Neenish tarts are, as far as I am aware, an Aussie and New Zealand delicacy. We are not just about Lamingtons, Anzac Biscuits, and Pavlova in this part of the world, you know. It is time that those of you not lucky enough to live down here are given the chance to feel what you may be missing.
Neenish tarts are individual sized pastry shells with a sweet custard-like filling and – this is the clincher – the top is decorated with thin dry icing, each half in a different colour. Typically the colours are white and brown, or white and pink, or pink and brown. If you want to see what they look like, just Google the name and you will be offered a large number of images.
The name of the tart is somewhat of a mystery, and has various spellings, including nenische and nienich, which suggest a German origin. The most popular theory is that they are named for a Mrs. Ruby Neenish, but I don’t believe she has ever been tracked down. If the name rings any bells for you, Germanic or otherwise, please do let us all know via the comments.
One thing food historians really love to do is to track down the earliest known published recipe for whatever it is that is under discussion. The actual cooking of the dish always pre-dates the publishing of a recipe of course, sometimes by a very long interval. Recipes are never actually ‘invented’ from scratch anyhow – they always evolve from an earlier idea. Sometimes what is actually being debated is a new name for an existing dish, or a variation or presentation of an existing idea, as in the case of pavlova, for example.
In the case of Neenish tarts, their earliest known mention is in a Western Australian newspaper, The Bunbury Herald of 12th June 1913, and here it is:
The little brown-and-white Neenish tarts which are so much liked, and which I have never yet seen an amateur attempt, are well worth trying, and are not nearly so difficult to make as might be imagined. The directions which were given to me were a trifle vague, and discretion must be used, so far as the filling is concerned; but in the first place you must make the shell of the tart from 1 lb.of ground almonds, ¾ lb. of icing sugar, the whites of four eggs beaten to a stiff froth, and one handful of flour. If the ingredients are thought too large and you intend only making a few tarts for a beginning, they can easily be halved. Make into a stiff paste, and then get your plain, rather shallow patty-pans, and press the mixture in with your fingers lining the tins evenly to the depth of about one-quarter of an inch. Place in a moderate oven, and bake until the tarts are firm and brown. For the filling you must begin by making a very thick custard of eggs and milk thickened with cornflour. This must allowed to cool until it sets almost like blancmange; then put some on a plate, and beat in sufficient fresh butter to make it light and frothy with plenty of vanilla flavoring. Fill the little tarts nearly to the top, and then run over a thin layer of white icing. Now you will need a little coffee glaze for the one-half of the tarts. This is made with ¾ lb. icing sugar and three tablespoonfuls of strong liquid coffee. Stir the ingredients over the fire until just warm, when use at once. This is the way in which professionals put the icing onto the tarts. Dip a rather long knife into the mixture, and then lay the back of it exactly in the centre of the tart, and draw the knife quickly off, keeping the blade perfectly flat all the time. This, will give the right proportion of coffee, and will ensure the centre having a perfectly straight line, almost impossible to obtain in any other manner. Practice will soon make perfect, and after a time you will know exactly how much liquid to allow the blade of the knife to hold.
Naturally, many variations of this concept have evolved over the last century: most have plain shortcrust pastry, many have a tasteless, eggless, gelatin-thickened filling, and occasionally other colours than white, pink , and brown are used for the topping (but there must always be two colours.) I cannot help but feel however, that variations subsequent to this ‘original’ are not improvements.
The ‘original’ recipe, you will note, has almond pastry, a filling of thick custard made with real eggs and enriched with plenty of butter, one half being topped with a carefully applied coffee-flavoured icing which contrasts nicely with the plain white coating on the other half. Does it not sound wonderful? No doubt there are artisan bakers producing magnificent Neenish Tarts like the ones described here, but I do not know their whereabouts. Sadly, the modern commercial version more often than not consists of a cardboard-like shells filled with nondescript flavourless sweet goo, topped with untidy semi-circles of frighteningly pink and chocolate-coloured (but barely flavoured) icing.