When you're talking vanilla slice with Pat O'Toole, don't ever ask about pink icing.
"White icing, always white," he says with an "are you kidding me" smile.
For O'Toole, vanilla slice is serious business – he currently holds the title of Best Vanilla Slice in Australia.
And since taking that title, business at O'Toole's little country bakery "has gone silly" he says, selling an average of 500 of the much loved slices a day. "And a lot more on certain days," he adds.
Sure, every country town probably has a bakery claiming their version is the national champ. But the sweet treat created at O'Toole's Bridgewater Bakehouse in this eponymous central Victorian village (with a branch in nearby Bendigo) is officially the best.
It won back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019 in The Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph, a hotly contested competition that, like many a good thing, was cancelled in 2020, but which will take place again at Merbein in Victoria's Sunraysia region in August.
The competition began in Ouyen in 1998 after then-Victorian premier Jeff Kennett claimed the vanilla slice from the town's Mallee Bakery was the best he'd ever tasted. He personally championed the official event, and was a judge for several years.
For O'Toole, baking competitions weren't a priority. After opening in 2011, "We just wanted to concentrate on the business and on doing good products," he says, and he was happy serving 150-200 customers a day.
And most bakers probably would be happy with that. But bigger things were on the horizon. O'Toole had combined good products with a great location; his Bridgewater Bakehouse is on the Calder Highway near the Loddon river (the section of the road called Main Street), right where the road forks for Mildura one way, Swan Hill the other. It's a perfect pitstop.
And, aware of the marketing benefits of such things, he entered the vanilla slice comp in 2017. "We didn't do any good. But then I thought, bugger it, I want to win it now."
So he "studied and messed with the recipe", concentrating on the things the judges did: the "mouthful" size of the slice, not too big so it goes everywhere when you bite into it, a light and crispy pastry that snaps to the bite but doesn't break up, a creamy texture to the custard that's "velvet on the palate," and is fluffy and aerated.
And then there's that icing. "It must be a certain thickness, not too much of it, but no pastry showing through and just a little taste of sweet. It has to be glossy, like a mirror, and yes, it has to be white."
O'Toole is cagey about the secrets to a good slice, but is very open about one aspect: "Good quality ingredients put you on the front foot."
To that end, he uses vanilla seed rather than essence and his flour is from Laucke Flour Mills which you can see from the back steps of the bakery.
And that's another winning aspect of the vanilla slice title – the opportunities it gives O'Toole and his wife and business partner, Theresa, to give back to the community.
Locals say the bakery's success has lifted the town up with it.
"I don't like to talk myself up," O'Toole says. "But we now employ 40 staff, and we've brought change to the town. The shire has spent more money and upgraded stuff, and we employ farm kids as juniors to give them their first experience in the job market. We put a lot of money back into the community and the footy club and we buy locally. So everyone's getting a piece of the pie." (Or the slice, as it were.)
The reflected glory has extended to new proprietors in the Bridgewater pub down the road, who tore up a dreary carpark taking up the space between the pub and its river frontage, and replaced it with grass, creating one of the most scenic beer gardens going. They too, champion local ingredients, with Bendigo and Heathcote wines and meats from The Fat Butcher in nearby Inglewood featured on the menus.
And now for the three-peat.
O'Toole says he's aware his competitors have swung by and bought a slice or two "to dissect".
Meanwhile, he's doing some dissecting and tweaking of his own.
And he's not stopping with the slice. "We've done pie competitions, and got golds and silvers but we haven't won over all. I'm keen to have a good crack at that."
As for the taste (and texture) test? This writer concurs: best vanilla slice ever.
The writer travelled as a guest of Bendigo Regional Tourism.