New cookbook Australia is packed with light, bright and easy bakes that will hit all the right nostalgic notes – even if you’ve never travelled down under.
Over the past year, quintessentially British desserts have had a sudden renaissance. From sticky toffee pudding to syrupy upside-down cake, one bite is all it takes to bring back fond memories of birthday parties, break times and Sunday lunch – and in the current climate, nothing tastes as sweet as nostalgia.
As it turns out, Aussies are masters at this kind of light, carefree baking, thanks to their flair for combining simple flavours and easy recipes. We’re talking fruity tray bakes, butter biscuits and chocolatey mixtures that can be dolloped into paper cases lickety-split, often with no cooking required whatsoever. If you’re familiar with these kinds of bakes, you’ll also know that they’re just as pleasing on the eye as they are on the palate – whether you’re talking about squares of coconut-covered lamington or pink iced finger buns that wouldn’t look out of place on a dolls’ house table.
Australia’s love of baking goes beyond a taste for sugary treats, though. Sydney-based chef and food writer Ross Dobson’s beautiful forthcoming cookbook Australia is a culinary tour through the country’s food history and culture, starting with the arrival of the Australian First Peoples at least 50,000 years ago (although he notes that many First Peoples don’t accept these dates, “as they traditionally believe they have been here since time began”).
In the second half of the 20th century, Dobson writes, organisations such as the Country Women’s Association (CWA) used baking to bring isolated rural Australian women together. The idea, he says, was that “women could meet and talk about personal issues over a cuppa and a scone (or possibly a jelly cake) in a safe environment.” The CWA christened this form of cake and community a ‘sconversation’; which, we’re sure you can agree, is a lovely concept to adopt as we begin to rebuild our social lives.
Below, Dobson shares three delectable recipes from Australia that low-key bakers, kids at heart and anyone with a sweet tooth will love.
First up, iced biscuits. A beloved old-school treat, these sweet butter biscuits are the prettiest confection of raspberry jam, pink marshmallow and desiccated coconut.
The chocolate crackles, meanwhile, are a real cause for celebration, thanks to the deliciously quick and simple recipe that can be whipped up in under half an hour.
And when you’ve a little more time on your hands, the vanilla slice, inspired by French millefeuille and finished with passionfruit icing, is the perfect treat for an outdoor gathering. New baking project = sorted.
Ross says: “These biscuits are as Australian as Shane Warne but much prettier. And they are almost as old as the Federation of Australia. There are a couple of references to recipes that appear in the 1930s and 40s, as well as a handful of contemporary ones, but it’s never really been a biscuit that is made at home. This recipe is for a home-cook-friendly version but the biscuits are no less dressed to impress.”
Makes: 24 biscuits
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
- 60g desiccated (unsweetened shredded) coconut
- 250ml raspberry jam
For the biscuits:
- 60g unsalted butter
- 80g caster sugar
- 1 egg
- 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
For the marshmallow topping:
- 100g white marshmallows
- 100g pink marshmallows
- 50g unsalted butter
- 60g icing sugar, sifted
Make the biscuits first. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper.
Put the butter and caster sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Alternatively, use hand-held electric beaters and beat on medium speed for 4–5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl a couple of times, until creamy.
Add the egg and beat for 1 minute.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then reduce the speed to low and add the flour and baking powder. Add 2 tablespoons boiling water and beat again for about 1 minute, or until the mixture starts to clump together.
Tip onto a lightly floured work counter and briefly knead to form a smoothish ball. Don’t over-knead the dough. Cut the dough into 2 equal portions –this will make it easier to work with.
Working with 1 portion at a time, roll out to form a large rectangle, 3mm thick. Use a ruler to measure and cut out a 24 x 12cm rectangle from the centre of the dough. Reserve any excess dough. Wrap in clingfilm and freeze to use another time.
Cut the rectangle lengthwise in half, then cut each half into 6 x 4cm wide pieces. This will yield 12 small rectangles. Place on the lined baking sheet and bake in the oven for 15 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack and repeat with the other portion of dough to make 24 biscuits. Leave to cool.
To make the marshmallow topping, combine the marshmallows and butter in a saucepan and stir over a medium heat for 4–5 minutes until the mixture is smooth and well combined. Stir through the icing sugar until smooth.
Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a small nozzle. Alternatively, use a clean plastic bag with the end snipped off. Leave the mixture to cool for about 10 minutes to become firm enough to work with, then pipe 1cm wide strips either side of each biscuit, leaving space in the centre to put the jam.
Put the coconut on a plate. Gently press each biscuit into the coconut so it sticks to the marshmallow, then pipe or spread the jam in the centre of each biscuit. These biscuits can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2–3 days.
Ross says: “This is probably the perfect thing to get kids to make as there is no chopping or cooking, aside from melting the Copha. Generations have grown up with these at kids’ parties, school fêtes and fundraisers. Copha is a solid shortening made from coconut oil and is unique to Australia, but you can easily use vegetable shortening.”
Makes 24 crackles
Preparation time: 20 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling
Cooking time: 5 minutes
- 250g coarsely chopped Copha or vegetable shortening
- 120g crispy rice cereal
- 120g icing sugar
- 90g desiccated (unsweetened shredded) coconut
- 40g cocoa powder
Put the Copha or vegetable shortening into a small saucepan and melt over a medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat.
Put the rice cereal, icing sugar, coconut and cocoa into a large bowl and stir to combine, then stir through the shortening until well combined. Spoon the mixture into 24 small paper muffin cases. Put on a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 1 hour until chilled and firm.
These will keep in the fridge, stored in an airtight container for up to 3–4 days.
Ross says: “This is the Australian take on the French millefeuille (a thousand sheets). It is simplified by the exclusion of a middle sheet of pastry so nothing gets in the way of the delicious custard filling. This is a perennial favourite, much loved in school canteens, bakeries and cafés. Contemporary food magazines and cookery books entice us with the ‘best ever’ vanilla slice recipe. Sometimes it is topped with a plain icing or with some passionfruit. There is no doubting that this one is made in Australia.”
Makes 12 slices
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: about 35 minutes, plus cooling
- 4 sheets store-bought puff pastry
For the vanilla custard:
- 1 litre whole milk
- 220g caster sugar
- 50g cornflour
- 70g custard powder
- 60g unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the passionfruit icing:
- 240g icing sugar
- 2 tablespoons fresh passionfruit pulp (1–2 passionfruit)
- 1 teaspoon melted butter
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper.
Join 2 sheets of pastry together so they overlap by just 5mm or so, then press down firmly on the seal to join. Cut out a 35 x 25cm rectangle from the pastry. You can use a 30 x 20cm slice pan as a guide, just cut a few centimetres larger than the pan around the perimeter.
Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and prick the pastry all over with a fork. Cover with a sheet of baking paper then put another baking sheet on top. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden.
Remove from the oven and transfer the pastry to a work counter. Repeat with the remaining pastry.
Line a 30 x 20cm slice pan or shallow baking pan with baking paper, ensuring there is excess paper overhanging the longer sides. Lay one of the pastries in the pan and use kitchen scissors to trim to fit, if need be.
To make the custard, place the milk, sugar, cornflour and custard powder together in a saucepan and whisk to combine. Cook over a medium heat, stirring until the mixture boils. Stir constantly for 3 minutes, or until the mixture is very thick.
Remove the pan from the heat, then stir through the butter until well combined, then stir in the vanilla.
Pour the custard over the pastry in the slice pan and leave to cool completely. Once cool, put the remaining pastry on top, so the flakiest side is facing down.
To make the icing, combine the icing sugar, passionfruit pulp, butter and 1 teaspoon cold water in a bowl and stir until smooth. Pour over the pastry and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.
To serve, remove the slice from the pan. Cut into 12 rectangles, each measuring 8 x 5cm.
Australia: The Cookbook by Ross Dobson (£35, Phaidon) is out 15 April
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.