24 Willoughby Road, Crows Nest, New South Wales
First, let’s get one thing straight. The vanilla slice is as Aussie as a sweet treat gets. In some places, essentially the same thing goes by various different names, depending on level of poshness. From the top: mille-feuille, Napoleon, or custard slice. And at the slangiest Aussie end, they are also known affectionately as snot blocks. But they’re pretty much the same basic principle – layers of custard sandwiched between flaky pastry – and this blog will review anything on that spectrum.
Before getting dessert though, we examine the savoury end of the bakery spectrum, with the classic sausage roll. Yes, yes, meat pies… we know the argument. But pies aren’t as variable as sausage rolls. If you want a good bakery, they have to be able to make a good sausage roll – it’s so easy to do it wrong.
So, the ground rules of this blog: We go into a bakery and ask for: “A sausage roll and a vanilla slice, please.” We review whatever they give us. If they claim not to have a vanilla slice, but we see one on display labelled “Napoleon” or somesuch, we can point at that and say, “Well, one of those instead.”
First up we have the Crows Nest Bakery, a small bakery on the bustling Willoughby Road restaurant strip at Crows Nest in Sydney. It seems like a relic from the 1970s, nestled in between upmarket Thai restaurants, fashion outlets, and relaxation therapy boutiques. It would seem more at home amidst milk bars, charcoal chicken shops, and a pub. The bakery has been there as long as I can remember, outlasting an incursion from the Michel’s chain right across the road, and now putting up a good fight against a couple of newcomer fancy French patisseries. The bakery has a selection of hot pies, individual quiches, loaves of bread, and baked sweets including tarts, cakes, and slices.
There was a short queue when I went in around 10:00 am, and I spotted the vanilla slices as I was waiting to be served – large chunks sliced off a slab of cake. I asked and paid for my sausage roll and slice, then retreated to the nearby Ernest Place park to sample the wares.
Things got off to a poor start with the sausage roll. It looks more like something manufactured on a machine than a sausage roll lovingly hand-made on the premises, and I harbour suspicions that they buy them from a third party wholesaler. The pastry casing is smooth and lifeless, and the seam on the bottom is too neat to have been done by hand. It is smooth and an almost uniform brown colour, more towards grey-brown than golden brown. The roll is flattened rather than plump. Biting into it reveals a dull, dry pastry, with not much flakiness at all, surrounding an equally dull meat interior. There is the merest hint of pepperiness in the meat, which promises so much more flavour, but doesn’t deliver. There are tiny onion pieces in the meat, but they can’t help elevate it to anything other than blandness. The overall effect is a dry mouth feel – after two bites I wanted a glass of water. The pastry needs more butter and the meat needs more juiciness and flavour.
The vanilla slice, however, is a distinct improvement, and a good way to finish the meal. It is, in a word, generous. At some 13 centimetres it is almost as long as my iPhone, and about two-thirds as wide. Three layers of mid-brown pastry sandwich two thick layers of creamy yellow custard, the lot topped off with a thick dusting of icing sugar. Don’t exhale or inhale as you bite into this, unless you want powdered sugar all over your clothes, or up your nose. The pastry looks a little too dark brown, and biting into the slice confirms that it is a touch on the stiff side, with custard oozing out both sides as the cardboard-like pastry squeezes down on it without yielding, until it finally snaps in a crunch.
The custard is delicious, by virtue of its sugary sweetness. It’s your standard custard-powder type custard, but done right – smooth and creamy, not too soft and runny, nor too hard or gelatinous, and with plenty of sweetness to it. It oozes all over the place as I continue eating, and turns the task into a sensual, juggling, slurping experience, bringing back memories of being a kid and oozing cake mess all over the place. This is the essence of a vanilla slice. Honestly, the only thing that could have made this a better memory of an Aussie childhood was a softer, flakier pastry.
In conclusion: Maybe try the pies or quiches at Crows Nest Bakery instead of the sausage rolls. But for dessert, the vanilla slice is a winner.
Sausage roll: 3/10
Vanilla slice: 8/10