An American autumnal take on Australia’s classic vanilla slice: a generous layer of silky custard swirled with a tart cranberry compote, all sandwiched between two layers of crisp pastry and finished with a dusting of powdered sugar.
There are several technical hurdles involved in making a vanilla slice—a flaky pastry, a smooth custard, and a neat slice. A rough puff pastry gives this recipe a shortcut, but feel free to use store-bought puff pastry and save yourself even more time.
The joy of eating a vanilla slice is in the contrast of the velvety custard and the crunchy, crackly pastry, though the pairing makes for a messy treat. Some prefer to eat it head-on or “freestyle,” while others cut the custard down the middle and opt for an open-faced situation. Don’t overthink it, but also don’t wear your best shirt.
- Measure flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Mix briefly to combine.
- Cut butter into thin slices and add it to the dry ingredients. Toss to coat the butter in flour. Working quickly while the butter is still cold, work the pieces of butter into large, flat pieces by using a squishing motion with your fingertips. The idea is to flatten all the butter into approximately walnut-size flakes. Add the water in two batches, tossing the mixture between additions to evenly hydrate it. You should be left with a bowl full of crumbles, not a fully cohesive dough.
- Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface and arrange it into a loose rectangle with a short side facing you (portrait, as opposed to landscape). Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a 6x20-inch rectangle. It may still be very shaggy. Fold the dough into thirds, like a business letter, by folding the bottom edge about ⅔ of the way up the dough and then folding the top third down and over the rest of the dough. This is called a simple fold or letter fold.
- Rotate the dough 90 degrees and roll the dough out to 20 inches long again—no need to worry too much about the width. Orient the dough in front of you the same way as before, with a short side facing you. This time, fold the bottom few inches of the dough up and then fold the top edge of the dough down to meet the bottom edge. Seal the two ends together by pressing lightly. Now, fold the whole thing in half toward you so you have a packet of dough that resembles a book. This is called a double fold or a book fold—which will quadruple the number of layers in your dough.
- Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat the same rolling and folding process from step 4.
- Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour. Dough will keep in the refrigerator for 2–3 days and in the freezer for up to 3 months. To use frozen dough, defrost it in the refrigerator overnight before rolling it out.
- Heat the oven to 375°F. Divide the chilled dough in two. Working with one half at a time, roll the dough into an 11-inch square. Prick the surface of the dough all over with a fork to help prevent it from puffing up in the oven, and transfer it to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Place a second piece of parchment paper on top of the dough and place a second sheet pan on top of the parchment. This will further prevent puffing in the oven.
- Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the top pan and top layer of parchment paper, then return the pastry to the oven and bake for another 5–10 minutes or until the pastry is deep golden, almost caramel-colored, and very stiff. Test this by carefully lifting one corner of the pastry—it should not bend or sag. Remove to a cooling rack and repeat with the second half of the dough.
- Once the dough is completely cooled, use a sharp knife to cut each piece of pastry into an 8-inch square. Using an 8-inch square pan as a guide is the easiest way to get the right size and shape. Choose the more attractive of the pastry squares and cut it into 9 equal pieces—precutting the top layer of pastry like this will lead to more attractive slices later on. Line the 8-inch square pan with plastic wrap that covers the bottom and comes up and over the sides (parchment paper also works well). Place the uncut 8-inch square of pastry in the bottom. Set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the cranberries and the sugar with ¼ cup of water and place over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 5–7 minutes, or until thick and jammy. Optionally, use an immersion blender to puree the mixture until smooth—this makes for a neater look but is not necessary. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
- Combine the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan and whisk until a thick paste is formed. Slowly stream in the half-and-half, whisking as you go, until all the liquid has been incorporated. Place the pan over medium-low heat and whisk constantly until the mixture is thick and comes to a boil—about 10 minutes. Let boil for 1 minute, stirring all the while, then transfer the custard to a medium mixing bowl. Add the butter and vanilla paste and stir well to combine.
- Cover the bowl of custard in plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator to cool down. Give the custard a stir every 10 minutes or so to keep it from forming a skin and to help it cool down faster. Once the custard is lukewarm, the vanilla slice may be assembled. If hot custard is added directly on top of the pastry, it will become soggy.
- Give the custard a good stir to smooth it out, and do the same to the cranberry compote. Add the cranberry compote to the custard and briefly stir them together without fully combining the two.
- Pour the cranberry-custard mixture over the square of pastry in the 8-inch pan. Use a spatula to evenly smooth the surface of the custard before arranging the precut pieces of pastry on top. Trim the pastry pieces as necessary so that they fit snugly in the pan but don’t overlap.
- Cover loosely with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours and up to overnight. When ready to serve, use the plastic wrap to help pull the entire dessert out of the pan and place on a cutting board. Dust generously with powdered sugar. Use a sharp knife to make quick, decisive cuts along the precut pastry lines. Clean the knife between each cut for best results.
- Vanilla slice is best served within 24 hours of assembling, as it begins to go soggy the longer it sits. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Zola Gregory is a writer and recipe developer based in Seattle. Having previously worked as a pastry chef and baker, she now enjoys helping others find success in their own kitchens through her stories, recipes, and baking classes.