The Australian National Dictionary Centre, the fine folks who bring you Ozwords, a blog listed in my sidebar, have a dictionary listing as well, Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms, and from the letter N I bring you:


It is a tradition at the Australian National University that computers have names as well as serial numbers. The computers at the Australian National Dictionary Centre are named after Australian food items: king prawn, icypole, pavlova, lamington, floater – and neenish. The last named computer gets its title from the neenish tart. But are neenish tarts Australian? Many people believe that they are. First, for those who are not of the cake-shop conglutination (aficionados of glucogunk), what is a neenish tart? It is, it seems, a cake with a filling of mock cream, and iced in two colours – white and brown, or white and pink, or (occasionally) pink and brown. In May 1995, Column 8 in the Sydney Morning Herald included some discussion of the origin of the term: Wendy Kerr and Jenny Hawke, of the Forbes public library, found this in Patisserie, an encyclopedia of cakes, by Aaron Maree: ‘Thought to have been invented by cooks in outback Australia.’ And that may be right. Leo Schofield, writing in the SMH in 1988, said his mother made them from a Country Women’s Association cookbook sold in Orange in World War II. When he asked for information, some readers suggested they had a Viennese or German origin. But a Mrs Evans said they were first made in her home town, Grong Grong. She and her sister, Venus, nominated Ruby Neenish, a friend of their mother’s, as the originator. Mrs Evans said that in 1913, running short of cocoa and baking for an unexpected shower tea for her daughter, Ruby made do by icing her tarts with half-chocolate, half-white icing. From then on they were known as neenish tarts. That, said Leo, would account for the tarts’ popularity in country districts and country cookbooks. We have been unable to track down the eponymous Ruby Neenish, and some of the ‘authenticating devices’ in this account feel a little shaky – just how ‘unexpected’ can a shower tea be?

The earliest reference to neenish we have been able to find occurs in a 1929 recipe for neenish cakes. This is in Miss Drake’s Home Cookery by Lucy Drake, published at Glenferrie in Victoria. The cases are made from: 8 ozs. almond meal; 6 ozs. icing sugar; 1 large tablespoon flour; essence almonds; 2 whites of eggs. The filling is made of: 1 gill cream; 1/2 gill milk; 1/4 oz. gelatine; 1 tablespoon sugar; essence vanilla. No mock cream here. The icing is half white and half pink.

The fifth edition of the Country Women’s Association Cookery Book and Household Hints, published in Perth in 1941, has the following recipe, provided by E. Birch of Baandee: Cream 2 ozs. butter and add 1 tablespoon sugar, rub in 5 ozs. self-raising flour and a pinch of salt and mix to a stiff paste with an egg. Knead well. Roll on a well-floured board till very thin, line patty tins with paste and fill with a good thick custard. Glaze the tops with thin icing. Use chocolate and white alternately’. This time, the icing is half chocolate and half white. And, of course, no mock cream. More interesting is the fact that the cakes are called nienich tarts. This certainly has a Germanic ring to it, and the spelling continues to be used in the CWA Cookery Book as late as 1964.

So here is the challenge. Do any of our readers have a cookery book printed before 1929 which includes neenish or nienich cakes or tarts? Can anyone provide evidence for a European origin? Are there any supporters of the pseudo-eponymous Ruby Neenish?

I love not only the word neenish but the ultra-Aussie town name Grong Grong. Thanks, Paul!


  1. From Le Guin’s 1978 book The Altered I, about a writing workshop in Australia where she served as resident, with the stories of the attendees and one of hers in pre-workshop and post-workshop form:

    The Grongs […] remained with us all week. The Grongs must have come up on Sunday; my recollection is that somebody remarked incredulously that on his way to the workshop he had passed through a town named Grong Grong. And somebody else said of course, that’s where the Grongs live. And somebody else said, what do Grongs use wattle for, anyway? And from then on there was no controlling it. The mysterious reproductive ritual of the Grongs, which involves singing over the cabbages at night, was discovered. It was established that auctioneers shout Growing, Growing Grong, and that two grongs do not make a gright […]

    Another workshopper referred to “those interminable tales about grongs”, and much later Le Guin mentioned reviews in “the Times Literary Supplement, or the New York Times Book Review, or the East Grong-Grong Sheep Rancher’s Weekly”.

  2. The Australian National Dictionary Centre says they now have evidence for ‘neenish tarts’ from 1895, to be included in web updates in the next few months:

  3. The source they found is a newspaper advertisement – look under ‘List for Pastry Cakes’ here:

  4. As is often the way, Neenish tarts are a thing in New Zealand too. A quick search of Papers Past ( and the NZETC ( doesn’t reveal any old results, but I live in hope that as with pavlovas, we can have a feisty dispute about the origin of this delicacy.

  5. Actually, some more poking around reveals that Aunt Daisy ( had a cookbook published in 1953 in NZ which had a recipe for “Nenische tarts” ('sCookeryBook%201953_djvu.txt). So perhaps further investigation from there might yet reveal a New Zealand connection.

  6. Am I the only one who thinks “neenish tart” sounds like a Scots insult?

  7. I hadn’t thought of that, but now that you mention it, so it does.

  8.’s phonetic/similarity search reveals that only one of these hypothesized surnames existed for real: Nienich (attested in baptism records in Hungarian-ruled Croatia)

  9. (Nenish, as in the NZ record, is found there too, and the European birth country is also Hungary)

  10. And that part of the world is known for its pastries. I think we have a winner.

  11. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Could it be the same kind of etymology as a Pavlova?

    Niniche was a fantastically popular 1878 vaudeville, whose popularity lasted long enough for movie versions to be filmed in Italy in 1918 and in Germany in 1925. Its fame reached the theatre and society columns of Australian newspapers, which also wrote regularly about the Niniche hat. There were Australian advertisements for “Niniche” corsets and veils too. Admittedly the tart shows up with that spelling only once and in 1930, but the pronunciation seems to work.

    A niniche is also a sweet in France. Mostly a Breton lollipop first marketed in 1946. Yet, there is also an older niniche bordelaise that seems to date from the early twentieth century. Neither bears any resemblance to a neenish tart.

  12. I think we have a new winner!

  13. Is this it? Called “dag-og-nat-snitte” in Danish bakeries, “day and night slice”. (Or vice versa. Recipe in Danish).

  14. There were pastries called Desdemonas and Othellos that were roughly contemporary with the Neenish Tart. Desdemonas had white icing, while Othellos had brown. So it seems it was not unusual to draw cake names from the theatre – reinforcing the theory that Neenish might be an Anglicised version of Niniche.

  15. Legend has it that Nanaimo bars were developed by a now exceedingly wealthy dentist.

  16. In a fanfic I wrote based on Zenna Henderson’s People series, I had my narrator refer to the Grong Grong Group, who live in Australia, but nowhere near Grong Grong. Like other Aussies, they’re deadpan snarkers. The seven known Groups (as of 2017) are the Cougar Canyon, Bendo, Krasny Sigorsk, Homeland, Grong Grong, Abominable Snowman, and Seventh Groups. The last is also known as “Mother Dita’s Little Kittens”.

  17. ktschwarz says

    But a Mrs Evans said they were first made in her home town, Grong Grong. She and her sister, Venus, nominated Ruby Neenish, a friend of their mother’s, as the originator. Mrs Evans said that in 1913, running short of cocoa and baking for an unexpected shower tea for her daughter, Ruby made do by icing her tarts with half-chocolate, half-white icing. From then on they were known as neenish tarts.

    That checks all the boxes of a common food origin legend: “The [home cook/chef/waiter/maitre d’], faced with an [unexpected/after hours] [event/customers/VIP guests] and with [ingredients running short/the chef absent], made do with what they had and invented a new recipe!” The same story formula can be found attached to nachos, Caesar salad, Reuben sandwiches, Buffalo wings, and mole sauce (invented by nuns at a convent when the bishop came visiting, according to a jar label). None of these has any remotely contemporaneous evidence; at best, the eponymous people/place really existed though the attached legends are embroidered — but poor Ruby Neenish has vanished into the mist.

    The revised entry linked by Language Hat is much briefer:

    While the origin for this term is unknown the spelling variants neinich, nenische, and nenish suggest that it may derive from a Germanic language. The earliest evidence takes the form neenish cake and dates to 1895. The early evidence also reveals that there have been various recipes for this tart over the years.

    Then they quote a recipe from 1902 in the Sydney Mail. The 1895 citation was mentioned by Rosey Billington in a comment above; that link doesn’t work anymore, but you can go to Trove and search for it: Sydney Evening News, 24 Dec. 1895, advertisement for foods available for Christmas including “Nenish [sic, one e] Cakes, 2s 6d doz”. There are also “Othellos” and “Desdemonas” at the same price.

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