Monday, April 25, 2011

Vanilla Slice

My mate Craig Johnston emailed me from Alice Springs in Central Australia to tell me he had just eaten the best vanilla slice in Australia. My first thought was 'How is he defining best' as any kid growing up in Australia over the last, oh, at least 40 years will have eaten many a vanilla slice from a school tuck shop, the local pie and cake shop, or baked by a female family relative (and perhaps in some instances a male family relative) and will have different views on what makes for 'the best'.

So, I put the call out to foodie friends of mine to see what criteria they would use to judge 'the best' vanilla slice. Craig's criterion for 'the best' was straightforward - the custard had to wobble sufficiently. Kerry Boyne said 'It’s everything – the custard (not too firm in consistency), the icing (some passionfruit tang, not just sugar-sweet), the pastry – and the right colour for the custard and the icing. Please, no fluoro yellows!'. Roberta Muir wants "Crisp pastry and creamy rather than jelly-like vanilla cream'.

For those of you unfamiliar with a vanilla slice, it's a sandwich of flaky pastry around a slab of vanilla custard (with colour variation from pale yellow through to lurid buttercup), with, in my preferred version,  passionfruit icing, though there are those who have a vanilla icing as well (see the picture below). The pleasure of it for me was the contrast between the crispness and crumbling of the pastry, the mellow milky vanilla of the custard which invariably squooshed out the side of the slice when you bit into it so you had to juggle your mouth and tongue around the extruding custard and slurp it into your mouth as you bit or else lick it off your fingers post the bite, and the sharp sugariness of the passionfruit icing dotted with seeds which would give another satisfying crunch when bitten.

My foodie brain by this time was in overdrive pondering the question of the origin of this Australian standard biscuit. I use the term 'biscuit' here advisedly, having had recourse to that brilliant source of knowledge about many things technical - no, not Wikipedia, but QI (Quite Interesting) the tv panel show hosted by Stephen Fry which has over the last couple of years answered questions and corrected facts for me that I hadn't even got around to asking but am much the better for now knowing. One one episode, having had a side-splittingly funny discussion on 'digestive biscuits' Fry posed the question what technically is the difference between a cake and a biscuit, to which the fascinating answer is that when they go stale, a cake goes hard and a biscuit goes soft, and as anyone can tell you who has left a vanilla slice uneaten long enough, the pastry on it certainly goes softer as it sits dejected for lack of fulfilling its purpose in life. [Here's the link to the discussion on QI] As further justification for this nomenclature of the vanilla slice as a biscuit I offer the placing of what recipes I for vanilla slice or indeed any slice I did find in my early Australian cookbooks in the section for Biscuits (and Slices sometimes) and never in Cakes.

I digress.

The oldest source in my collection where the elements of a vanilla slice are described and recipes given is

The Goulburn Cookery Book (1899) compiled by Mrs William Forster (Jean) Rutledge. However, while she gives recipes separately for Vanilla Cream, for which you make a thick custard then add whipped cream, and vanilla essence and then set, or you can use a vanilla bean while making the custard, a Passionfruit Glaze using icing sugar and passionfruit juice, and recipes for Puff Paste and Flaky Pastry, there is sadly no recipe where the three elements are put together into a proto vanilla slice.

The Kingswood Cookery Book by of H F Wicken (originally published in 1888 and of which I have a sixth edition with no date of publication) first in 1888)  has a recipe for vanilla custard pots and for a date sandwich which is made with two pieces of pastry between which you put dates prior to baking.

The Kookaburra Cookery Book (1915) from The Lady Victoria Buxton Girl's Club, Adelaide has a recipe for  vanilla fingers, but these are basically a biscuit with vanilla flavouring.

In the Sunday Times (Perth, WA) Sunday 16th July 1911), Miss L. Paterson, of "Coolinga," Servetus-Street, W. Clare, is awarded an Honourble Mention in the recipe competition for her

Vanilla Slices (excellent)
 Beat 6 eggs with a cup of sugar until light and frothing ; by degrees sift in two cups of flour mixed with two tea- spoons of cream of tartar, and one tea- spoon of carbonate of soda. When well raised add about a tablespoonful of melted butter and vanilla flavoring to taste. Bake in two square tins well buttered, for 15 to 20 minutes ; turn out, and when cold spread over cake with whipped cream, flavored with vanilla flavoring ; put the one cake on top and cut into slices. Ice each one for boiled icing. Very nice for afternoon tea..

So, we are getting warmer in our search now. We have a filling that is vanilla flavoured (albeit whipped cream) being placed between two layers of pastry, cut into slices and finished off with a boiled icing.

The Green and Gold Cookery Book (1923?) has a recipe that puts a custard between to pieces of pastry, but in this case it is a pineapple custard, and the custard is placed between the pastry before the whole is baked and there is no icing.

My collection is a bit thin over the 20's and 30s, but when I hit the Cookery Book (1938) of the Electrical Association for Women (Australia) Sydney, my heart did a little skip.

Vanilla Slices
1/4 lb butter, 1/2 lb flour, yolk of egg, pinch of salt, enough water to mix, vanilla essence.

Rub butter into sifted flour and salt, mix with egg, vanilla, and enough water to make a stiff mixture. Roll out two or three times, cut in pieces, and bake at 450 degrees, for 12 to 15 minutes. When cold, join together with custard, and ice on top.

But but but...What kind of custard and what kind of icing. Damn those secret women's business recipe books where a certain quantum of knowledge is understood so the barest instructions will be understandable to the woman cook!

I was now desperate. I had hoped that vanilla slices would be of relative antiquity in Australian household baking and here I was approaching the half way point in the last century, a bare two dozen years away from my first vanilla slice, and it didn't look like anyone was going to bring all the elements together in something definitive.

To the rescue came, who else, the Country Women's Association. In The CWA Cookery Book and Household Hints (1941) I found the following/

Vanilla Slices

1 oz castor sugar
1/2 pint milk
1 teaspoon butter
puff pastry
1/2 oz flour
1 egg or 2 yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
water icing
chopped nuts

Roll the prepared pastry to 1/8 in. thickness. Cut into oblongs 1 3/4 x 4 in. Bake on a baking sheet in a quick oven till pastry is fully risen. Reduce heat and finish baking. Cool on a cake rack. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in sugar and flour, and take pan to side of fire. Stir in the milk, a teaspoon at at time and beat the mixture till smooth. Return to the fire and cook, stirring constantly for 3 or 4 minutes, then draw again to the side of fire, and stir in the well-beaten egg and vanilla. Stand over a pan of boiling water, and cook for a few minutes, then leave till cool. Put between the pastry, spread the tops with water icing (some may have coloured icing), and sprinkle with chopped nuts.

So close, but failed to finish at the gallop in the last stages. No passionfruit icing. Indeed, no vanilla icing either. Now, I grant you, there are some who told me of recalling vanilla slices in their tuck shops with pink icing. So I have to be catholic and accept these slices into the fold. In which case to the CWA here in 1941 would go if not the winner's crown of lemon scented gum, perhaps the third placed crown of scribbly gum or stringybark.

I award the mountain ash wreath for second closest to my vision to Wynwode Reid in New Australian Cookery Illustrated (1950).

Vanilla Slices

4 oz flaky pastry
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 dessertspoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 very heaped dessertspoon cornflour

Roll out the pasty into two thin sheets of equal size. Prick them all over and bake until crisp and cooked through. Blend the cornflour with the milk and sugar and stir over low heat until boiled and thick. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and beaten egg. Spread between the pastry, ice the top with soft vanilla icing and cut into squares with a sharp knife.

Now for many, my ruling here will be controversial. Certainly the good folk of the Victorian town of Ouyen would not cavil were I to award the coveted lemon scented gum winner's wreath to Wynwode. Ouyen holds holds The Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph annually, the origin of which you can read at A Slice of Country Life, on the Australian Traveller website. The picture below is of the 2010 'professional' winning entry. And yes, it is finished with vanilla icing. You can see more images of the 2010 Triumph, including both the amateur and professional entries at the Ouyen website.

The 2010 winning professional vanilla slice from the Ouyen Great Vanilla Slice Triumph. Note the LACK of passionfruit icing!

But I am going to stick to my dream - to find the first written record in an Australian cook book of a vanilla slice with passionfruit icing. And so the lemon scented gum wreath goes to...

T. Crocker in the Taree West Cookbook (no date but likely to be in the late 1990s or early 2000s).

Vanilla Custard Slice
 3 sheets frozen puff pastry
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup cornflour
2/3 cup custard powder
4 cups milk or skim milk
50g margarine
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 egg yolks
2 cups icing sugar mixture
3 dessertspoons passionfruit pulp (or 1/3 tin)

1. Join pastry sheets (1 1/2) for top, on a baking tray, slit pastry with knife. Bake in a hot oven 10 minutes until golden brown. While still hot flatten the pastry with another cake tin then repeat with the remaining 1 1/2 sheets for base.

2. Combine sugar, cornflour and custard powder - blend with a little milk until smooth. Add remaining mils and the margarine. Heat and stir mixture until the custard boils (have the hand held electric beater ready in case mixture starts to form lumps). Removed [sic] from heat, add the vanilla and beaten egg yolks and return to stove. (If mixture does not  boil it tastes floury). As soon as the mixture has boiled pour it out onto one pastry sheet and place the other on top (flat side up). Put the passionfrut icing or pink lemon flavoured icing on top of the pastry and let set overnight before cutting into squares.

Now it was time for me to make my own vanilla slice. I wanted so much to make T. Crocker's, but I baulked at the use of custard powder. I wanted the best of the old and the new - real custard, passionfruit icing, and, being an abject failure at an earlier attempt at puff pastry, pre-made pastry. I gave in and Googled and came up with this on

Vanilla slice with passionfruit icing

•    2 sheets (25cm x 25cm) ready rolled frozen puff pastry, thawed
•    Melted butter, to grease
•    750ml (3 cups) milk
•    375ml (1 1/2 cups) thickened cream
•    8 egg yolks
•    220g (1 cup) caster sugar
•    50g (1/3 cup) plain flour
•    35g (1/4 cup) cornflour
•    50g butter, chopped
•    2 tsp vanilla essence
•    230g (1 1/2 cups) pure icing sugar, sifted
•    2 tbs canned passionfruit in syrup (John West brand)

1.    Preheat oven to 220°C. Line 2 baking trays with non-stick baking paper. Place 1 pastry sheet onto each lined tray. Bake in preheated oven, swapping trays halfway through cooking, for 20 minutes or until pastry puffs and browns. Remove from the oven. Cover pastry with a clean tea towel and use your hands to gently push the pastry down to flatten. Set aside for 15 minutes to cool.
2.    Brush 23cm (base measurement) square slab pan with butter to lightly grease. Line base and sides with foil. Place 1 pastry sheet, flat-side down, in base of prepared pan.
3.    Meanwhile, heat milk and cream in a heavy-based saucepan over medium heat until mixture just comes to the boil. Combine egg yolks, sugar, flour and cornflour in a heatproof bowl. Whisk until thick and pale. Gradually stir hot milk mixture into egg mixture. Place in a clean saucepan over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes or until custard comes to the boil and thickens. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla essence until combined. Pour over pastry and place remaining pastry flat-side (unpressed side) up on top. Place in fridge for 1 hour or until custard sets.
4.    Place icing sugar and passionfruit in large bowl and stir until smooth and glossy. Turn slice out onto a large chopping board and remove the foil. Spread icing over the top of the slice with the back of a spoon. Set aside for 20 minutes or until icing is set. Use a serrated knife to cut the vanilla slice into 16 pieces.

And here's what it looked like. Kinda thin on the custard, but the pastry was wonderfully flaky, the passionfruit icing was made with passionfruit pulp from the vine growing in our footpath garden, and the custard was a satisfying yellow, just wobbly/firm and it got rave reviews from my dinner companions on the night.

I may well head down to Ouyen this September and enter the comp.


Ross and Maria Kelly have for the past several years kept me supplied with chestnuts from their Mount Irvine property in the Blue Mountains.  They have a property up there and grow a small orchard up there with walnuts and chestnuts and damsons, and a vegie patch that produces Jerusalem artichokes and Japanese artichokes and garlic, too, all of which I have had the pleasure of receiving in season and making of them what I will.

But getting back to the chestnuts. I had for long been fascinated by chestnuts from stories read as a child in Sri Lanka in the British children's weekly news-sheet style magazine we used to get (I think it was called Jack and Jill) which invariably in the winter editions would have scenes of children wrapped up in woolies gathering around the chestnut roasting contraption of a street vendor as snow fell prettily around them. The fascination was consolidated through endless repetitions of The Christmas Song with its opening line of 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire'.

My first encounter with the real thing was my first batch from Ross and Maria which I roasted not too successfully in an oven, but well enough to understand at last what those pasty-faced rosy-cheeked Jacks and Jills were so enamoured of. I followed this up the next year by heading off on a chestnut gathering bus trip that my across-the-road neighbour Charlie organises annually, a trip you can read about on my foodie website  - look in the drop down menu for the article titled Not That Old Chestnut! - a title I rush to say I don't recall giving it and lay the blame instead at the keyboard of Andrew Wood editor of the much lamented Divine magazine who published the article.

I have to say that chestnuts are one of those treats whose preparation can seem like an awful lot of trouble to go through, but having gone through it now several times, the result is always worth it, for the delicate sweetness of the flesh and the multiplicity of its uses from snack food through to deliriously delicious desserts.

Image from
If roasting, you give each chestnut a cross-like incision on its tapering end so they don't explode leaving bits of starchy white goo sticking to the sides of your oven, charring. I roast mine in a single layer on a baking tray at 200C or 450F for around 20-215 minutes till the shell curls back a bit where you've scored it. To get at the flesh, you pull off the shell which should by this stage be firm and easy to separate from the layer of slightly furry skin that covers the flesh. You also have to remove this skin. You need to do all of this while the chestnut is still hot, or at least very warm, otherwise the skin can be hard to peel off without taking a lump of flesh with it - and no, you do not want to eat the skin. In background research for this blog I came across a site which somewhat heretically suggests you cut the chestnut in half and them place them on a grill in the oven. Granted, however, the advantage of this is that you can check whether the chestnut is spoiled or not before you go to the trouble of roasting it. I have yet to come across a batch in which one or two don't have a sort of chestnut cancer - dark brown or black hardened areas of flesh. I have not, however, come across any worms.

Chestnuts will spoil and so they need to be used soon after they are collected, or you should peel than asap and freeze what flesh you don't use immediately. For this, and for using in soups and desserts, most sources recommend you begin by boiling the chestnut to get to the stage of removing shell and skin. To do this, you make a slit in the rounded side of the chestnut, then boil them whole for around 3 - 5 minutes. Take them off the heat and then scoop out a few at a time to peel, leaving the others in the hot water so they don't cool and become to peel skin off. Because hot water and my fingers go together unhelpfully, I have got smart and now only boil up as many chestnuts as I need for the recipe I am using at the time. Or if I am going to freeze the flesh, boil up small batches at a time.

I have recipes on my food site for Chestnut Ice Cream, Monte Bianco, and Chestnut and Lentil Soup.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lab Gastronomy

I am calling it this because basically we are talking about the push now to use labs to pull apart cooking processes and enable new ways of producing food for the plate/palate. I just saw an episode of the ABC program Catalyst that catalysed my irkiness about some of the direction this can go in. Don't get me wrong - I am a BIG fan of Herve This and his ilk who investigate what happens when food cooks - hey, I have him to thank for the Maillard reaction info that I love throwing into the gab now when I do a cooking class and roast my spices, yakking on about how what happens when food goes brown under heat used to be generically called 'caramelising' but that's a misnomer and that what actually happens is this weird reaction that even Maillard didn't quite figure out.

Which leads me back to the Catalyst program which had a nanosecond look at some of the techniques that by now are frankly ho-hum like that thingy where you cook the food in the vacuum pack at low temps for a long time (I keep wanting to call it suisse but I know it isn't). Which again is precisely why this blog.

What they showed was an eager young boffin in a lab putting a nicely peppered and salted piece of steak into the 'special' plastic bag (like doh! I am going to put plastic plastic bags into hot water!), and then cooking it at I think something like 54C for some ridiculous amount of time (I keep thinking they said 32 minutes - nothing like precision in this noveau monde) so it all came out looking distinctly grey and apparently perfectly medium rare. But of course he smiling pointed out that it wouldn't taste like a steak till he blowtorched it to get the good old Maillard reaction, that is what we barbecue tragics call scorched earth and what is known in snootier circles as char-grilled.

And there I am thinking this is a ridiculous length to go to to eat a perfectly medium rare steak.

Let me be clear - I like my steak unpredictable. I like that sometimes  I get it spot on and sometimes I get it a tad Kalahari-like. Which is to say I love accident and imperfection and chance. I do not want this new form of standardisation/perfection. I mean, wasn't that one of the reasons why we objected to the Macdonaldisation of food? That we did not want the same product of someone's idea of perfection unceasingly when we fronted up to a plate?

Ditto the thought of cooking a bloody duck egg for 35 minutes (or was it 32?) so there is this just so balance between firm and runny and...

And the presenter actually had the gall to cast all of this as some advance that was changing food as fuel into food as tasty! Ceres only knows where she eats regularly but if I were her I'd be looking for some place that does tasty without the fuss and the price tag and the smugness.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Slack Blogger

Sorry to all you avid followers of moi blogge for failure to post anything for yonks, but I have had to focus on work that gets me $$. I have a number of topics on the bubble though and will post on them soon - including a short history of the vanilla slice in Australia - mmmmmmmmmmmmm1