When I thought retro, one thought popped into my mind shiny and bright and clear as day…
Viennetta! Was that a staple treat in anyone else’s house? Did you guys in the States or Australia have it? And, most importantly, does anyone do a (convincing) vegan version??? were all thoughts that flooded my head as images of rippled ice cream studded with shards of chilled chocolate anchored themselves to my retinas.
Growing up, Mum rarely made food that was a particular dish. We didn’t have dinners with names, we just had food. Meat and two veg, or stir-fry, or a veggie tart, that kind of stuff. Never from a cookbook, rarely with much pomp or circumstance. We certainly never based our food on overly processed or pre-packaged products; the most convenience it got was a packet of store-bought ravioli and a jar of tomato sauce, and that was usually if my dad and I were fending for ourselves for a night. Somehow, though, Viennetta crept in, and although it was never the sort of thing that was brought out ceremonially for any special occasion – for which we could always look forward to a truly special homemade delight – I was always excited for Viennetta.
Although I usually stirred plain ice cream around in my bowl until it melted to a soft-serve consistency, I loved the crisp crackle of the brittle chocolate layers of Viennetta as my mum would push the knife through the slab. I would usually push my serving over onto its side, and separate the layers one by one: with a gentle push of the spoon you could pull a chocolate shard away with the ice cream attached to it, and keep going until you got to the bottom. I like treats that I can enjoy slowly and methodically!
If that was the only boxed-up dessert that my parents and I enjoyed as a weeknight pick-me-up, my French grandparents were a little more partial to trademarked treat. They used to get iced “surprises” that came in a box, by an evil brand I shall not name. They were little domes of ice cream covered in chopped nuts, with a sphere of meringue hidden in the middle. Boring, thought the pre-teen me, especially as you obviously knew what the surprise was after you’d had one, but how retro?! thinks vegan blogger me.
Now, judging by the last few seasons of Masterchef Australia, crème brûlée is very much in these days, but for me it’ll always be mega retro. A large portion of each summer was spent lazing around our family house in France, where my grandparents resided over the summer months. The house is old and has been refurbished and renovated bit by bit, resulting in a slightly disjointed set-up as our need for amenities has grown quicker than the living space – so we have ended up with things like the freezer and microwave and toaster oven in the basement (along with cupboards of mismatched plastic containers, DIY and gardening supplies where you will find the potatoes and onions, stacks of my aunt’s homemade jam, and musty-smelling generations-old board games).
So although I might otherwise never have remembered the summer crème brûlées, the memory of them has accrued weight from the ritual that came with preparing them: after dinner, I would accompany a grandparent to the basement while the other tidied up (we had to leave the all-in-one living area through the front door and take a few steps down the little paved path into the separate basement). The crème brûlées would come out of the fridge and the individual serving pots taken out of the box. Their foil tops would be peeled off, and sugar would be sprinkled onto the set cream from individual little sachets, before placing them in the toaster oven until the sugar had melted and bubbled its way to a golden-brown crisp.
I’m not particularly into crème brûlée these days – I can’t really see what all the fuss is about – but it was pretty fun how one particular dessert took me all the way back to the dank and musty smell of the summer house basement, and the faint buzzing of that old halogen light that bathed our supermarket-bought crème brûlée preparation ritual – which I had until then put out of my mind.
This grainy, blurry, too-old, pre-iPhone, shot doesn’t come close to doing Kathy Patalsky‘s super silky, rich and creamy, yet super-easy Vegan Vanilla Bean Custard any sort of justice. But just go ahead and make it, it comes together so quickly, is relatively healthy and super decadent-tasting, there is no reason we can’t all enjoy a serving or two today (unless you’re allergic to soy or coconut oil or vanilla or liquid sweetener). This is genuinely one of my favourite “everyday” desserts ever. I am determined (I almost typed that “dessertmined“, which I think is a brilliant word demanding to be coined) to make some more before we use up all of the glorious fat and fragrant Madagascan vanilla pods my mum gifted me.
Scraping out the vanilla beans to make this dessert reminded me of making crème anglaise (a thin, vanilla-rich custard) with my French grandmother in their cramped little kitchen in Paris, and eating the set pudding out of little glass pots took me right back to those summer night crème brûlées, so I got a double nostalgia whammy.
As for Viennetta, well, I’m sure it wouldn’t too hard to recreate: you could of course just melt some chocolate with some coconut oil, and drizzle it over thin layers of your vegan ice cream of choice in a loaf tin. Or, you could just try to hunt down a vegan kosher version because isn’t half the fun the guilty pleasure of pulling it out of a box and sliding out the flimsy plastic tray?