Vanilla slice.
A slab of heaven ... vanilla slice. Photo: Steve Shanahan

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

With intense debate about what constitutes the real thing, I strive to match the finest french vanilla slice I've eaten in a long time. It wasn't at a trendy patisserie in Melbourne or Sydney, but at Barnett's Bakery 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 developed a morning ritual based on our collective need for a coffee heart-starter and an insatiable appetite for the fabulous vanilla slice. Our morning scouts were sent down the hill each day for the goods, with strict instructions to return post-haste with the day's surf report.

As the debate rages between enthusiasts of the french creamy, custard variety, versus the yellow-rubber Australian icon, my Napoleonic allegiance does not miss a beat.

French vanilla slice 
Makes 10 large slices

2 sheets of ready-rolled frozen puff pastry, thawed
400ml fresh cream (not thickened)
350ml milk
1/2 cup caster sugar
50g butter
2 tsp vanilla paste or extract
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup cornflour
6 egg yolks, separated from whites
icing sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 180C. Trim both sheets of puff pastry to fit a rectangular slice tin, measuring 20 centimetres by 30 centimetres.

Next, line a baking tray with non-stick paper. Place the two trimmed pastry sheets on the baking tray side by side, with a small gap between to allow room for spreading. Top with another layer of baking paper and place a tray on top of the baking paper to weigh the pastry down while cooking (to limit rising and bubbling).

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, checking for colour. They should be light golden. Cool on wire racks.

To make the 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, then 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 cool to room temperature. Line the tin with non-stick baking paper, greasing lightly to hold the paper in place, with the paper hanging over the sides (the baking paper provides a handle to lift out the slice once set).

Place one of the cooked pastry sheets into the base of the lined tin. It should fit snugly. If the pastry sheet is too big, place on a flat board and trim carefully to fit. 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 and dust with icing sugar.

To successfully slice this without squashing the custard from the middle, use a small, sharp knife and cut through only the top layer of pastry, marking out 10 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, pushing down to cut.  

>>  Debbie Skelton is a Canberra-based food writer, debsravingrecipes.blogspot.com.