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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Saturday, February 12, 2005

SHF Puff Pastry: The Great Aussie Vanilla Sliceoff

Vanilla slice is one of those quintessentially Aussie culinary traditions. It's status as Great Aussie sweet is probably only rivalled by lamingtons, and it is so important that there is actually a Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph competition held each year by the "Baking Industry Association of Victoria" (true!); competitors fly in their entries from around the country and the winners go to huge lengths advertising their success with large signs and placards outside their shops. The towns (for it is always small country towns that win; being the vanguards they are of traditional Aussie cuisine) even put up billboards on the highway as you drive into the town - WINNER - AUSTRALIA'S BEST VANILLA SLICE 1987! or some similar thing. I tell you, it's big stuff down here.
Basically, they're a very simple arrangement of pastry base, thick custard, a pastry lid and some type of icing. Debate rages fiercely over the type of appropriate icing. There is a great fondness at the moment for the sifted icing sugar camp, which I really don't like, as it always results in the first bite sending the entire icing sugar blanket to decorate your chest. Another camp plumps for the plain fondant icing, whilst a third camp promotes the use of passionfruit icing (my personal favourite. How more Aussie can you get than passionfruit icing on a vanilla slice? I mean, come on!)
I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of vanilla slices, though- perhaps it started at school when the vanilla slices sold in the tuckshop were made with awful cardboard pastry and even more awful solid urine-yellow custard set hard like jelly. The only thing I liked was the thick fondant icing on top. Even now, with most vanilla slices sold in bakeries being of the creamy custard variety, as seen above, I just can't take too much too them. Sure they're creamy and unctious - but there's just not enough flavour for the huge amount of goop. If they were more strongly flavoured (alcoholic, or chocolate perhaps) I might be more keen. I'm not a huge fan of custard anyway, but I know A. just LOVES any type of sweety pastry thing filled with it - doughnuts, danishes, profiteroles etc. So, with this challenge of puff pastry, I chose to make something for him. This one's for you, A.!
Read on for more!

The incredible thing is that the day I came home from work with the ingredients to start making my vanilla slice, I found my mother just returned from a few days down the coast, bearing a paper bag filled with amazing vanilla slices! Apparently the town she was in had just won the Vanilla Slice Triumph for the year and the locals were going crazy. The very day I had planned to make them!
I decided to go ahead, as I had promised a dessert for a lunch with friends on Saturday, and I still wanted to give A. a large slab of slice.
I went ahead and made mine, and held my own mini Australian Vanilla Slice triumph. Only two contendors, but still - I feel I'm doing my part in upholding traditional Austrlian moral values and all that. Whilst the commercial one was definitely impressive, it suffered for its blanket of icing sugar which exploded over my jeans, and a distinct commercial (chemical) taste of cheap vanilla in its (admittedly very creamy & excellent) custard. It had a slight layer of jam on the bottom pastry slice, which was an amusing little diversion, but didn't guarantee it any extra points in my book. My slice had far superior custard, as I used expensive vanilla extract and real milk, and it had the obvious advantage of a layer of tangy passionfruit icing. My pastry wasn't as good, however; if I made my own puff pastry it might have improved it. I declared my homemade version a bold winner in terms of taste...
..........the photo you see above isn't actually of the slice I made. Mainly because, although mine was far superior in taste to the commercial one, it was also FAR inferior in photogenic quality! My custard didn't set properly and I couldn't slice it. At all. Maybe I should have cooked it longer? Who knows? I certainly don't. I ended up serving bowls of custard with pastry lids and passionfruit icing, which was still tasty, but not quite what I had in mind. Luckily my friends only laughed with me rather than at me at my kitchen disaster. But, the photo at least gives you an idea of what gets Australian country women so excited. ;-)

Vanilla Custard Slice

(Women's Weekly Cookbook - 1978)
This book is so dated it still has quantities in the old imperial measurements, which made it a real pain to convert. I've included both, so I can accommodate both US & UK style cooking!

10 oz. puff pastry (284 g)
1 3/4 pints milk (~900 ml)
3/4 cup sugar
2 oz. butter (56 g)
1/2 cup cornflour
4 tablespoon custard powder
1/4 pint milk, extra (142 ml)
1 egg
1 dessertspoon vanilla

Roll out pastry thinly, cut out two 10 inch (25 cm) squre; place on ungreased oven tray, bake in very hot oven approximately 15 minutes. Cool, trium to make two 8 inch (20 cm) squares. Place one layer on base of greaseproof paper-lined 8 inch square cake tin.
Place milk, sugar, butter in a large saucepan. Blend cornflour and custard powder with extra milk; add to saucepan, bring to boil, stirring until smooth and thick. Remove from heat, beat in vanilla and egg. While still hot, pour over later of pastry, pressing down firmly. Cool, top with passionfruit icing. Refrigerate until firm; cut in slices.

Passionfruit icing
1.5 cups pure icing mixture
juice 3-4 passionfruit (or 1 small tin of John West passionfruit in syrup)
1 teaspoon butter.


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