No-one really knows the origin of neenish tarts, the bi-coloured pastries still widely available in Aussie cake shops. The first known mention of ‘nenish cakes’ is in an advertisement for the New South Wales Ice and Fresh Food Company in 1895. In 1901 a columnist calling herself “Housewife” published a recipe in The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser. The recipe was evidently new, as she remarked that she hadn’t had time to test it.
There is a persistent legend around the invention of neenish tarts, involving one Ruby Neenish in the NSW town of Grong Grong. The story has it that she ran out of chocolate icing when preparing tarts for a kitchen tea, so used half chocolate and half white icing. These accounts, however, usually give a date of 1913 – clearly disqualifying the mythical Mrs Neenish as the inventor. In 2016, ABC journalist Rachel Carbonell tracked down the source of the story: it turns out to be a joke played by a former Grong Grong resident on one of his journalist friends back in 1988. The internet being what it is, the legend has since been widely circulated as fact.
The first neenish tarts recipe
It seems that neenish tarts (or nenish cakes) were available from commercial bakeries by the turn of the century, but not yet commonly made by home cooks. When “Housewife” published the recipe, she was responding to an enquiry from a reader identified as “Obadiah”. Her reply read:
I am glad to be able to send you the recipe for which you were so anxious. Very few directions, however, were forwarded me, and as I have no time at present to give the recipe a trial, I am afraid that in some of the details you will have to use your own judgment. I should try with only a quarter of the ingredients, so if your efforts the first time were not successful there would be but little waste.
NeenishTarts : For the shell take 1 lb. ground almonds, ¾ lb. icing sugar, four whites eggs beaten to a froth, one handful flour ; mix these into a stiff paste. Have ready some plain patty pans about the size of a large teacup in circumference and 1 ½ in. in height. Butter them lightly, and with your fingers press in sufficient quantity of the paste to line the tins, taking care that the sides and bottom are quite even and about ½ in. thick. Place in a moderate oven and bake until the tarts are firm and of a pale brown. The details for the frilling [sic] are also rather vague. Take a little fresh butter and mix with it some thick sweet custard. On the top of the whole put the thinnest layer of icing made with white of egg and icing sugar, one half to be coloured with strong coffee. I shall be quite anxious to hear how you succeed. Will you let me know.’
Unlike later recipes, the key features of this version of Neenish tarts were a thick almond base and a custard, not a cream filling. The icing was coloured with coffee, not with chocolate. Over the next few years, the recipe reappeared with more detail on how to achieve the bi-coloured icing. A recipe in Launceston’s Daily Telegraph in 1903 suggested a yellow and brown combination:
With coffee, color one-half a pale yellow and the other half a deep brown. Ice the tarts carefully, having the top of each half dark and the other half light, without allowing the two colors to run into each other.
In 1906, “Housewife” went into even more detail:
On the top of this [filling] spread a layer of icing, made with white of egg and icing sugar. For the coloured half, have ready some rather thin coffee icing. Take the tart in the left hand, dip a knife in the coffee icing, and as quickly as possible lay the knife half way across the tart, and pull it rapidly backwards towards the right. If this is done quickly, the coffee icing will go on with a straight line right across the centre of the white icing, and there will be none spilt during the process.