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.
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.
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/
1 oz castor sugar
1/2 pint milk
1 teaspoon butter
1/2 oz flour
1 egg or 2 yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
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).
4 oz flaky pastry
3/4 cup milk
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
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 taste.com.au
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.