Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Snap, Crackle - Slice? The Australasian Slice (2)

Snap, Crackle—Slice??
More About the Australasian “Slice”

Continuing the saga of how the frightening Australasian “slice” came to be…

I’ve already looked at the history of baked shortcakes, sweetened condensed milk and rolled oats in relation to the development of that new Antipodean tradition, the  “slice,” in “Condensed Cholesterol & Sugar Blindness”,

Just to remind you if the term is strange to you: a “slice” is a kind of flat, low cake. Slices are made as a whole but then cut up into portion-sized pieces before storing and/or serving. They may consist of merely one layer, or of several, with or without an icing or frosting. They may be baked or unbaked. The slice started off as quite a low-sugar, relatively harmless, quick and easy-to-make treat for the family. Today’s slices are frighteningly over-sweet, cholesterol-laden, and just plain fattening.

“Slices” in several forms, or at least their predecessors, began to appear during the 20th century, but the modern form didn’t really surface until the 1960s-1970s, at which point it still hadn’t, as far as I can see, received its name. By the 1990s the term was accepted usage. The factors which influenced the development of the slice go back much further than the Sixties. Today I’m going to look at the following aspects of baking which would eventually influence the development of the slice:

Packaged cereals
Sweets made with copha
Bought biscuits as an ingredient
Muesli and other health foods

Slice Origins: Packaged Cereals in Baking & Sweets
Almost as soon as a new ingredient is introduced, inspired cooks want to do something different with it—that is, not using it for its intended purpose. Cornflakes came first, then rice bubbles. Pretty soon the home cooks and amateur chefs of the breakfast-cereal-eating world were at it.

Packaged Cereals: Cornflakes
You say “corn flakes,” I say “cornflakes”… However you spell it, the history of the first commercial breakfast food is a scream. Look up “Corn flakes” on Wikipedia. Did you know that corn flakes prevent masturbation? Oh, yeah. Too right.
    Be that as it may, cornflakes were introduced in America during the 1890s by a Dr Kellogg as a health food for sanatorium patients, and pretty soon became a breakfast food for the general public, marketed by the Kellogg Company, which was granted a U.S. patent for the process in 1896.

    More than a century on, they’re still being consumed for breakfast in giant quantities, and they turn up regularly in homemade slices and biscuits.
    How did it happen? Well, the huge, I mean HUGE advertising push by the Kellogg Company had more than something to do with it. Also, the company’s claim they’re quick and convenient for the home cook is so right. Especially if the alternative is standing at the stove for ages stirring the porridge, in the knowledge that it won’t get eaten if it goes lumpy or gets burned or, more latterly, watching the porridge like a hawk in the knowledge that if you take your eye off it for a split second it’ll rise up and flood the microwave in a horrible sticky mess. And many people, like Dr Kellogg’s patients over a hundred years back, actually like cornflakes.
    Cornflakes spread very quickly throughout the English-speaking world. No, people didn’t have the Internet or convenient handheld electronic gizmos to destroy the inner ear, addle the brain and ruin the eyesight, but they had newspapers and the telegraph. Australasian newspapers of the second half of the 19th century are full of reports, both hard news items and gossipy titbits, culled from overseas papers. The Antipodes couldn’t not know about Kellogg’s corn flakes, actually.
    Thanks to the National Library of Australia’s wonderful service in digitising early newspapers I was able to discover ads as early as 1905 for “Corn Flakes”: this one was in The Daily News (Perth, W.A.), Wednesday 18 January 1905:

Possibly not impressive by our standards, no. But the ads kept on coming, gradually getting more sophisticated, and people kept on eating cornflakes (not only Kellogg’s, there were several rivals in the early days), and so…

The Antipodean Rivals: “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes” & “Post Toasties”, 1914-1925
(C. W. Post had been a patient at Dr Kellogg’s sanatorium.)

From the Horse’s Mouth
During the 1920s cornflakes began to appear in baked goods—though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some kitchen genius, desperate for something new to give Dad and the kids, had had the idea earlier. The Kellogg Company was quick to get into the act, with their Home Economics Department producing this recipe for American muffins with cornflakes. It was reprinted in an Australian paper, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, on 11 September 1926, under the heading “DO YOU LIKE HONEY?” The article is by “Barbara B. Brook, of Kellogg Company, Home Economics Department, Battle Creek Michigan.”

Honey Corn Flake Muffins
One and a half cup corn flakes, two cups milk, one and a half cup graham flour, quarter cup honey, two cups white flour, five teaspoons baking powder, one tablespoon shortening. Mix melted shortening with honey, add to one egg beaten lightly, then add milk. Stir in the dry ingredients, which have been thoroughly mixed. Bake in well greased muffin tins for thirty minutes. (Will make 32 muffins.)

The Antipodean Version
True, at that period the Australian public probably didn't know what “graham flour” was, or what American muffins were supposed to look like. Nevertheless cornflakes began to appear quite regularly in the local cuisine. A New South Wales recipe in The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate on 23 July 1936 is called simply “Cornflakes.” It combines butter, sugar, an egg white, chopped walnuts, and coconut with 3 cups of cornflakes and is baked briefly in “pattycake containers.” It’s not only a precursor to the slice, but also an early example of the sort of homemade offerings, now classed as sweets, but at the time likely to be listed with biscuits in the cookbooks, that would abound in the later 20th century—anything that can be crushed, chopped, or comes in readymade small pieces being combined with something sticky. Sounds familiar? Yes, the technique is related to that used for slice bases.
    “Canadian Wonders” appears in the South Australian Country Women's Association’s Calendar of Cakes around 1951: a dough is made from butter, sugar, self-raising flour, egg, and chopped nuts and dates: you then “Roll pieces the size of small dessertspoon in the hand and toss lightly in cornflakes” before baking for 15 to 20 minutes. It’s presumably the cornflakes that make these wonders Canadian? The Green and Gold Cookery Book (15th ed. (rev.), Adelaide, R.M. Osborne) published the same idea in about 1949: its "Ginger Roughs" are made in the same way and also rolled in cornflakes.
    Cornflakes were in the standard Antipodean baking repertoire by the mid-1950s, and the idea continued into the 1960s: the 1968 printing of the 1955 “De Luxe Edition” of the Edmonds Cookery Book ([Christchurch, N.Z.], T. J. Edmonds Ltd.), has this little gem (why the name, probably better not to ask):

    7 ozs. Butter;  3 ozs. Sugar;  6 ozs. Flour;
    1 oz. Bourneville Cocoa;  2 ozs. Cornflakes
Soften butter, add sugar and beat to a cream; add flour, Cocoa and lastly cornflakes. Put teaspoonfuls on a greased oven tray and bake about 15 minutes at 350° F. When cold, ice with chocolate icing and put walnuts on top.

Slice My Cornflake
The innovative slice-makers of recent years may use cornflakes either in the base or in the topping of their slices!

Crush ’Em! Cornflakes in the Slice Base
I’d have said cornflakes were a bit loose and, well, flaky, to be suitable for the base of a slice, but I’m no baker. The experts know what to do! Pulverise them, and combine with melted butter and sweetened condensed milk. Not a joke. The recipe is “Choc-Coconut Slice” and its creators, the Australian Women's Weekly’s kitchen, do warn: “This slice is sweet and rich. Serve in small pieces.” Mm. It’s got cocoa in both the base and the icing, and judging by the lovely illustration it's the best grade Dutch cocoa: very dark. (Cakes & Slices Cookbook, circa 1990.)
    An alternative approach is to mix the cornflakes whole into melted butter with melted marshmallows. Melted, not chopped! The technique is used in “Macadamia Squares,” by Barbara Godfrey, in Homecooked Feasts (Sydney, ABC Books, 2008). It’s her family’s Christmas treat. I’d recommend it, but I have tried making a slice with marshmallows, and oddly enough it came out tasting strongly of bought marshmallows. God knows what they put in them, but it's strong stuff.

“Cornflakes in your Top-ping…”
(Sung to the tune of Lipstick on Your Collar.)

Honey Coconut Crunch
2 cups (250g) sweet biscuit crumbs;  125g butter, melted
Topping:  3 cups Cornflakes;  1/2 cup coconut;
1/4 cup finely chopped dried apricots;
1/4 cup finely chopped unsalted roasted peanuts;
2 tablespoons peanut butter;  1/2 cup honey;
1 tablespoon sugar;  30g butter

Combine biscuits and [125g] butter, press over base of 19cm x 29cm lamington pan; refrigerate while preparing topping.
Topping: Combine butter, peanut butter, honey and sugar in large saucepan, stir constantly over heat without boiling until butter is melted and sugar dissolved. Stir in Cornflakes, coconut, apricots and peanuts.
Press topping over base, refrigerate until set before cutting.
(Cakes & Slices Cookbook [by] the Australian Women's Weekly. Sydney: Australian Consolidated Press, [1990])

I do like peanut butter, but add in all that butter as well, and the coconut… I honestly couldn't face it.

Packaged Cereals: Rice Bubbles

It’s actually a proper name: the registered trademark of the Kellogg’s cereal distributed in Australia and NZ as “Rice Bubbles.” The cereal was first produced in the U.S. as “Rice Krispies” and is still marketed in North America under that name. Rice Bubbles are “made of crisped rice, which expands to form thin and hollowed out walls that are crunchy and crisp. When milk is added to the cereal the walls tend to collapse, creating the famous ‘Snap, crackle and pop’ sounds.” (“Rice Krispies”, Wikipedia)
    The cereal was invented by the ingenious Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame, and came on the market in the U.S. in 1928.
    Twenty years later we still hadn’t heard of it, at home—whether it had reached New Zealand by then, I don't know. It wasn’t until the late 1950s/early 1960s that Mum started buying cornflakes: I remember them in our first Auckland house, which was the second family home, stored inconveniently out in the hot water cupboard, on the other side of the laundry from the kitchen. Rice bubbles didn’t come into our family’s diet until well into the Sixties, when we were in our third house.
    By that time the idea of using the bubbly breakfast cereal in baking was already well established, in other circles: “In 1939 Kellogg's employee Mildred Day concocted and published a recipe for a Camp Fire Girls bake sale consisting of Rice Krispies, melted marshmallows, and margarine.” (“Rice Krispies”, Wikipedia)

The Antipodean Touch
The Calendar of Cakes from the South Australian Country Women's Association published a similar recipe in about 1951. The book gave recipes for biscuits as well as cakes, large or small. Back then these would have been considered a type of  biscuit, in Australia:

Honey Crackles
1 tablespoon honey, 2 ozs. (60 g) butter, 3 ozs. (90 g) sugar, 5 ozs. (150 g) rice bubbles or cornflakes.
Melt honey, sugar, and butter. Pour into rice bubbles or cornflakes and mix well together. Fill paper containers and put into warm oven for 5 minutes.
--MRS. J. L. MITCHELL (Saddleworth).

It wasn't until a bit later that such offerings, whether popped into the oven or left raw, would come to be considered as sweets (confectionery) rather than biscuits.

Sweet and Bubbly
Just one example of the many sweets with rice bubbles that are now a norm in Australasian cuisine. This recipe was published in 2010:

Date Balls
Date and rice bubble mixture, cooked and rolled into balls, then dipped in coconut. This is a sweet that even those who don't usually like dates, will love!
1 cup chopped, pitted dates;  3 cups Rice Bubbles;
1 egg, beaten;  1/4 cup sugar;  100 g butter;
1 teaspoon vanilla essence;  Coconut, for rolling
Place egg, dates, butter and sugar in saucepan. Bring to the boil, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and allow to cool. Add vanilla essence and Rice Bubbles. Mix well.
Roll into small balls. Roll in coconut. Set in refrigerator.
Recipe notes: Makes 30-40. Store in refrigerator.
(From I Tyler, August 10, 2010, BestRecipes.com.au)

Sliced Rice Bubbles
The classic modern slice example is “Crunchy Choc-Bubble Slice” in Cakes & Slices Cookbook (Australian Women's Weekly, circa 1990). It includes those other now classic ingredients, marshmallows, dried fruit, and coconut. Plus the almost inevitable butter. These days most people in Australia and New Zealand use marg (well, a vegetable-oil spread) in their sandwiches or on their toast, so I think it must be the slice bakers who are keeping the Australasian butter industry going. If you don’t use butter and bung the result in the fridge your slice base is gonna fall apart, see? Unless you use copha, which in my opinion is even worse. I’m coming to that. Meantime, let’s look at the quintessential Rice Bubbles slice.
    And look out: this one has got melted marshmallows, again!

Crunchy Choc-Bubble Slice
1 1/2 cups Rice Bubbles;  1 cup roasted unsalted peanuts;
1 cup mixed [dried] fruit;  1 cup coconut;
100g packet white marshmallows;  60g butter
Chocolate Icing:
1 1/2 cups icing sugar;  1 tablespoon cocoa;
1 tablespoon milk, approximately;  1 teaspoon soft butter
Grease a 25cm x 30cm Swiss roll pan.
Combine Rice Bubbles, peanuts, fruit and coconut in large bowl. Combine marshmallows and butter in saucepan, stir constantly over heat without boiling, until marshmallows and butter are melted; stir into Rice Bubble mixture.
Press mixture evenly into prepared pan.
Chocolate Icing: Sift icing sugar and cocoa into small heatproof bowl, stir in butter and enough milk to make a stiff paste. Stir over hot water until icing is spreadable. Spread [slice] with icing, sprinkle with crushed nuts if desired. Refrigerate until set before cutting.
(Cakes & Slices Cookbook (Sydney, Australian Consolidated Press, [1990?])

Slice Origins: Sweets Made With Copha
When I came across “copha” in Australian slice recipes I had this sort of feeling that I sort of ought to know what it was. I associated it vaguely with coconut. I was right.

    In New Zealand it’s sold as “Kremelta,” which possibly explains why I didn't  recognise the term. But I did realise what it was: that solid white substance that sometimes turned up in very odd-textured homemade sweets at school fairs in the 1950s and 1960s. Not viscous, and not slimy. Kind of thick on the tongue. Smooth. A bit like eating solid slime? These sweets, I’m glad to report, were not nearly as nice as the homemade coconut ice and homemade fudge. We older ones bought them with our laboriously-saved pocket money (twopence a week, for years). –Yes, Veronica, this was before schools got all p.c., not to say daft, and forbade the sale of home-cooked items.
    “Copha” is an Australian product. The Copha trademark was registered in 1916 by Lever Brothers (a forerunner of Unilever), who produced the product using oil extracted from the copra imported from the Pacific islands.
    Since 1933 Copha, together with Kremelta, has been a trademark of an Australian company called Peerless. (http://www.copha.com.au/our-story )

    And what exactly is it? It’s “a form of vegetable fat shortening made from hydrogenated coconut oil. It is 100% fat, at least 98% of which is saturated.” (“Copha”, Wikipedia.)
    If that didn't put you off, nothing will.

Coconut With Your Frîtes?
The article in Wikipedia also tells us that “there are many suppliers of hydrogenated coconut fat in various forms worldwide” and that “In France it is marketed as Végétaline.” That name is familiar: Gégé used it to cook his magnificent chips, one very cold, wet, bleak Sunday in Paris, in 1973. Magnificent though they were, I did have reservations: twice-cooked chips in solid coconut fat? (That’s the secret of a crisp outside: put them in a second time when the melted coconut fat’s really hot. It works provided you’ve started with actual freshly-sliced potatoes.)

Sweets to the Sweet

Copha has become a favourite ingredient in the Australian sweets often known as “Chocolate Crackles,” generally promoted as something for children to make. As the procedure involves a lot of heat that must be properly controlled, together with a double-boiler to melt the fat, the only part the kids can really do is mixing and putting into paper cases—very messy, right. Fun if you’ve got the time and the patience and don’t mind the immense clearing-up job! The sweets have got several names, according to who’s publishing the recipe, and they don’t always use copha. An English version, “Chocolate Krinkles” by Katie Stewart, in The Pooh Cook Book (London, Methuen Children’s Books, 1971), replaces the copha with melted chocolate plus a “small nut of vegetable fat.” The possibly classic recipe consists of copha, Rice Bubbles and cocoa, and was certainly around in the 1960s when Peerless Foods were pushing the idea in their ads. Once you’ve mixed them up and left them to set they go almost rock-hard.
    This technique was readymade for the slice, really.

“I’m Dreaming of a White Chr—”
No, that was a  nightmare.
    What is “White Christmas”? If you don’t know (and if you weren’t born and bred in Australia you can’t be expected to), it’s a mixture of copha with a lot of sweet ingredients that over the years have become standard in the slice. (If they were held together with chocolate rather than copha the Aussies would call the result “Rocky Road”, instead.)
    “White Christmas” exemplifies the use of copha in cooking. In her recipe, Heather Gilmour writes in the early 21st century: "I've been making this all my married life, more than 40 years. It is an old family favourite, especially with the children.”

White Christmas
250g copha;  1 cup powdered full-cream milk;
1 cup Rice Bubbles;  1 cup sultanas;
60g glace cherries, chopped;  1 cup desiccated coconut;
60g crystallised ginger, chopped;  1 cup icing sugar
Mix together all ingredients except copha.
Melt copha in a saucepan over low heat and stir into mixture.
Pour into greased 28-cm x 18-cm lamington tins.
Press down into tins and then put in the refrigerator to set.
Cut into 5-cm x 3-cm squares.
(Heather Gilmour, in Country Classics: A Collection of 500 Classic Recipes [from the Country Women's Association of Australia] [Rev. ed.], Camberwell, Vic., Viking, [2007])

    As this book is one of the most ineptly published I’ve ever come across, appallingly badly arranged, poorly indexed, and with huge, glamorous and entirely unhelpful illustrations, I didn’t expect it to give any more historical detail than the contributor could provide, and gee, it doesn’t. Do NOT buy this book! Some of the recipes are nice, but many of them are extremely modern and mucky, not classic unless you were born in 2001 like it was (under a different title). And once you have found a nice one you will never find it again, unless it has a very distinctive title such as “White Christmas” that you’ve managed to remember.

“Sweets” or “Slice”??
I did expect the book to tell me whether the recipe is now considered as “sweets” or a “slice”, however. Hah, hah. No, it isn’t in a section on sweets, and it isn’t in a section on slices, and it isn’t with cakes and/or desserts. It’s all by itself at the end, directly after, I kid you not, “Worcestershire sauce”, under a sort of subheading which bears no relation either stylistically or logically to the section headings: “Country Classic.”
    So thanks for that, famous CWA. It ain’t you that’s gonna tell me whether “White Christmas” should be considered a sweetie or a slice!
    The other modern versions I’ve got indicate that “White Christmas” today is generally considered as sweets, rather than a slice—though as you can see from the  illustration that it can be presented either as small blocks or in thin slices! You can also see from the amount of white base as compared to the Rice bubbles, chopped cherries, etc., that the main ingredient is most definitely copha.

Back to Bing
The misnamed Country Classics doesn’t tell us how old the recipe is, either. …When did Bing Crosby’s version of the song first come out? –Nah, yonks before the film with stunning Rosemary Clooney in that smashing slinky black dress! There was an earlier version of the song, I think. Driven mad, she looks it up on the Internet…
    “The first public performance of the song was by Bing Crosby, on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day, 1941.” It’s by Irving Berlin. (“White Christmas (song)”, Wikipedia).
    Okay, well, possibly this is a terminus a quo, and the recipe is no older than that. It does appear in The Golden Wattle Cookery Book as “White Christmas”, complete with copha and Rice Bubbles, but although the book was first published in 1926 it was reissued umpteen times and we can’t be absolutely sure when the recipe first appeared.

In the Slice Proper
Once copha had been used in sweets it was inevitable that it would transfer to the slice. These days in slices the copha often seems to be combined with chocolate as a “topping” or “icing” (the terms are applied interchangeably). I’ve collected 4 versions of an unbaked  “Hazelnut Slice” which combines copha and chocolate this way. Three of them, virtually identical in all but wording, use a hazelnut chocolate bar, and the other is only slightly different in that it uses plain chocolate plus roasted nuts. Why combine chocolate with copha? The copha helps to harden the chocolate, you see. What it does to the arteries I leave to your imagination.
    More rarely the copha goes into the middle of the slice. Here’s a recipe that sounds irresistible (if, like me, you can’t resist peppermint!) I hasten to add it isn’t my Mum in the name.

Mum’s Peppermint Slice
Base: 1 cup coconut;  1 1/2 cups self-raising flour;
1/2 cup brown sugar;  185 g butter
Peppermint Filling: 250 g icing sugar, sifted;
1 1/2 tablespoons milk;  1 teaspoon peppermint essence;
45 g Copha
Chocolate Topping: 90 g Copha;  1/2 cup drinking chocolate;
1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence
Pre-heat oven to 200°C and grease a 28 x 20 cm tin.
Base: Melt butter and add to the mixed dry ingredients. Press into prepared tin and bake in oven for 20 minutes or until lightly golden brown.
Filling: Place icing sugar in a medium bowl, add milk and peppermint essence.
Melt Copha over gentle heat and pour into icing sugar. Mix well.
Spread over the hot biscuit base and allow to cool completely before topping with chocolate.
Topping: Melt Copha over gentle heat. Remove from heat and stir in drinking chocolate and vanilla.
Top cooled peppermint filling with a thin layer of chocolate.
Allow to set and cut into squares.
(By “abrarose”, Bestrecipes.com.au, submitted January 6, 2008)

Too much copha? I'd say so. I think I'd skip the topping and just drizzle it with a little melted chocolate. A very little.

Slice Origins: Bought Biscuits as an Ingredient
Bought biscuits, apart from “water biscuits” (plain crackers) were sinful when I was very little. The attitude was quite widespread amongst Mum’s contemporaries, even though packaged biscuits were certainly on the market in New Zealand during the later 1940s and the 1950s. If you worked it out very carefully it was more economical to bake your own regularly, using flour, baking powder, sugar and real butter, than to buy several packets per week. (At least as far as the cost of the ingredients went—I’m not too sure about the electricity, which by then was used for cooking in a large proportion of NZ homes.) And the homemade biscuits were undeniably nicer, even though the bought ones used butter, too. The cost factor was definitely important when we moved to Auckland: the family expanded more than Dad’s wages did. But eventually things improved and horrible bought Arrowroot biscuits and crunchier, nuttier ones that I've forgotten the name of, made with wholemeal flour and butter, began to appear in our kitchen cupboard. On the high shelf.

New! Crushed Biscuits!
I’ve already mentioned Mum’s “Scradge” (see “Condensed Cholesterol & Sugar Blindness”, http://katywiddopsblog.blogspot.com.au/2016/03/the-australasian-slice-1.html )
   This early, elementary slice incorporated crushed bought biscuits—a new and exciting notion!—cocoa, and butter. I don’t think there was very much else in it at all. Maybe a bit of sugar. You smashed the biscuits up, but not too much, there’d still be centimetre-long bits here and there, mixed it all together, and squashed it ruthlessly into a shallow pan. Then you iced it, using the least amount of icing sugar and cocoa possible within the laws of physics. Then it had to sit in the fridge to solidify.
    The biscuits were always milk arrowroot, and as a result Scradge tasted strongly of milk arrowroot biscuits—slightly sickly. But we didn’t care, it was much nicer than the bare biscuits. There was a more expensive variation: it could have desiccated coconut in it as well, and that version was definitely preferable.
    Want to try Scradge? “Coconut Choc Slice” by “emjay” at the BestRecipes website looks to me like the very thing—with the optional coconut!
    I haven’t found any earlier recipes for using bought biscuits, though admittedly I haven’t scoured the literature, than the one below, dating from the very early 1950s.

Bought Biscuits & Condensed Milk: Prequel to the Slice
This beauty from a very inventive cook makes use of two of the ingredients that were to become standbys of the Australasian slice: sweet packet biscuits and sweetened condensed milk. This innovator hasn’t yet got the idea of crushing and mushing up, however: she sticks the whole biscuits together with her mixture, making a sort of roll. –Rolls were very in at the time, but of course made from a home-cooked sponge. This would probably have shocked her conservative peers to the marrow:

Biscuit Freeze
1 packet coffee or similar biscuits, cup condensed milk, 1/2 cup whipped cream, 2 tablespoons raspberry jam, 1 tablespoon lemon juice.
Blend together condensed milk, jam, and juice. Fold in cream lightly. Open packet of biscuits and remove all but the last one, keeping waxed lining intact. Place spoonful of mixture on the bottom biscuit. Place another biscuit on this. Repeat these two layers till packet is full, pressing each one firmly in place. Close firmly and freeze in freezing compartment 12 hours. (Biscuits must be in firm waxed paper packet.) To serve, slice crosswise. Good with ice cream or cold fruit dishes.
-E. EASTON (Iron Knob).
(Calendar of Cakes. South Australian Country Women's Association, [1951?])

It’s for January 3rd, far more suited to the South Australian climate than many in this book! E. Easton was sensible as well as innovative.

Bought Biscuits Unbaked
These days packaged biscuits have become a standard ingredient in the slice, almost every unbaked recipe using some kind of commercial biscuit as its base (the bottom layer). They can be laid edge-to-edge, but they are most often crushed. I’ve got well over 70 examples in my database, but I’ll just give you two here.
    “Liquorice Allsort Slice” exemplifies several of the influences we’ve talked about in the history of the slice. As well as using those two great standbys of the modern slice cook, crushed biscuits and condensed milk, it also takes advantage of packaged sweets. You might say, who on earth would want to use liquorice allsorts in baking, but I collected three versions of this without even deliberately trying!

Liquorice Allsort Slice

    1 packet Marie biscuits, crushed;  125 g butter;
    1/2 x 395 g tin condensed milk;
    1 cup liquorice allsorts, chopped;
    1/4 cup melted cooking chocolate
Combine all ingredients together except the melted chocolate.
Press into a slice tray.
Pour chocolate over the top. Refrigerate until set.
Cut into approximately 24 squares.
(By “vetty”, BestRecipes.com.au, submitted July 23, 2007)

Still Uncrushed…
“Lattice biscuits” are apparently a favourite with those who favour the uncrushed bought biscuit as their slice base. I’ve got 6 variations on this one. Most of the “authors” seem to feel that by juggling the words in the name they’re entitled to call it theirs. Never mind, that’s how recipes have always been spread! This version’s pretty straightforward and typifies the uncrushed biscuit school:

Cream Cheese Lattice Slice

1-2 packs lattice biscuits (sugar coated);
125 g cream cheese;  125 g butter;  1/2 cup caster sugar;
1 teaspoon vanilla essence;  2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons gelatine (dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water, cooled)
Beat together cream cheese, butter and caster sugar until well combined and creamy. Add remaining ingredients and beat well.
Place lattice biscuits in base of a slice tin, sugar side down.
Spread cream cheese mixture evenly over biscuits and top with more biscuits, sugar side up. Refrigerate until firm.
(By “Kayliz”, Bestrecipes.com.au)

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m not much of a biscuit buyer. I had no idea what “lattice biscuits” might be, but I found a website which revealed all. Under the title “Nan’s Vanilla Slice” it has a fuller version of this recipe, nicely illustrated so that you can see how to lay the biscuits out. http://letslickthebowl.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/nans-vanilla-slice.html

Slice Origins: Muesli and OTHER Health Foods

The use of muesli and other “health foods” in slices was a natural progression from the adoption of rolled oats as a slice ingredient. (See “Condensed Cholesterol & Sugar Blindness”,
    The chief ingredient in muesli is rolled oats. Muesli and the other “natural” ingredients making up the health food pantheon—honey, yoghurt, raw nuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.—entered onto the cookery scene well after rolled oats, but they all share the semantic concept “healthy” in the popular consciousness. Although oats are a very old food, the slice as such didn’t adopt them until well into the second half of the twentieth century, by which time the concept of health foods had reached the general public (it was already well known to vegetarians), and muesli had appeared on the scene.

Muesli with Care
It was darling Graham Kerr who introduced the not-breathlessly-waiting EnZed public to muesli.

    I just loved his first NZ TV show in the 1960s, “Cooking with Kerr” (his surname is pronounced “Care” – geddit?) Great pity that after he went to America he felt he had to camp it up on screen.
    Here’s his recipe for muesli from his Entertaining with Kerr (Rev.ed., Wellington, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1966; first published 1963)

4 large green apples (eating);  4 tablespoons rolled oats
4 tablespoons condensed milk OR 4 tablespoons cream & 1 dessertspoon clear honey;
4 dessertspoons freshly-ground mixed nuts;
4 tablespoons sultanas;  2 lemons - juiced
1. Soak the oats and sultanas in plenty of cold water overnight.
2. In the morning strain the water from the oats and sultanas. grate the apples, skins, pips - the lot!
3. Add the apples to all the other ingredients in whatever order you like, mix well and serve immediately.

    Muesli originates from Switzerland, invented, as Graham Kerr tells us, by a Dr Bircher-Benner. This was back around 1900, according to Wikipedia. During the decade that followed Graham’s book, both muesli and the general idea of health foods began to seep into the English-speaking consciousness. By 1980 in New Zealand we were eating not only muesli, but wheatgerm, yoghurt, and wholegrain bread! Well, some of us.

Muesli and Friends
Muesli is very healthy and so are honey and seeds. Here’s the modern slice that proves it:

Healthy Honey Muesli Bars
    3 cups Rice Bubbles;  1 cup toasted muesli;
    1/2 cup coconut;  1/4 cup sesame seeds;
    1/4 cup sunflower seed kernels;  1/3 cup peanut butter;
    1/3 cup honey;  1/2 cup raw sugar;  125g butter
Grease a 19cm x 29cm lamington pan.
Toast sesame seeds on oven tray in moderate oven for about 5 minutes, cool to room temperature.
Combine muesli, Rice Bubbles, coconut, sunflower and sesame seeds in bowl.
Combine butter, honey, peanut butter and sugar in saucepan, stir constantly over heat without boiling until butter is melted and sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, simmer uncovered without stirring for 5 minutes; stir into dry ingredients.
Press into prepared pan, refrigerate until set before cutting.
(Cakes & Slices Cookbook. Australian Women's Weekly, circa 1990)

It must surely be the type specimen of the “health food” slice. Muesli, two sorts of seeds, honey, and raw sugar. It only lacks the yoghurt, really.
    Look closer. Oh, yes: it is the type specimen of the modern health food slice! Three helpings of fat? (Butter, peanut butter, and coconut.) And all that sugary stuff? (Honey is a sugar, never mind how “natural” it may be. I’m beginning to feel like Pooh Bear: “But don’t bother about the bread, thanks.”)

Health Foods Sliced?
There are innumerable recipes for slices which incorporate the so-called health foods, but I haven’t been able to find one which might actually be healthy—i.e. without immense amounts of fats and sugars.
    So let’s just look at an interesting early ancestor of the “healthy” slice which uses yoghurt, a health food unheard of in the Antipodes until well into the 1970s, alongside the rolled oats which were to become traditional, and then take a peek at what happened over the succeeding decades as this very nice recipe was picked up, adopted, added to, subtracted from, and just generally bowdlerised.
    This is an English recipe from 1976, which today in Australasia would definitely be called a “slice.” (Though it also bears many of the hallmarks of the drastically misnamed “cheesecakes,” which contain no cheese of any kind.) It’s got vital healthy ingredients: rolled oats, brown sugar and, yes, yoghurt! It’s presented as a dessert rather than a cake, but then, so are many of today’s slices.

Crunchy Layered Strawberry Tart
For the base:
6 oz soft brown sugar; 6 oz butter; 8 oz quick porridge oats
For the middle:
1 carton soured cream;  2 cartons plain yoghurt;
2 oz castor sugar;  grated rind 1 lemon (optional)
For the top:
3/4 - 1 lb fresh strawberries (or raspberries); 1/2 lb redcurrant jelly
In winter you could use a very good jam for the topping instead.
Preheat oven to Gas 4 (350°F/180 C). Put brown sugar and butter into saucepan and gently melt but do not let it boil. Remove from heat and stir in oats. Grease a china or aluminium flan dish (about 9"-10" diameter). Put mixture into this and spread evenly. Bake in top half of oven for 15-20 mins. Cool slightly.
Stir yoghurt, sour cream and lemon rind together and pour on top of base. Put back in oven for 8 mins. Cool.
Slice strawberries in 1/2 and arrange on top of soured cream and yoghurt which will have gone smooth and firm. Melt redcurrant jelly gently and glaze the strawberries with it. Keep in a cool place but not the fridge after glazing.
The first 2 layers can be made the day before but do not put the fruit on sooner than 2 or 3 hrs before serving, Serve with cream, and use a sharp knife to cut into the crisp base.
(Josceline Dimbleby. A Taste of Dreams. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1976)

Early as it is, this recipe has an essential feature of the slice which differentiates it from a “tart” proper. The base mixture (which is not a stiff dough, like pastry) is flat: spread evenly, not moulded up the sides of the flan dish.
   (I can’t tell you what amount of yoghurt or sour cream the English cartons hold. You might have to experiment to get the 2nd layer to set properly.)

Down With Health Foods!
The later versions of Josceline Dimbleby’s lovely recipe do not improve upon it. Instead they exemplify the modern trend towards ever sweeter and unhealthier slices. By around 1990 the Australian Women's Weekly’s Cakes & Slices Cookbook, in its “Strawberry Jelly Slice,” is replacing the rolled oats of the base with crushed sweet biscuits, adding chopped marshmallows, packet strawberry jelly and strawberry essence to the fresh strawberries, and eliminating the yoghurt and sour cream, replacing them with cream. The quintessential modern slice? You bet.
    “Strawberry Mallow Slice”, in the same book, offers a variation, with cream cheese, cream, and coconut featuring alongside the fresh strawberries. This mixture is picked up on the BestRecipes website in “Strawberry Marshmallow Slice”, by “koahcook”, in 2010, and is described as: “Soft and creamy topping and filling on a biscuit base. A CWA favourite for morning or afternoon teas.”
    Both of these use crushed sweet biscuits instead of oats, too.

They sure haven’t got healthier, have they?