Ah, the snot-block. The phlegm cake. The pus pie. Is there anything more Aussie than a firm-but-wobbly block of custard sandwiched between two crisp layers of puff pastry, then topped with saccharine-sweet passionfruit icing?
Well, actually: yeah.
“We claim the vanilla slice as our own,” says Bake Club founder and SBS Food Bakeproof columnist Anneka Manning, “but actually, it’s simply a version of the classic French pastry mille-feuille.” There are plenty of localised adaptations of the mille-feuille (which translates literally to “thousand-leaf”, a reference to the many thin layers of puff pastry that envelope the custard within), too - in Russia and Lithuania, it’s called a Napoleon cake, in Switzerland and Austria it’s a Crèmeschnitte, and in Hungary, a version simply called kréme is topped with whipped cream and caramel, and yes, you’re correct, we’ll take three of those thank you.
Here in Australia, though, the slice is a bakery favourite, though you’ll struggle to find it anywhere deemed fancy (though funnily enough, tea shop T2 sell a “vanilla slice tea”, which sounds like the perfect accompaniment to a real slice!). No: the vanilla slice is a more humble baked good, more likely to be spotted at the hot bread shop down the street than at the place where they put fennel seeds in the sausage rolls. “It’s a really nostalgic item,” says Manning. “It’s the kind of thing you eat as a kid in the canteen at school, or from a beloved childhood bakery. It has a really special place in Australian culture - even if it’s not uniquely ours.”
So special is the vanilla slice that there’s an annual competition, the Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph, organised in its honour. Founded in 1998, the competition was launched after then-Victorian premier Jeff Kennett visited the Mallee Bakery, in Ouyen, and declared their vanilla slice the best he’d ever eaten. A challenge was issued to nearby bakeries: could they top Mallee’s? This year, the competition was moved to Mildura, with celebrity guest Darren Purchese, of Melbourne bakery Burch & Purchese, judging the entries.
While there’s seemingly not much to the vanilla slice - two slices of puff pastry, a wedge of custard and a smear of icing (Queenslanders tend to favour raspberry, NSW goes for passionfruit, and Victorians have a thing for white icing with a ripple of chocolate) - getting it right is surprisingly difficult, says Manning.
“You want to make sure the pastry is very crisp,” she says. “Place a baking tray over the top layer of pastry to weigh it down.” This ensures the top layer doesn’t rise the way puff normally would, rendering the pastry crisp and thin. “And the custard layer is obviously key,” says Manning. “It takes a lot of practice to get the right combination of firm and creamy. You want the custard to be lovely and light, but it also needs to be tough enough to cut through properly. For that, you simply need practice!” (You can practice with Anneka's recipe here)
Anneka’s final tip is to cut the slice with a finely serrated knife - not a bread knife, rather, a sharp serrated knife with fine “teeth.” “This way, you’ll cut through the pastry but also be able to slice the custard without the whole thing splodging out the middle.” Losing the custard from your vanilla slice? That’s just un-Australian.
Feeling nostalgic? Welcome to #BringBackTheClassics!
Vanilla slice seems to be one of those bakery goodies that's always bought and never made. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to make, though... and how utterly delicious it is when you do. The trick is to make sure the pastry is well baked and a deep golden colour. Also, sandwiching it between two large oven trays means that the pastry isn’t allowed to ‘puff’ while baking, resulting in a wonderfully crisp casing for the luscious custard filling.