Iced Vovo

I had to bake something for a pink-themed baby shower the other day, so of course I chose to make the most questionable of all the biscuits: the iced vovo. If that's not something you're familiar with, an iced vovo is a biscuit that for some reason can be found in the biscuit aisle of any supermarket where children might see them in Australia, but that is not found (presumably because of censorship) in the rest of the world.

Honestly it's hard to do these justice in a text description, but what we have here is a rectangular biscuit with slightly fancy edges. The top is nearly covered in a pale pink icing, but there is a thick smear of red jam down the middle. The whole thing is topped off with desiccated coconut, and it really does look vaguely indecently sexual.
This is an iced vovo as made by Arnott's. Available all over Australia and nowhere else.

The Australian parts of the internet got into a bit of a kerfuffle in 2020 when Arnott's released an iced vovo recipe (which to be fair is not their actual factory recipe - it is subtitled "recipe inspired by Arnott’s Iced VoVo and adapted for home bakers"), and if you look around, you'll find a few other recipes out there, although honestly I am surprised there are not more.

Having decided to bake these things, and having found the Arnott's recipe online, I started to get curious about how far back the vovo trail went. You can find people online claiming (although not very many) the vovo for Australia, and you can also find people (again, not many) claiming it for NZ. There are (small) corners of the internet where the  vovo is fought over like a biscuity Phar Lap.

Vovos Through Time

The first place I looked in my quest for the ur-vovo was my Australian recipe books, and surprisingly enough, there was nothing there. There was nothing in The Kookaburra Cookbook, nothing in Lady Hackett's Household Guide, and not even anything in The Australian Women's Weekly Cookery Book or the CWA Cookery Book, which I think was a gross oversight. My great-grandmother's handwritten recipe books contain two recipes for macaroni curry, and zero recipes for iced vovos.

However, the newspapers were more helpful. The iced vovo came roaring into the public consciousness in 1904 with a spate of advertising in both Australia and NZ. This ad from the 25 May 1904 edition of the Launceston Examiner seems to have kicked things off, although interestingly enough, it's advertising a plain vovo, which is probably just another word for a shortbread biscuit.

An ad for Arnott's famous Newcastle biscuits. It lists various biscuits, including the vovo, which it describes as "Dainty, and Delicious"

Arnott's hammered the Tasmanian newspapers with these biscuit ads all through the second half of 1904, and then in the 15 December 1904 edition of the Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette, we get the first mention of the iced vovo.

Another ad for Arnott's biscuits, by a shop called Cullinanes Limited, Famous Low Cash Prices. Iced vovos were a shilling per pound
Finally iced, but not, apparently, dainty. Cullinanes probably took one look at the decorated biscuit and decided that calling them dainty would be false advertising.

By the end of 1905, advertisements for plain vovos were pretty much gone. This ad from the 29 December 1905 edition of the Mercury shows the updated wording.

Another vintage biscuit ad for Arnott's Famous Newcastle Biscuits. Here, the iced vovo is described as "Delicious combination of Biscuit, Jam, and Cream."
Even here they weren't brave enough to call the iced vovo dainty, although it is interesting that it apparently included cream.

New Zealand had a brief flirtation with the iced vovo around the same time, but here they were made by Aulsebrook's. The first ad for them in Papers Past was from the 25 May 1905 edition of the Timaru Herald, and they were advertised pretty heavily through till 1908, when they tailed right off, with a last sad mention of them in July 1926. Aulsebrook's continued right through till the 1960s, though, and they may well have been discreetly churning out iced vovos the whole time.

An ad for Aulsebrook's biscuits. The tagline here is "Something New and Dainty"
From the 12 October 1905 edition of the Lyttleton Times, at the height of NZ's vovo fever

Although New Zealand abandoned the vovo pretty quickly, and I can't find a single NZ based recipe for them anywhere, in Australia, recipes for them started to crop up in newspapers in the early 30s. This recipe from 20 January 1940 edition of the Burnie Advocate is pretty typical.

ICED VO-VO BISCUITS.  Sift 8 ozs. s.r. flour, rub in 4 ozs butter, lard, or dripping, add 4 ozs. caster  sugar. Mix to a stiff dough with 1 beaten egg and a little milk. Roll out thinly on floured board and cut into square or oblong shapes. Bake in very moderate oven for 20 to 30 minutes. When cold, spread red jam down centre of each and ice on each side of jam, white or pink, then place face downward on desiccated cocoanut. (Mrs. D. L. Jordan, Upper Natone.)

When I say "pretty typical", I actually mean "totally stereotypical". You can find this exact recipe, sometimes with very tiny alterations to the wording, all through Australian newspapers of the 30s and 40s. There were, however, a few variations, like this inverted vovo (presumably in response to rationing) from the 2 August 1946 edition of The Farmer and Settler.

Iced Vo-Vo Biscuits.  Ingredients: 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon hot water 2 cups S.R flour, 1 egg, pinch salt. Icing: 1 tablespoon butter, 4 tablespoons icing sugar, little cochineal, jam, cocoanut. Method. - Beat butter and sugar to a cream. Add egg and beat well, then hot water. Add sifted flour and salt. Roll out thinly and cut into small oblong shapes. Bake on greased slide at 425 degrees, top element off, bottom low until golden brown. When cold, put a strip of pink icing down centre of biscuit and raspberry jam down each side of icing. Sprinkle with cocoanut.

Iced vovos were also used as an ingredient in other desserts, like this weird-sounding recipe for Launceston Pudding from the 20 October 1934 edition of the Australian Women's Weekly.

Butter a mould and place Arnott's Iced Vovo Biscuits round, fitting them closely. Make a rich custard, pour it into the mould, which must be full, cover the top with paper, and steam the pudding very slowly for one hour. Turn out on to a dish and serve with stewed fruit and cream, whipped.

Friends of Vovo

Although the iced vovo itself is strictly an Australian (well, and possibly NZ) biscuit, it does have friends and relations overseas. It is extremely similar to a biscuit called the Mikado that's made in Ireland (and I think it's fair to say that even without the iced vovo name in the mix, this biscuit is just inherently vaguely suggestive, because their tagline is "Are you a jam licker or a mallow picker?"). You'll probably notice that a lot of the original iced vovo ads also mentioned Mikados, but I couldn't find any recipes (or, indeed, any ads with pictures) in either Australia or NZ, so it's hard to know if they were the same biscuit back in 1904. However, I did find this rather spectacular picture from sometime in the 80s of Mikado biscuits being made.

A lot of biscuits being sprinkled with coconut as they move on a conveyor belt away from the camera. The biscuits are tan rectangles, with five blobs of pink marshmallow on each side of a central strip of red jam.
Suggestive. Mikado biscuits by Jacob's Biscuit Factory - Dublin City Library and Archive, Ireland - CC BY-NC-ND.

Although I couldn't find a recipe for the Mikado biscuit, I did find a very helpful recipe from the 9 January 1873 edition of The Daily Southern Cross.

The Chicago Tribune gives the following recipe for making brandy from sawdust of pine and fir timber mixed, from which a compound is prepared composed of 9 parts sawdust, 33.7 parts of water, .7 of one part of hydrochloric acid, making 43.7 parts altogether. This is to be boiled under steam pressure for 11 hours, when it will be found that 19 per cent, of the mass will be grape sugar. The acid is to be neutralised with lime, and the mash supplied with yeast. After 96 hours' fermentation a distillation of the mash will produce 61 quarts of brandy of 50 percent strength. Here is an opening for a new and almost unlimited increase in the manufacture of spirits. Many other woods besides fir and pine will probably be as well adapted for this purpose, in the large timber districts of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many other parts of the world, immense quantities of sawdust, now unutilised, may be made to become as valuable as the timber, if not more so.

Waste not, want not.

Pink icing

This is more of an aside than anything else, because I spent ages trying out various search terms to find iced biscuits that might have been an early vovo lurking under a different name. One of the things I looked for was pink icing. Now, I found various recipes for pink icing (none of them interesting enough to repeat here), and I also found this, from the 13 August 1943 edition of the Daily Examiner

The ban on pink icing imposed by the National Security Regulations applies only  to New South Wales. This was revealed to-day by the Deputy Director of War Organi sation of Industry, Mr. Ifould, who   said the regulation had caused so much fuss that it had not been extended to other States. Mr. Ifould's statement was made following a published statement that while no iced cakes are available in Sydney all kinds of heavily iced cakes are on sale in Melbourne.

It is probably fortunate that the vovo recipe that kept being printed in the papers specified either white or pink icing. Otherwise there would have been a serious vovo shortage in New South Wales, and presumably a network of vovo runners bringing them in from over the Victorian border.

But should you take them to a baby shower?

That depends on the baby shower. Possibly a hen's night might be more appropriate. And if you were ever to be invited to a combination baby shower/hen's night, this would be the biscuit to take for sure.

Subscribe to Happy Family Happy Home

Don't miss out on any of this very helpful advice - get it delivered straight to your inbox instead.