Cheap treat or a national treasure
Everyone in Australia has probably tried one at some stage or been tempted to.
From school tuckshops to the sitting rooms of country homesteads or harbourside mansions. From morning smoko to elegant dessert trays. A veritable sweet or a cheap treat?
Maybe that is it. The secret to a vanilla slice is that it is such an enigma.
Plain, simple … like a cream sponge. That simple you cannot hide any imperfections.
The vanilla slice is one of those humble Australian bakery items that qualifies as “good old” for its longevity and as “humble” because of its modest level of finesse.
So much so that it has embedded itself into the Australian way of life – much like the confection itself: a custard filling sandwiched between two layers of pastry and icing on top.
Yet what of the humble slice? Is it a rip-off of the elegant French mille feuille, a variation on the English counterpart, something borrowed from eastern Europe or is it a creation from the land Down Under? As Aussie as Vegemite?
While recipes may date back to the turn of the last century, the question is if it was popular then or is it a child of the Second World War … the struggle years of farming, the suburban wage earners?
But there are mysteries in all this.
What was your childhood vanilla slice like? Did it have a different name? And how long has it been around?
Not the Continental or Napoleon with those layers of pastry and custard topped with cream. This is about the no-nonsense slice: creamy custard sandwiched between two layers of pastry with a icing on top.
Yet the filling, and more so the icing, changes from place to place, state to state. Maybe it has something to do with region. Perhaps it is simply the baker was brought up with.
The icing has varied greatly from pink, white or yellow – raspberry, vanilla or passionfruit – and slightly sticky as opposed to hard or distinctly runny.
We are seeing vanilla icing with fine chocolate decoration – waves or leaf motifs. And some dusted with powdered icing sugar.
I like eating them, but when you think about it, there’s not a lot that’s truly impressive. Try too hard at creating a good vanilla slice and you lose the appeal. Somehow, it just all comes together to be something innocuously pleasant. Maybe life just has to be that way sometimes!
A cheap treat that only serves to put on weight or a national treasure that has become woven through the tapestry of Australia’s heritage, whether served at official functions or lifting the spirits of communities ravaged by bushfire, drought or flood.
Something that is enjoyed for afternoon tea at cricket matches at all the little bush grounds across the land.
It’s not a cheap treat if you use quality ingredients – butter, eggs, cream, sugar, puff pastry and a lot of love.
Ask a Sydney-sider and they will say it has got to be fresh passionfruit icing and flaky pastry, with the passionfruit giving a sharp taste so the icing will not be too sweet.
Many remember them being made with Sao biscuits or the sweeter lattice biscuits.
You can tell the quality of the pastry by its cut-ability. Firm enough to hold the slice together yet soft enough to be able to cut through with a table knife.
Maybe that is another quirk: they are not meant to be shared. Yet a whole one could be too much for one person.
It’s like having good custard in a dish, I am told. Forget the pastry and just eat the custard with a spoon.
But just what is the appeal of the vanilla slice?
The starting point is a square about 7cm wide and about 4cm high, with soft (not runny) white icing. Yet we are seeing more and more of the rectangular shape. And with a dusting of icing sugar rather than icing.
After many conversations on the subject I have come to a generalisation that Victorians prefer vanilla icing, passionfruit in New South Wales and Queenslanders leaning towards raspberry pink but also happy with white icing.
Originally from Perth, Western Australia, Bread on Buderim baker Rob believes pink icing was the traditional style that only adds to the conundrum.
At Lancefield Bakery in Victoria, they occasionally like to experiment with coca-cola in the icing. Must have been inspired by the short-lived Vanilla Coke, my daughter suggests.
The vanilla slice is also known by a variety of names: custard squares or custard slices in Queensland yet school kids in the southern states had other names such as snot blocks (Victoria) and pus pies (NSW).
Some are bringing in the thin wavy chocolate lines on the white icing. Any more than that and I think it loses its simple appeal – traditional giving way to quirky.
Sunshine Coast author Sarah Rex says her grandmother remembers eating vanilla slice as a kid in Sydney, before the Second World War.
“Her mum would send her to the bakery where she was later to meet the man she would marry,” Sarah says.
“That was in suburban Sydney and (the slices) would be square in shape and have vanilla icing on top, no chocolate.
“Her husband remembers eating them there, too. This was all before they even met many years later. Perhaps they saw each other in the shop as kids one day, unaware that they would build their own cake shop empire in Sydney.
“Their recipe for a vanilla slice was puff pastry for the top and bottom, and vanilla custard filling in the middle.
“The filling was made from milk, sugar, vanilla essence and cornflour to thicken it. When it was made, the custard was thick enough that it would hold its form but smooth enough that it could be spread on the pastry.
“The puff pastry was cooked in big sheets. Put one sheet down on a tray and spread the custard over the top, nice and thick.
“Top with another sheet of the puff pastry and then put a tray on top to weigh it down. Bung it in the fridge to cool and set the whole thing.
“When it was nice and cool, granny would ice the whole thing. Occasionally they would use vanilla icing, but they preferred the passionfruit.
“They would then cut it into squares, starting with a cut through the middle and then out to the edges to ensure they were nice and square.
“I think this would also stop the filling from squishing out too much by cutting it this way, but Gran and Pa both said they had not really thought of that – they were mainly thinking of presentation and of how many pieces they could get out of a tray.”
Icing and cutting – this was all done while the slice was still cold.
Today they have specially calibrated cutting tools to ensure nice, even squares … or rectangles.
Mention the name and it evokes memories of the smell of the shop across the road from school – pies, lollies, sausage rolls, cream buns – before school tuckshops.
Maroochy North Shore real estate agent Tony Brown says his memories of them are so good you couldn’t forget even if you wanted to.
Born in Townsville, Tony says his best memory was his grandmother giving him a half-slice.
“It was from the Wynnum Bakery when I was too small to remember my age. It was the size of my head.
“At school in 1981 on pie day you could have a vanilla slice for 20c – the same price as a sausage roll.
“This was after you parted with the princely sum of 35c for a pie, delivered to the school by a volunteer parent … and pie day still made money for the P&C.
“What happened to those days?
“Stark white-ribbed icing to complement the bright custard yellow base.
“To true aficionados, there is no other colour combination … unless I was offered one that was a different colour, then I’d change my story to suit.”
Tony believes the best vanilla slice, so far, comes from the Swiss Bakery at Pacific Paradise.
International yachtsman and business systems advisor Simon Hay remembers his father was a master baker in Coventry, UK, and that everything changed after the war when egg powder started to replace fresh eggs.
That allowed for less risk if the slices were not kept cool with refrigeration. And it opened the market to everybody enjoying them instead of just the privileged few.
Mooloolaba realtor Vicki Stewart, who is originally from Moree in NSW, maintains the best vanilla slices came from country bakeries.
“A vanilla slice in a school lunch was the biggest treat,” she says.
“A cheap treat? It’s why we had them. The small country bakeries were the best ’cause they used mum’s recipes.”
An auntie reminded me on Facebook that my mother made wonderful vanilla slices.
Yes, I had forgotten. Being on a farm we always had homemade cakes and biscuits.
But the vanilla slice almost escaped me. Thin white icing with fresh passionfruit pulp mixed in.
So who eats them today and what does the style of vanilla slice say about the neighbourhood?
Softer, fancier, more creamy in some areas compared to a serviceable no-secrets attitude in others? What time of day – morning or afternoon tea, enjoyed by tradies, school kids or baby boomers?
One thing I did discover is that you need to be at the bakery early on a Friday. In my search for the great vanilla slice, I had to go to five Sunshine Coast bakeries to get one.
Why? I had waited until 1pm.
Prices seem to vary from $3.50 and $3.80 to $4.50.
Sydney-based digital editor Shaneene Levey believes they shouldn’t be more than $4.80 but they taste great in summer.
“The custard must be nice and cool,” she says. “They’re not built for sharing but they are still fun to share.
“Sometimes it’s hard to cut a vanilla slice in half, unless you have a good pocket knife and the willingness to get sticky.
“That is a good test of whether the pastry is too hard or not … maybe they are not meant to be shared. Yet you can feel sick after a whole one.
“We had that ribbed icing at school tuckshop but it was too sickly. I like the fine, crumbly pastry that allows you to cut it in half with relative ease.
“And proper icing. None of this dusted stuff.
“I don’t mind pink icing or white icing so long as it’s good quality – passionfruit is nice, but better on cupcakes.
“And a big size. None of this: ‘We cut it in half but charge you double’ rubbish.”
Artist/writer Sue Withers, who has lived and worked in all Australian eastern states, remembers the icing her mum made was shiny, white and runny with fresh passionfruit mixed in.
“These other inventions, or perhaps colloquial variants, don’t approach that passionfruit-laced icing,” Sue said.
“She did cheat on the pastry, though, and created perfect square slices using the Aussie invention … the old reliable Arnott’s Sao.
“The childhood thoughts and memories have caused me to break out of my comfort zone and, heaven forbid, make one.
“Funny how fond recollections from a long ago time come back to haunt us.
“Time spent in the kitchen satisfying whims is time well-spent.”
So here’s to a treat that is as ubiquitous throughout this great wide land as lamingtons and pavlova.
And while it may have been adapted from similar sweets in other parts of the world, I believe we have created something to be proud of and something that reflects who we are … especially when topped with slightly runny passionfruit icing.
VANILLA SLICE: A QUICK RECIPE
250gm packet lattice or Sao biscuits
300ml carton or tub thickened cream
1 cup milk
85gm packet vanilla instant pudding
1 cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon soft butter
Cover base of 23cm square slab pan with biscuits … Plain side down if there is a choice
Combine cream and milk in large bowl, add pudding mix; beat with rotary beater for about one minute or until smooth. Pour pudding mixture over biscuits.
Top with a single layer of biscuits, plain side down.
Top with icing, refrigerate overnight
Combine sifted icing sugar, passionfruit pulp and butter in heatproof bowl. Stor over hot water until icing is spreadable.
Within one day