Prior to moving to New Zealand, my personal vocabulary lacked a solo word to collectively refer to things like brownies, blondies, lemon bars, Rice Krispies treats, date squares, squares of coffee cake, and such. “Bar cookies” or “dessert squares” were my default, but were cumbersome and didn’t always convey the extent of inclusivity I was going for. And then I met the Kiwi concept of the slice.
To be honest, I’m not sure when slice slipped into the Kiwi vernacular. I’ve seen it used off and on throughout the 50s and 60s in recipe names, but it seems to only really become a category of baked good in cookbooks in the 1990s and 2000s. At any rate, I’m a fan, of both the thing and the word.
So what is – and isn’t – a slice?
Well, after much study, I propose that in order to be considered a slice, the following guidelines must be met:
- it is baked/cooked/set en masse in a square or rectangular tin, and then portioned.
Yup, that’s it. I did try to make the conditions more complicated, with something about some component of it being either a biscuit/cookie dough, pastry, batter, or melted chocolate, but then I realized I’d left out marshmallow… so, yeah… It’s a pretty simple definition really, but the simplicity is the reason slices are a favorite of busy cooks – they’re crowd-pleasing time-savers. The simplicity is also the reason the slice category is enormous. Louise Cake, baked in a tin and portioned, becomes Louise Slice. Neenish Tarts are usually baked in individual tart shells or patty pans, but when they’re baked in a square tin and then portioned….
Well, you get the idea.
So I was a little surprised to see just how many bakers this week opted to make a variation on Caramel Slice, By my count, 6 of the 11 bakers made some variation on Caramel Slice. I mean, yes, it is undeniably a Kiwi favourite but it’s also definitely something you can find outside NZ, perhaps by a different name – I first encountered it as Caramel Shortbread in England. GBBO has referred to it as Millionaire’s Shortbread. In my humble opinion, if you want a Kiwi As slice, you’ve got to go for ginger crunch.
In 2014, it was the third most popular recipe in the Edmonds Cookery Book, which is kind of like The Joy of Cooking for Kiwis. You find it in just about every cafe in New Zealand and yet remarkably it’s not at all well-known to non-Kiwis. The first time my brother heard me mention it, he thought I was talking about a new flavour of Cap’n Crunch, the breakfast cereal.
Not the Capn’s Scottish Cousin.
Ginger Crunch is, ultimately, a biscuit base covered in sweet gingery icing and cut into slices. Any more detail than that and you start having to make some polarizing decisions.
For example, will your base be a classic short biscuit base or a chewier oaty-coconut biscuit base? Will the base itself contain ginger? If so, will it be powdered, stem, crystallized or fresh? Will you make your icing by combining the butter, golden syrup, icing sugar and powdered ginger in a pot and bringing it to a simmer or will you melt the butter and golden syrup first, then whip in the icing sugar and powdered ginger? Will you ice your base while it’s hot or wait for it to cool? Chopped walnuts on top? Or pistachios? Or crystalized ginger? What proportion of icing to base do you want?
Kiwis can have quite strong views regarding their ginger crunch. Al Brown, venerated NZ chef, claims that 2/3 base to 1/3 icing is the “money shot”. A friend I was having drinks with a few nights ago says he’s full of crap, and she wants more or less equal parts base to icing…and that the base needs to be shortbread but with a whipped icing, with plenty of crystallized ginger throughout. In an article on Stuff.co.nz, Grant Smithies proclaimed that rather than an “oversweet icing studded with lumps of crystallized root ginger atop a thick oaty base….Ginger Crunch should be hard as hell and thin as a poor man’s wallet, the icing hot with powdered ginger.”
My own first encounter with ginger crunch was at work almost four years ago, and left me wondering where the “crunch” was, as the base was of the thicker, chewier oaty-coconut variety. I did like it though, because it reminded me of a chewy oatmeal raisin cookie without the raisins or cinnamon. I didn’t like the icing though – it was so sweet, it made my teeth hurt.
As it turns out, I am not alone in my assessment of this modern version of ginger crunch. In a personal communication with culinary anthropologist Helen Leach (Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago and published author), she asserted that “the bars of Ginger Crunch we buy in cafés today no longer deserve their original name. Not only have they been enriched, but more recently super-sized as well.” So more butter (enrichment) + a smaller tin = thicker base, thicker frosting, and chewier texture, which is why I wasn’t getting the crunch.
When I inquired after the slice’s origin story, Professor Leach confirmed that it did not appear to come from Australia (although they have adopted it wholeheartedly) and also shared with me some of the earliest printed recipes for Ginger Crunch from her own recipe collection – all of them date from the 1940s, well before it made its first appearance in the Edmonds Cookery Book (which was in 1955). And that’s as far back as the evidence has led so far.
So I was shocked to come across a recipe for Skibo Castle Ginger Crunch while searching archives of U.S. cooking magazines. The recipe was published in Gourmet Magazine in 1999, submitted by Irishwoman Doon Fergusson-Howlett, who says she made them regularly when she worked as a cook in Scottish castles in the early 1980s.
In respone to my written query regarding where she had found the recipe, Ms Fergusson-Howlett said it came from an old pamphlet of Scottish recipes she had picked up somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland, but she couldn’t recall where as it was a long time ago. She believes it was local to county Sutherland, where Skibo Castle is located and where she was working at the time. The recipe she provided very closely matches the early recipes that Professor Leach provided, but without knowing the age of the pamphlet, or its source, it can’t be confirmed that the original recipe came from Scotland.
But it did send me off searching through Scottish recipes – after all, the three oldest known Kiwi recipes all call for a shortbread base and shortbread is something the Scots are known for. Furthermore, a lot of Scots emigrated to NZ, particularly the Dunedin area, in the 1850s – Dunedin is even named for Edinburgh, which is known as Dùn Èideann in Scots Gaelic. So maybe Scotland is where the idea for Ginger Crunch came from. And that’s how I found Parlies or Parliament Cakes.
Guid auld Lucky Fykie
Parlies are credited to one Mrs. Flockhart, or Lucky Fykie as she was called. She ran a shop in Edinburgh on Potterow, where the Lords and Gentlemen of the original, pre-1707 Scottish Parliament would come to avail themselves of her hospitality – usually in the form of three bottles (one each of brandy, rum, and whisky) and a plate of ginger biscuits. The round biscuits were known as snaps and the squares were called Parliaments. Parliament cakes or parlies were not only square but they were crisp and crunchy and contained no raising agent, unlike ginger snaps or ginger nuts, but not unlike many recipes for the Ginger Crunch base.
Obviously I can’t definitively say that Parlies were an ancestor of Ginger Crunch based on so little evidence, especially since there’s no mention of them ever having any sort of icing. But in terms of Scotland having a proven history of crunchy gingery biscuit squares since before the 1800s, the evidence is compelling. And taken into account Ms. Fergusson-Howlett’s contribution to the mystery, I certainly think there is more to be gained by exploring the Scottish connection. There is the distinct possibility that the pamphlet floating around the Scottish Highlands referring to Ginger Crunch is older than 1947… And on the other hand, it simply could have been sent to a Highlander woman from her rellie (that’s “relative” for the Yanks) in New Zealand.
Will we ever know for sure?
Is there at least a definitively “right” way to prepare ginger crunch?
Absolutely not. Short or oaty, whipped or boiled, iced hot or cold, you gotta do what’s right for you. But I do recommend trying them all, for good measure.