ARTICLE

Vanilla slices – glorious, perhaps mundane, quite mysterious

I've been thinking a lot about the good old vanilla slice recently. It's one of those standard, humble Australian bakery items that qualifies as "good old" for its longevity and as "humble" because of its modest level of finesse. But there are mysteries in all this (and questions for readers at the end).

A little journey

I grew up eating vanilla slices as my preferred after-school snack, albeit constrained somewhat by the disappointing options opposite my high school. I could choose between the milkbar's revolting, rubbery Four'n'Twenty vanilla slices (truly deserving of the colloquial name "snot block"), or the hot bread shop's Greekified version, filled with a semi-translucent lightly lemony paste. Whenever possible, I'd find my way to the Ferguson Plarre bakery, as their vanilla slices were the childhood paragon of gooeyness.

What has brought me to this little discourse was a rare daytrip to the countryside: Woodend, a small town an hour's drive from Melbourne, has somehow become famous for its vanilla slices. Two bakeries vie for attention. The smaller of the two, Woodend Bakery Café, supplied a not-quite-fresh slice (the pastry was too close to cardboard, despite its very promising appearance) with a creamy sweet custard and clear vanilla notes. A bit tall (perhaps aspiring to life as a millefeuille), it was a greater-than-usual challenge to eat this vanilla slice gracefully (perhaps a mutually incompatible concept anyway).


The second bakery, Bourkies Bakehouse, offers tray upon tray of slices, some with icing flavoured with passionfruit or raspberry. These were fresh (the turnover is enormous), with a custard of similar characteristics to their competitor and stodgy pastry, but of slightly more jaw-friendly dimensions.

While I preferred the texture and dimensions of the latter vanilla slice, both co-eater Mittens and I found the custard of the former slightly tastier. It was a very close call, though, and likely to change depending on freshness and minor variations in formulation. The review on the apparently now dormant Vanilla Slice Blog was scathing of the Bourkie's slice and praising of the Woodend Bakery Café, but on our visit the differences simply weren't that marked.

Back home in Melbourne, we tried my childhood favourite from a Ferguson Plarre outlet. This a no-nonsense affair: (1) thick, stiff but airy custard, (2) moderately thick, unimpressive pale pastry, (3) moderately thick, sticky icing. Texturally, I think the custard is great (for a vanilla slice) – my preference is definitely for custards that are less creamy than those in Woodend. The flavour, however, was that of cream and just the faintest hint of vanilla. I like eating them, but on closer inspection, there's not a lot that's truly impressive. Somehow, it just all comes together to be something innocuously pleasant. Maybe life just has to be that way sometimes!

This article was originally going to include some baking in my kitchen, but I got sidetracked by some interesting observations, started by the fact that the Wikipedia entry for Millefeuilles dumps a whole pile of things together rather clumsily and imprecisely. (For a beautiful homemade millefeuille, see Sarah's post.)

So where are the vanilla slices at home?

Although most of the people I know take the vanilla slice for granted as an Australian great, most are unaware that it not only has other names around Australia, but actually occurs in some form in other countries. I'm not talking about the French millefeuille, the distinctly classier relative, nor the Australian "French vanilla slice" which is more of a nod to the millefeuille, sometimes a mix of layers of custard and whipped cream, perhaps with coffee icing. I read once that New Zealanders and USAmericans call vanilla slices "napoleons", but internet searches favour either clumsy millefeuilles or a layered slice of cake, custard and puff pastry under that name. Sometimes there's even jam involved! It seems that "custard slice" or "custard square" might be a much closer relative of our target.

The state of Victoria seems to be disproportionately represented in online searches for vanilla slices. Even taking into account other names (it seems (some) Queenslanders prefer "custard square"), Victoria seems to be in the lead. There's some bias because of the annual competition in the Victorian town of Ouyen.

Of further interest, there are remarkably few recipes for vanilla slices in common older Australian cookbooks, which makes me wonder if the popularity is less national than regional. Cooking queen Margaret Fulton, for instance, has no recipe in her main book or encyclopedia. Some Australian Women's Weekly books do feature a recipe. The recent NSW Country Women's Association Cookbook doesn't. It's not unusual for there to be no common recipes for baked goods that were only produced commercially, but it does make it harder to trace the history of the thing!

The majority of (more recent) recipes combine custard powder with milk or cream and egg. Most overseas recipes seem to omit cream. (You also have to ignore the "blinged up" recipes that have aspirations to be a millefeuille, so leave the recipes of Bill Granger and Maggie Beer and countless others out of the equation.)

And what should a vanilla slice be?

For me, the prototype of a vanilla slice is a square about 7cm (?2.5") wide and about 4cm (?1.5") high, with soft (not runny) white icing. The stiff custard is not a rich crème pâtissière and has a slightly aerated character (see pics). It is not lightened with whipped cream. The pastry is never particularly crisp (alas).

For my elderly neighbours, the size they remember from their childhood (the 1950s) is as above, as is the icing, but they remember the custard as being very pale and not as rich (perhaps a lean milk custard set with flour or gelatine?)

And my mother remembers a firm, pale yellow custard in Sydney's vanilla slices. Her opinion of vanilla slices in Brisbane in the late 1960s is not flattering: "… the custard was nasty in that it was thick and solid but didn't taste right for a custard and seemed to be mostly cornflour. In retrospect, maybe they used a lot of water rather than all milk to make the filling."

Neither my neighbours or my mother can find a recipe from the time, so vanilla slices might well have been the preserve of the commercial baker. (I can find an English recipe for "vanilla slices" from the 1950s, which features white icing on top, and consisting of three rectangular layers of puff pastry, sandwiching two modest layers of both jam and either whipped cream or "confectioner's custard".)

I think the culinary world needs clarity, so tell me, dear readers (especially Gen X and older), did you grow up with the Victorian-style vanilla slice in your neck of the woods. Or was there something with a heavier custard? What was it called? And how long ago? Or was there nothing? And what about overseasy people?

My apologies in advance for any rumbling stomachs these questions may cause.

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COMMENTS

20 responses to “Vanilla slices – glorious, perhaps mundane, quite mysterious”

  1. Sarah

    Well, I feel most unqualified to weigh in on this discussion, never having eaten an Aussie vanilla slice, but wanted to say thanks for the link! :)

    xox Sarah

  2. Gina

    I grew up in Croatia, and 'Krempita' (Vanilla slice) was always one of my favourite traditional desserts. Most of Croatian recipes include just milk, but the ones from Bosnia or Serbia require cream (or even milk with whipping cream powder), and are all made with vanilla sugar instead of real vanilla beans or paste. At times, the custard layer is topped with a thin layer of whipped cream, and it is always dusted with sugar – no icings of any kind…

  3. Michelle Penniment

    Hello Duncan, Michelle here in Perth, I moved back in January. I grew up in the South West of WA, we had never heard of the term 'Snot Block' until we moved to Melbourne.

    Vanilla Slices in WA are very similar to Victoria, some have pink icing. Most were a firm luminous almost radioactive bright yellow, which screams of custard powder and mass production, much like your mothers experience in Brisbane. I am not a fan, and could not see the attraction. Country bakeries were usually better than the city shops, in that the consistency was less solid and not as luminous, but still not to my satisfaction.

    I always thought it was the English version of Mille Feuilles perhaps created during the depression when technique and ingredients were not as important as filling the stomach.

    Missing our Liaison chats and of course your Macarons.

    Mich xx

  4. Alison

    Dncan I am old enough to remember recipes for vanilla slice which called for the use of Lattice Biscuits rather than puff pastry. These were flaky and indeed latticed and sized so that when you assembled the biscuits and custard all you had to do was cut between the biscuits to get perfectly sized slices. Perhaps the lack of recipes in cook books stems from the difficulties assocaited with making puff pastry at home before the advent of an accepatbale frozen variety.
    I had always thought of the vanilla slice – a thick layer of custard sandwiched between just two sheets of pastry – as a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. But the closest relative would perhaps be the galaktobureko (although in this case the custard is cooked with the pastry) in that this meets the basic criteria of only two layers of pastry albeit rather different pastry. All that remains is to tie the invention of the vanilla slice to a Greek baker.

  5. Coby

    Curiously I only ever call vanilla slice, vanilla slice no matter how many pieces there are I never use the plural term – though I am fond of 'snot blocks' from a purely memory point of view. I'm a Victorian and only remember home made ones being created out of SAO biscuits (there's even a youtube commercial showing how to make it). The icing was almost always too sweet, no lemon juice – or passionfruit unlike the ad – to cut through it. I ate them all, I've always really liked vanilla slice, even bad ones.

    I expect them to be difficult to eat because it's always a challenge to get teeth through the often tough and chewy pastry layer while the custard, even a rather firm one, is soft by comparison. I expect it to taste like custard from a packet mix, the sort my Nana used to make her runny custard. I like that custard almost as much as I like real custard, perhaps because it's what I grew up knowing. The colour should be darker than the Fergusun Plarre version shown above, in fact a little darker than the two top versions shown, clearly I grew up with artificial colouring!

    In my PMWU centenary cookbook Vanilla Slice is made with a home made 'flaky pastry' using just plain and sr flours (150g of each) and 125g butter and 125ml water. The custard is a 'confectioner's custard' which has 1 whole egg and cup of milk, it uses a tablespoon of flour and suggests if you want a yellower appearance to sub custard powder for the flour. The other ingredients are 40g of butter and a teaspoon of vanilla essence. That sounds pretty typical of a certain age. That's the only recipe I could come up with in my collection that sounded like the real deal.

  6. Coby

    LOL Alison, I can't help thinking you were living the high life if your Vanilla Slice were made from lattice biscuits rather than SAO biscuits as I did;)

  7. Coby

    Duncan I admit to never (knowingly) 'enjoying' a Four'n'Twenty version – though I have a guilty love of their pies I admit, but I'll see if I can find a snot block and taste test for you:) Our local bakery makes them, so I might ask some details about their method. My PMWU is unfortunately a recent ed; 2004, I'd love to know how far back the recipe dates. Did you see the advertisement? The comments within suggest it's a well known and well loved item back in '62. Must have been a thrill for housewives to see how easy it was to make at home using bought biscuits! I suspect there'd be some truth in the suggestion by Alison that making your own pastry was not a commonality back in the day?

    PS I didn't remember the name 'pus cake'…but I think I remember hearing it before the much classier 'snot block' came along and superseded it!

  8. Anna

    I have what I consider to be the BEST recipe for vanilla slice ever. I realise of course that I may be biased. It calls for lattice biscuits in place of pastry or sao's, a gorgeous colour and silky-silky texture. I also have another recipe that is a helluva lot simpler. I just wish I had my mum's recipe, she does a corker of a vanilla slice.

  9. Alison

    When I think of vanilla slices I picture something very similar to Michelle's description – pink icing; thick, very yellow filling (more like gel than a custard). I can't say I have a vivid memory of my first encounter but I think they were probably school canteen staples in the '60s (1960s that is) and have been around pretty much for as long as I can remember. Still very much a cake shop staple, although not with pink icing so much these days, and found often in company with the giant iced donut. Since most cake shops are more patisserie than they used to be the humble slice has become somewhat more gourmet – less yellow gel and more custard, millefeuille -ish as per your phtographs. I will check out the local Michel's next time I'm there and see what they have to offer and will report back on other sightings.
    The lattice biscuit version lives on according to the internet, so I presume that lattice biscuits are still available. I think this is a product of the '60s too, like the Sao version – perhaps a promotion by the biscuit manufacturers. My own cooking experiences begin in the mid-70s and I am certain it was around then. This was the era of things made with biscuits. There is a Women's Weekly recipe for Biscotten Torte made with Nice biscuits which was quite exotic (for the times – worth trying again?)
    Next week is History Week here and I am going to a few of the events so I will see if I can track down any experts who may have more to add.

  10. Coby

    Just curious if I am the only one who never pluralises (??) vanilla slice? I checked with my O/H and he too is convinced he grew up with vanilla slice the singular term, even if there were enough vanilla slice for everyone:)

    Alison, once again you impress me with the exotic as I never saw a pink icing on vanilla slice around my neck of the woods. I feel like I missed so much!

  11. Johanna GGG

    I recently was looking through old magazine recipe clippings for recipes and found one on vanilla slices – probably early 1980s or a bit earlier – it has passionfruit icing. I also found an old recipe for Matches – which apparently is an Australian name for millefeuille (and did post a pic of this clipping on my blog). I am not a huge fan of vanilla slice – like them but prefer other slices – however I remember a group of friends raving about the O'Hea Street bakery vanilla slices in north coburg – I tried one and wasn't so impressed!

  12. Phil

    Here's the earliest mention of a "vanilla slice" that I can find in Victoria, from 1897: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/68586998?searchTerm=%22vanilla%20slice%22&searchLimits=sortby=dateAsc – although it could be an altogether different dish (here's a 1906 recipe: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/65154384?searchTerm=%22vanilla%20slice%22&searchLimits=sortby=dateAsc which bears no resemblance to the modern vanilla slice).

    The Warragul Gazette in 1912 has a recipe that looks very much like what we'd consider a vanilla slice at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/68660104?searchTerm=%22vanilla%20slice%22&searchLimits=sortby=dateAsc#pstart6622773

  13. Injera

    The vanilla slices (aka Pus Pies) we used to have at our school canteen were definitely of the fluoro yellow gel-like custard variety. Horrible, but we still ate them. Regularly. I have also had home made ones with both lattice biscuits and saos, but they were never quite right.

  14. Emily

    Hi Duncan

    I borrowed my mum's 80s Women's Weekly Cookbooks the other day and came across a recipe for vanilla slices – copy is here on my flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/itpleasesus/6219341550/

    The recipe calls for a mixture of sugar, cornflour, custard powder, milk and egg yolks for the custard filling, packaged puff pastry and the ol' passionfruit icing. I haven't tried making it myself…

  15. karen brown

    Hi there Duncan, now I've found your fabulous blog, you'll probably hear a lot from me if you keep writing about subjects as dear to my heart as custard squares. I grew up in the suburbs of Wellington, NZ In the '60s, my school was only a few steps away from a bakery, Turners in Epuni, that still used a wood-fired oven.The range of goods was pretty standard for that era, but their custard squares were outstanding. Mainly because the pastry was shatteringly crisp. I'm always so disappointed with the soggy mess that seems to be the norm in every one I've had since then.I tend to lick off the icing, nibble out the custard (the best part) and throw the rest away. Thinking of those custard squares, that bakery also make a square that I was equally enamoured of, call a Fly Cemetery. I never knew it by any other name. It was constructed like a custard square, but the filling was raisins in a stiffish gel/paste that was quite spicey. The top layer of puff pastry had a dark finish of caramelized sugar. I always used to ask for an edge piece from the tray as you got more of the crisp sugar that way. Have you ever heard of anything that might match this description? I would love to eat one again, but fly cemeteries seem to have gone the way of the Dodo. Cheers from Wellington, Karen

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