For many of us, childhood memories were made of the school canteen’s vanilla slice: two layers of crumbly puff pastry coated with glistening icing sugar sandwiching a highly processed form of delicious vanilla custard.
During primary school, balmy summer lunch hours were often spent in in lengthy tuck-shop lines waiting to buy into the juvenile vanilla slice dream that I assumed was – unlike my first generation Australian self – a native invention.
It was only when I got older and witnessed international pastry baking goodness that I understood how the Aussie vanilla slice – affectionately referred to as the 'snot block’ – was actually an interpretation of a desert that was much mightier.
Enter, France’s delicately crafted and oh so elegant mille-feuille: the mother of all vanilla slices.
Translated to mean ‘a thousand leaves’, the decadent, flaky invention is a staple in traditional French patisseries and is everything you need it to be.
Made using many thin layers of pastry and cream, and often topped with cocoa, vanilla icing or almond fondant, mille feuille is sweet but not sickly, light but also rich.
Professional baker and owner of Flour and Stone, Nadine Ingram, tells SBS that traditionally, mille feuille has three groups of pastry layers although the dish can expressed artistically in many different ways.
“Our version is two layers as opposed to the traditional three and it is filled with fresh raspberries and a brown sugar pastry cream that has been folded with double cream,” she explains.
Ingram adds that although the bakery’s interpretation is more French than Australian, it stuck to calling it a vanilla slice to appeal to its local audience.
“We don’t use gelatine, so our vanilla slice is delicate and freeform as opposed to others that are cut from big sheets. Our version is also more voluptuous than most others, as we allow the pastry to puff naturally in the oven. I would say it's more rustic [than the traditional mille feuille].”
Mille feuille and its many European cousins
Although the exact origins of the French pastry are unknown, mille feuille was mentioned in a cookbook back in the 1600s. Records show it made another appearance almost 100 years later when French chef to the aristocracy said it had it an “ancient recipe”. However, history suggests the dish’s origins could also be Italian or even Hungarian, with lineage pointing to a nearby relative, the caramel coated szegediner torte.
Perhaps that’s why there are so many variations of mille feuille or vanilla slice throughout Europe and beyond?
There’s the cremeschnitte, popular in Germany and Croatia, which is just like the French variety in that it features a puff pastry base and custard cream.
“The Russian Napoleon cake is a whole cake with many layers – often about 16 – sandwiched with a smaller ratio of pastry cream to the French mille feuille,” Ingram tells SBS.
Over in Slovenia, kremsnita is commonly sold throughout the famous Alpine tourist town of Bled. Then there’s the Polish version called kremówka, Napoleonka or papal cream cake, named after the late Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II who was said to love the desert.
Moving further south in Europe, krempita or ‘cream pie’ is regarded as the go-to vanilla slice interpretation in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"Krempita is usually eaten as dessert, although not every day because we often serve quite a generously sized slice.”
She explains that krempita recipes are traditionally usually passed down through the family, from a person’s mother, grandmother or aunt.
“It’s a staple dessert found in most traditional restaurants in Serbia and is often made as a treat at home for guests or special visitors who come over for dinner or coffee. Krempita is usually eaten as dessert, although not every day because we often serve quite a generously sized slice.”
Zecevic adds that krempita is quite a rarity in Australia unless you visit an Eastern European family home, bakery or restaurant. “Each Serbian family or restaurant makes a slightly different version and adds their own special touch to the vanilla slice.”
Owner of the two Serbian restaurants, Petar Tasic, explains that his venues offer two distinct recipes for Sydneysiders to try.
“At Madera, we serve a traditional simple version – homemade vanilla custard presented between two pastry pieces,” Tasic tells SBS. “But at Fabrika, we’ve recreated it with a modern spin. We use three layers of crispy pastry, homemade vanilla custard, berry compote and sugar to top it off. The presentation is the most unique thing about it.”
So how can you make a serve of traditional Serbian krempita, just as you’d get at Madera or Fabrika? Unfortunately, Tasic announces, the recipe features a heavily guarded family secret. “And the secret is to never give away secret family recipes.”
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