire’s father after the death of his first wife, and while she proved to be a less than tolerant stepmother, she was a wonderful cook. Given this I’m sorry that I had no success with her Chocolate Roll, but I have had more luck today with her sister Ollie’s Never Fail Sponge. I’m not sure if that would please Gert or not!

I added a generous quantity of good cocoa to Ollie’s recipe and turned it into a roll. The result was not quite the light-as air sponge I was hoping for, but an even better pavlova-meets-cake concoction with a chocolate fudge centre. As good as this is, I’d still like to master a proper chocolate sponge roll – I’ll just wait for our cholesterol levels to settle down.

The daunting Harrison sisters (1950s)

The daunting Harrison sisters (1950s)

Ollie Harrison’s Never-Fail Sponge (turned into a chocolate roll)

3 eggs, ½ teaspoon bicarb. soda, 1 small cup of castor sugar, 1 large cup of flour, 2 large tablespoons cocoa, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Beat eggs well. Add bicarb. and beat well. Add sugar and beat for 3 minutes.
Add sifted flour, cocoa and cream of tartar and mix through.
Bake in greased and lined lamington or slice tray at 180º for 10 – 15 minutes.
Turn out onto sugared grease-proof paper and roll up in the paper while still warm.
When just cool, gently unroll and fill with strawberries and cream then roll up again. Dust with cocoa and icing sugar.

Something Special

From Ngaire’s journal, 24th September 1953
This afternoon a class of students from Lincoln College came for instruction from Gerald. I served afternoon tea which they apparently enjoyed. I had made scones, sausage rolls, chocolate eclairs etc.’

choc roll2My grandfather Gerald had a long association with Lincoln Agricultural College.  The college was quite close by, and Gerald was a member (and President for a period) of the NZ Fruitgrowers Federation. Although he came to agricultural life somewhat by accident, and not entirely by choice, he was serious and very knowledgeable about orchard life.

Lincoln College Woolclassing school 1958

Lincoln College Woolclassing school 1958

Students visiting Prestons Road might have learnt about grafting techniques or perhaps new varieties, but however fascinating those visits were, I suspect afternoon tea was the highlight  – especially if it included ‘chocolate eclairs, etcetera’. Ngaire seemed to think the vast majority of men were under-fed, and would have seen students as an especially needy group.

Gert Simpson's Chocolate Roll

Gert Simpson’s Chocolate Roll

Anyway, today as promised I made Something Special to mark Ngarie’s birthday. Gert’s Chocolate Roll (Gert being Ngaire’s stepmother), with no etcetera required.

The result – OK, but not fabulous. The family demolished it of course, but I thought it was a bit ‘cakey’ so back to the drawing board. There’s another recipe in Ngaire’s book which I’ll try out tomorrow.

And a final aside. My father Stan attended Lincoln College as a woolclassing student during his 1957/58 wife-finding tour of New Zealand. He’s on the far left in the front row of the graduating class photograph, having set the auto-timer on his Voigtländer and raced back into position.


A Nice Simnel Cake

Simnel CakeFrom Ngaire’s journal, 10th April, 1952
‘I have made a nice Simnel Cake for Easter’

And so have I. Made a nice Simnel Cake that is, complete with eleven marzipan balls – one for each of the disciples (excluding Judas). The exclusion of Judas, by the way, is tradition, not a decision on my part.

Simnel Cakes originated in Britain and date back to medieval times. Some sources say it was convention for young women in service to bake the cake as a gift for Mothering Sunday. Since this fell during Lent, the cake couldn’t be eaten immediately and therefore came to be associated with Easter.

It’s an odd sort of cake, with a layer of marzipan baked in the centre, and the marzipan topping and balls, which you toast under the grill or with a torch. Who knows what the significance of that is, particualrly in the absence of Judas. Perhaps it just makes it taste better. I’m taking my cake to friends in the country tomorrow and  plan to toast it when we get there.

There’s no recipe for a Simnel Cake in Ngaire’s book, so I went searching on the web. Originally different towns had their own recipes and even shapes of the cake, so there are many variations on the theme. The Shrewsbury version is the one that has endured. I used a recipe from the BBC site but, being Good Friday,  couldn’t run to the supermarket for ingredients so had to improvise a little. Instead of mixed peel I used marmalade (and a bit of extra flour) and to compensate for mixed spice I added a dash of strong Chai plus cinnamon and nutmeg. Fortunately I had plenty of blanched almonds in the pantry so was able to make my own marzipan paste.

Easter Simnel Cake

For the almond paste: 250g caster sugar, 250g ground almonds, 2 egg whites, beaten, 1 tsp almond essence.

For the cake: 175g butter, 175g soft brown sugar, 3 eggs, beaten, 175g plain flour, pinch salt, ½ tsp ground mixed spice, 350g mixed raisins, currants and sultanas, 55g chopped mixed peel, zest from ½ lemon, zest.

To assemble: Apricot jam, 1 egg white, beaten.


  1. For the almond paste, place the sugar and ground almonds in food processor. Add enough beaten eggwhite to mix to a fairly soft consistency. Add the almond essence and pulse  until the paste is smooth and pliable. Divide  into thirds, and roll out one pice into a 18cm circle (the size of your cake tin).
  2. Preheat oven to 140C. Grease and line an 18cm tin. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs then sift in the flour, salt and mixed spice  a little at a time. Finally, add the mixed dried fruit, peel and grated lemon zest and stir into the mixture.
  3. Put half the mixture into the greased and lined cake tin. Smooth the top and cover with the circle of almond paste. Add the rest of the cake mixture and smooth the top leaving a slight dip in the centre to allow for the cake to rise. Bake in the preheated oven for 1¾ hours, until a skewer comes away cleanly. Cool on a wire rack.
  4. Brush the top of the cooled cake with the apricot jam. Take another third of your almond paste and roll out a circle to cover the top of the cake. Make 11 small balls with the remaining paste. Place the circle of paste on the jam glaze and set the balls round the edge. Brush the cake topping with a little beaten eggwhite.
  5. Preheat the grill to high. Place the cake onto a baking tray and grill for 1-2 minutes, or until the top of the marzipan begins to brown. Alternatively, lightly heat the cake topping using a cook’s blow torch, until the marzipan is golden-brown.

Happy Easter everyone.


Thank Goodness

From Ngaire’s journal, 1st September, 1951
Polling Day.  The National Party has been re-elected, thank goodness.’

Melbourne, 1st September, 2012

I thank goodness for:

My dad Stan

My dad Stan

  1. Dad.  It’s Father’s Day today.
  2. Spring.  The novelty of Winter has well and truly worn off.
  3. Only six more days until Polling Day.  It’s been a very dispiriting campaign.

My parents are holidaying in Queensland  (home of the very entertaining Palmer United Party and Katter’s Australian Party), so I didn’t see Dad today.  He’ll be having a ball up there, following all the goings on.

Sunday Night Coffee Sponge

Sunday Night Coffee Sponge

We celebrated Father’s Day today with Oasis Bakery’s Big Lebanese Breakfast (yum) and tonight I made a coffee sponge from Ngaire’s recipe book.  Mum often made this for special Sunday night teas when we were growing up.  She made a wicked whipped butter and sugar filling with glace cherries and walnuts, but tonight we had it with sort-of-fresh raspberries (from the freezer) and cream.

My cake was a bit gooey in the centre.  Because I didn’t have any coffee essence, I tried to cheat by adding a (very) short black coffee to the mixture and a little extra flour.  Truth being the first casualty of any campaign,  I told the family it was a coffee fudge cake and was meant to be that way.

Sunday Night Coffee Sponge (3 Minute Butter Sponge)

Grease and line an 8″ round cake tin and preheat the oven (180 degrees).
Sift 7 oz flour into a basin then stir in 6 oz of sugar.
Lightly beat 3 eggs with 2 tablespoons of milk.
Stir in the eggs then add 3 oz of melted butter. Beat vigorously for 1 or 2 minutes until it forms a nice smooth batter.
Add 1 dessertspoon of coffee essence and 2 tsp baking powder.  Beat gently for just  long enough to combine the ingredients well.  Bake for approx 40 minutes.

Assorted Creams and Thoughts on Marriage

In a letter from Ngaire to Caroline (my mother), written at the Parkway Hotel, Bayswater, London, August 1958
We all have our trials and tribulations to overcome, and it is better for our characters in the end.
All the engagements here are very formal…naming the man first, without fail.
Kindness to each other is a tremendous thing in marriage and makes up for a lot of defects.”

Assorted creams - Monte Carlos, Orange Crisps & German Cream Sandwiches

Assorted creams – Monte Carlos, Orange Crisps & German Cream Sandwiches

I was going to be clever and talk about home-made making up for any defects in the assorted creams my daughter Alex and I made, but it seemed a bit of a stretch.  Besides, the defects were strictly aesthetic – imperfect shapes and smeared jam.

Well, the Orange Crisps were a bit odd.

I’ve written a little about Ngaire and Gerald’s ‘Grand Tour‘ of England and the Continent before.  They were away from Christchurch for over five months, during which time my mother Caroline moved into a flat with friends.  She talks about this as being great fun and very liberating, but clearly marriage was firmly on my grandmother’s mind, even from a distance.  In fact, Mum was seeing my father Stanley by this stage, and agreed to marry him, defects and all, a few months later.

Orange Crisps (Gert Simpson)

Orange Crisps

Orange Crisps

4 oz (120 g) butter, 2 oz (60 g) sugar, 1 packet orange jelly crystals, 1 egg, 2 oz (60 g) ground rice, 2 oz (60 g) coconut, 4 oz (120 g) flour, 1 tsp baking powder

Cream butter and sugar. Add jelly crystals then other ingredients.
Put in small spoonfuls on cold greased tray and press out flat.  Bake in hot oven for 8 to 10 minutes.
Cool then fill with chocolate icing (or may be left unfilled).
Honestly, more interesting than inspirational.

German Sandwiches (Gert Simpson)

German Biscuits

German Biscuits

½ lb (250 gm) butter, ½ lb sugar, ½ lb flour, ½ lb ground rice (rice flour), 1 tsp baking soda, 1 teacup milk, 1 tbsp cinnamon, pinch grated nutmeg

Cream butter and sugar.  Dissolve soda in milk and add to the mixture.  Sift dry ingredients together and fold in.  Beat briskly.
Chill the dough for 30 minutes then roll out on floured surface and cut out shapes.  Bake in hot oven for approximately 10 minutes.
When cool, fill with vanilla cream icing (see below).  Also delicious unfilled – roll the dough out quite thinly to make a crisp biscuit.

Monte Carlos (Australian Women’s Weekly)

Monte Carlos

Monte Carlos

6 oz (185 g) butter, ½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1 egg, 2 cups flour, 1¼ tsp baking powder, ½ cup coconut, ¼ cup raspberry jam.

Cream butter and sugar.  Add egg and vanilla then stir in dry ingredients. Put in small spoonfuls on cold greased tray and press out flat.  Rough surface with a fork.  Bake at 180 for about 12 minutes.
Cool and fill with vanilla cream icing (see below)  and raspberry jam.

Vanilla cream icing

2 oz butter (60 g), ¾ cup icing sugar, ½ tsp vanilla extract, 2 tsp hot water.

Beat butter, vanilla and icing sugar until fluffy.  Add the water, a few drops at a time, until you are happy with the consistency.


From Ngaire’s journal, 25th April ANZAC Day
I planted a poppy in Ray’s memory this morning and we then had afternoon tea at Mother’s.
1955 We planted poppies for my brother Ray and Gerald’s brother Ben in the Godley plot in Cathedral Square.

Ngaire’s ‘little’ brother Ray served in the Middle East in World War II.  He was killed in the early hours of July 22, 1942 during an attempt to seize the El Mreir Depression.  Two battalions were destroyed with a loss of about 900 men.
Ray was 23 years old.

Syria, 12th April 1942
I am sitting on my bed  in a concrete hut writing this.   If I stand up & and look out the window I can see – as far as the eye can see – green crops & grass patched here & there with stretches of tilled land.  You have no idea what a great relief it is to us after the desert. If I had but half the literary ability of a man like H V Morton, then I could give you some idea of the beautiful & interesting country we have passed through in the last seven days.

NZ Artillery, Egypt, 1942  Ray Simpson back left

NZ Artillery, Egypt, 1942 Ray Simpson back left

As soon as we crossed the “creek” out of Egypt proper into the Sinai desert the country changed.   Here was the desert of picture & story book fame.  Huge sand dunes rolling one on top of the other – proper sand too – not like the flat dusty desert of Libya.   Gradually we came into hilly, barren country & as we moved on the scene became greener until we came into that land “flowing with milk & honey”.   These ancient words are far from being an overstatement. I think Palestine was at its greenest for us – can you understand how unbelievable  all this seemed to us after eight months in the desert.   We camped one night just outside a small town where we had leave.     Oranges were in & all along the road were little boys willing to exchange them for a tin of bully, sugar or tea.   You’ve never seen oranges like them – some as big as croquet balls.
Lots of love,  Ray

The Chaplain in Ray’s battalion wrote to the family, giving a kind account of how he died and where he was buried.

Western Desert, 10th August, 1942
Dear Mrs. Simpson,
I know your heart will be heavy with sorrow and I hesitate to re-open the wound by speaking of your son’s death. But as I was with him to the last and it was my privilege to lay him to his last resting place, I felt I must write to tell you how sorry we were to lose your son and to offer you my deepest sympathy…

Ray Simpson and Lewis Rudkin with family on a picnic

Pre-war. Family picnic around 1939. From left, Lewis Rudkin (friend) , Ray Simpson, Ngaire Mottram, Helen (Ray’s girlfriend), Gertrude and William Simpson. In front, Caroline Mottram (my mother).

It was Wed. 22nd July. All the previous night our boys had been driving Jerry back. But with the morning, he counter-attacked using heavy artillery and tanks. Here the anti-tank boys did great work and in the midst of it all your son was wounded. A shell had burst near them and he was wounded in the head, thigh and foot. I can still see him as they brought him in to our dressing station. His face dirty from the blood of battle but never-the-less a cheery grin on it as he asked for a smoke. He had lost a lot of blood so the first thing the doctors did was to give him a transfusion and to keep him warm with hot water bottles. But their efforts were in vain. The wounds plus shock and loss of blood were more than the human frame could stand. Slowly, as in sleep, without pain (they had given him morphia), and without a struggle, he slipped into eternity.

Wrapped in his blanket, peaceful in spite of the roaring guns, we laid him beside his mates. His grave (I will endeavour to take a photo of it) a simple mound of sand ringed with stones and headed by a humble wooden cross…He laid down his life for his friends. Yet as he lay there so quiet and still I could not help but feel it was not really your son we were burying. His form, yes, but only a broken shell, an empty husk. His real self, that which you gave to him at birth, fostered and cultivated through boyhood, that something deeper that loved and was loved and that compelled him to offer to fight and to die that other may be free to live; that was gone, fled…
R.F. Judson, 31604 N.Z.E.F. (Presb. Padre)

In 1954, Ngaire and Gerald went to England and the Continent. On their way home, via the Suez Canal, their ship was scheduled to stop only a few miles from where Ray was buried.  However, due to security concerns, passengers were not allowed off the ship. It must have been very difficult to have been so close and not be able to visit his grave.
In 1993, a year before my grandmother died, my sister Averill visited the cemetery and left flowers on Ray’s grave.

Today I baked Ngaire’s ANZAC biscuits.  The recipe is dated 6th July 1933.  She would have associated the biscuits with the Great War, and probably couldn’t have imagined that there would be another.

Ngaire’s ANZAC Biscuits
(Business Girls’ Cookery Class No 4: Cakes,  6th July, 1933)
Ngaire's ANZAC Biscuits1 level cup flour, 1 heaped cup coconut, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 heaped cup ‘Quick Oats’
1 tbsp golden syrup, 1/4 lb (113 gms) butter, 1 level tsp Bicarb Soda, 1 tbsp boiling water.

Combine the dry ingredients (except Bicarb) in a bowl.
Melt butter and golden syrup together.  Add to dry ingredients, followed by Bicarb dissolved in boiling water. Mix together well.
Roll into small balls then squash flat with a fork etc.  Bake on cold greased trays for 15 mins at 180 Celsius.
Take out when golden and cool on wire rack.

Letters From the Front

Benjamin Ralph Mottram aged 20

Benjamin Ralph Mottram aged 20

Letters from  Ben Mottram
Ben was one of my grandfather Gerald’s two elder brothers.  He and Ron both fought in World War I, in the Middle East and in France.  Both returned to New Zealand, but Ben, a school teacher, died at the age of 39 – his illness possibly caused by leg wounds sustained during the war.
Ron was a surveyor and worked for the New Zealand Lands and Survey Department. I believe he surveyed Mottram Peaks.

Rangiotu Camp, North Island NZ, September 26th, 1915

We’re nearing the end of our drill now for we have had a few ceremonial parades with the whole regiment, practicing for a review and inspection by Lord Liverpool, I suppose. The colonel has told us that as far as he knows we will embark on the 9th and sail the next day.   He has received no official announcement but I expect he is right.
Love to Dad and yourself and tell Gerald I”ll write to him when I get a little more time.
From your loving son,  Ben.

Omaida, Egypt, 29th November, 1915

To-day we are experiencing a sand-storm.   The whole surface of the ground seems to be shifting, other fine sand drifts everywhere, it fills my eyes, covers our clothes, drifts into our tea and colours everything in the tent a light yellow.   Even writing on this paper feels like writing on sand-paper.   If we shake any of our clothes in the tent we can’t see the other side.

Ben Mottram Alexandria Camp

Camp at Alexandria

El Omayed, Egypt, 25th December, 1915

The parcels seem to be delayed somewhat, very few come up the line at a time, but I’ve managed to secure one of the parcels you have sent – the one with the cake and pudding in it – so Xmas won’t pass by without a little feasting.   Yesterday we were given a present from Australia, jam, toffee & cigarettes, and to-day we are getting for our Xmas dinner tinned fruit & meat & potatoes which will be as much a treat for us as turkey will be for you.
We had a service here a day or two ago, the Pres. chaplain, the Rev. MacKenzie, it seems odd but he found out my name & asked if I came from Akaroa. I didn’t know what to make of it, till he told me that he had been at Akaroa from ’94 to ’95.   He knew Ron too, for he had sat next to him at mess in Trentham;  of course I had to tell him of all the people at Akaroa;  who was married etc.

Ben Mottram Alexandria MenuIsmailia, Egypt 23rd January  1916

Dear Mother & Dad,
I was very sorry to leave Alexandria for it was such a simple matter to get into the town any time you wanted & make use of the cafes there and exercise a little of my French.
Ben Mottram Alexandria Menu0001I’ll send you a menu of our favourite place &  you’ll see what a ‘choice’ time we had there.   I’ve managed to get a couple of photos of our camp there:  they’re pretty clear so you’ll be able to see what it is like.
I believe they are making this place the base for NZ troops so maybe Ron will be sent here soon.I saw B. Bunny last night too.  He left with the 6th so had about 5 weeks at the Dardanelles.
With love to you all at home,  From your Loving Son, Ben

Ismailia, Egypt 1st March 1916
Dear Gerald,
Tell Mother that I’ve just received another parcel in remarkably good condition;  the cake this time having no whiskers on was soon lost to sight & the other goods received a very severe thrashing at our hands.
Your affectionate brother,  Ben

Somewhere in France, 17th May, 1916
…the country is just perfectly lovely now, all the spring flowers are out, even to the wild violets lining the lanes, everything so calm & peaceful that one would never have thought that there was a war on, were it not for the dull boom of the guns…The front line of trenches whither we are destined to go in a few day’s time, cannot be more than two miles from here.   Judging from all reports it is very quiet there & you are safer there than in the rear lines for you don’t get the shell fire.   “Safe as a church” the captain says so long as you don’t poke your head over the parapet for then it’s an invitation to the snipers across the way.
Your loving son, Ben

France, 29 July 1916
I have just received a NZ mail dated June 7th so I’ll just drop you a few lines to let you know I am still keeping well…Ron is keeping very well too.   I saw him fair frequently last week when we duly exchanged news & I learnt that he also was the recipient of a parcel which he pronounced to be “tres bon” (very good).
I have not seem many of the Peninsula boys just lately but I met one of the Giddens a short time ago;  from whom I heard that B. Bunny had been killed by a shell;  an instantaneous death – that’s the only consolation.
Your loving son, Ben

France, 10 August 1916

I mustn’t forget to mention that we have seen the king, we lined the roadside while on the march here, while he drove past in a motor then we were taken by the cinema having lunch by the way.   We can’t have presented a very prepossessing appearance for we were all dusty &  grimy with the march.

Twelve Pounds of Butter and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

From Ngaire’s journal, 24th December — Christmas Eve
Carol and Warwick went to bed at 10pm after filling our pillow cases. Gerald and I have filled theirs and they are now fast asleep, for how long I wonder? They are greatly excited.

We have been very busy today preparing for the carol singers who are coming for supper. The table is set in the dining room with sandwiches, mince pies, lemon honey tarts, savoury biscuits with tomato and cheese, 3 pavlovas the size of large meat dishes, a Christmas cake etc.”

Mince pies and lemon honeyChristmas cooking 2012No partridges actually, just two frightened chickens. We lost the other five to a fox a week ago, and it has been with a very heavy heart that I’ve used the last of their eggs in the Christmas baking. They were very trusting and dependable (an egg each nearly every day), and I wish I’d been able to better protect them.

The Christmas baking has been a somewhat spasmodic affair this year, squeezed in between work and done mostly late at night, but the results are respectable (as evidenced by the pounds and pounds of butter we’ve gone through):

    • One Christmas cake, iced and decorated
    • Two batches of shortbread
    • Two batches of mince tarts (thanks to Alex)
    • One Christmas pudding
    • Two batches of lemon curd
    • One very elaborate ginger bread house made by Alex.

I love giving and receiving gifts of food at Christmas.  My New Year resolutions are compromised every year by Mum’s macadamia shortbread and festive fruitcake, Mavis’s mince tarts and tomato relish and Nanette’s sugar-coated shortbread and zucchini pickles. May this year be no different.

Merry Christmas. Michelle x


From Ngaire’s journal, 8th December, 1950
I iced two Christmas cakes today, one for ourselves and one for the carollers who are to have supper with us on Christmas Eve.”

Bottling apricotsAnd, not to be outdone, I have:

put the marzipan on my (one) Christmas cake

bottled 16 jars of apricots

made 6kg of apricot jam

organised the Christmas tree (but not the decorations)


made the Christmas pudding and put it on to boil.

It’s going to be a late night.