Wednesday, August 28, 2013

French vanilla slice

Photos by Steve Shanahan
First published Canberra Times 28 August 2013.  

An oozy, vanilla custard cream layer, that squeezes out as you bite down, sandwiched between thin sheets of crispy, golden pastry topped with a dusting of icing sugar. That slab of heaven is my ideal vanilla slice.

With the jury still out after intense debate on what constitutes the real thing, I strive to match the quality of the finest French vanilla slice I’ve had in a long time. This accolade is not bestowed on a trendy patisserie in Melbourne or Sydney, but goes to Barnetts Bakery, nestled in the picturesque NSW north coast surfing village of Crescent Head.

While holidaying in Crescent with the extended family in November last year, we rapidly develop a morning ritual based around our collective need for a decent coffee heart starter and a shared, growingly insatiable appetite for Barnett’s fabulous vanilla slice. Our morning scouts are sent down the hill each day to forage for these freshly baked pastry delights and half a dozen strong flat whites, with strict instructions to return post haste with the goodies and the day’s surf report.

As the debate rages between enthusiasts of the French creamy, custard variety, versus the yellow rubber Aussie icon, my Napoleonic allegiance does not miss a beat - a heart beat that is.
Makes 10 large slices.
Preheat the oven to 180C.

400ml fresh cream (not thickened)
350ml milk
2 sheets of ready rolled frozen puff pastry, thawed
50g butter
2 tspn vanilla paste or extract
6 egg yolks, separated from whites
½ cup caster sugar
½ cup water
½ cup cornflour
Icing sugar for dusting

Trim both sheets of puff pastry to fit a rectangle slice tin, measuring twenty centimetres by thirty centimetres. Line the tin with non-stick baking paper, greasing lightly to hold the paper in place. Allow some overhang of the paper to provide a handle to lift out the slice when set.

Place the two trimmed pastry sheets on a paper lined baking tray side by side. Leave a small gap between the two pastry sheets to allow room for spreading. Top with another layer of baking paper and place a tray on top of the baking paper to provide a weight on the pastry when cooking to reduce the pastry from rising and bubbling.

Bake the pastry for fifteen minutes, checking for colour. They should be cooked to a light golden colour.

Cool on wire racks and make the vanilla custard filling. Place the cream, milk, sugar, butter and vanilla in a saucepan over a medium heat. Cook until the mixture is hot, but not quite boiling and remove from the heat. Mix the water and cornflour to a smooth paste, then whisk into the hot milk mixture. Add the beaten egg yolks and stir briskly. Return to a low heat, stirring continuously until the mixture thickens.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Place one of the cooked pastry sheets into the base of the lined slice tin, it should fit snugly. If the pastry sheet is too big, place on a flat board and trim carefully with a sharp knife to fit. Return to the tin and spread the cooled custard over the pastry. Top with the remaining pastry sheet, trimming to fit again if necessary.

Fold the overhanging baking paper back over the top to enclose. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least two hours until set. To remove, carefully lift the overhanging baking paper and place on a board ready to slice. Peel away the paper.

To successfully slice this without squashing the custard from the middle, the trick is, to  
use a small sharp knife and cut only through the top layer of pastry, marking out ten, even sized slices. Then go back and slice the rest of the way down through the initial cut in the pastry, with a large, sharp knife until you hit the bottom layer of pastry and then push down to cut.