The pale yellow paste spreads thickly on the unbelievably white bread. So – slap! It flips over a saucer and a shallow sea of hundreds of thousands that clink softly when disturbed. Firm pressure on her back before she returned once more to the cutting board, now a rounded square of confetti-colored sprinkles boarded by creamy white and deep tan outline. It is then cut, correctly, into triangles. Fairy bread is done.
While party food has evolved and diminished with time and trends, fairy bread has remained a constant in Australia for decades. As children’s parties have eschewed kid-friendly sodas in favor of grown-up craft beer, as French onion dip and jatz have given way to hummus and lavosh, and birthday cakes have been transformed from accidental masterpieces kitsch from buttercream and licorice strips to bare, tiered towers topped by edible flowers, fairy bread has remained.
“You just don’t go to a party without bread covered in sprinkles,” says Katherine Sabbath, baker and author of the Bake Australia Great cookbook.
The first known reference to fairy bread comes from the early Depression. The National Dictionary Center at the Australian National University suggests that the first report of fairy bread at a children’s party was on the Hobart Mercury in 1929.
In its persistence through the rise and fall, the fairy bread has become a part of Australian iconography; provided as jewelry, textiles and bags. It is nostalgic, democratic.
And while a handful of Northern European countries partake in sprinkled-on-dry-toast-type objects, fairy bread remains distinctly antithetical in a way that’s more celebratory and accessible than a meatloaf or sausage sizzle.
For Sabbath, however, his persistence is even more direct.
“It’s accessible, affordable joy on a plate,” says Sabbath. “It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s not complicated. Many parents already have these ingredients at home. So if you’re looking for something to delight a group of five-year-olds, then it’s just one option.”
At a four-year-old’s birthday party in Sydney, I saw chocolate crackers and zucchini sauce. Lots of watermelon, grapes and plums, hummus, rice crackers, focaccia, vegetable sticks and chips. But the children did not care. Beneath a tea towel and precisely at eye level, they discover a tray of fairy bread, almost a loaf’s worth of whole white bread. And before the bread could dry and harden around its padded edges, it was gone. A few errant drops were soon wiped away by desperate slippery little fingers.
“Fairy bread to me, its appeal is that it is fatty and crunchy. But it’s also soft and deliciously fluffy,” says Sabbath.
“It’s the closest you can get to a cake, without having to wait for it to be delivered at the end of the party. It’s like cheating. He is hiding with all the snacks, disguised as food. But is not. It’s cake.
The proper way to make fairy bread, says Sabbath, goes like this: “You definitely need cheap, fluffy white bread, because it’s as close to a cake texture as you can get,” he says. No sourdough. Without integrals.
The fat should be spreadable and soft. She won’t weigh in on the division between butter and margarine, but she will say that butter shouldn’t come straight out of the fridge.
And the sparks? “Do as traditional as you can,” says Sabbath. Round sprinkles are perfect, she says. Some of the fancier sprinkles look impressive, but when you bite into them, “it’s like biting into raw spaghetti.”
To love fairy bread and continue its tradition, she says, is to embrace it in its purest form.
“It’s never going to be low sugar. It’s never going to be low carb. It can be gluten-free, sure. But you need the sugar, you need the carbs, and you need the fat. The trifecta of deliciousness”.
And in that persistence and universality of its sugary fatty white bread, fairy bread is, in its own way, defiant.