Can you see a culture’s cravings in a recipe.
Can you see the symbol of Icelandic Culture in a single serving of Vinarterta?
The secret isn’t found in a recipe or a piece of cake.
Treasured food experiences that shape our cultural identity are not founded in recipes, ingredients or methods. Why and how a food caught on is puzzling.
I believe that a written recipe is only a generalized road map which will take you to varied destinations. The navigator baker’s know-how determines how the food touches all the senses and where loving guidance, inspiration and comfort are repeatedly baked right in.
The result can be incredibly gorgeous when created with care by an accomplished baker, and much appreciated regardless of the baker’st technical skill when the flavours come together just right. Especially if they align with a childhood memory.
In 1888 Elín Briem, who ran a homemaker school in Iceland, published the first Icelandic language cookbook ‘Kvennafræðarinn’ (The Woman’s Educator). It followed Þóra Andrea Nikólína Jónsdóttir’s Ný Matreiðslubók (New Cookbook) published in 1858, which also taught about more than cooking. These books captured Danish and Icelandic influences and defined the Icelandic ways of running a household.
Elín’s book sold thousands of copies in the first year and was very popular as Icelandic kitchens began to have stoves with ovens instead of open fires. As wheat was more available cookies and cakes became very popular at coffee time and for serving to guests. There was always fresh baking and pönnukökur Icelandic pancakes for company. Kvennafræðarinn is loaded with recipes for sweet things.
Take a look at how the Vinarterta recipe reveals itself in Elín’s Cookbook. It remains to this day a simple cake based on the adaptive reuse of already successful recipes making it practical and beautiful in its execution. The book also includes recipes for the dough based on the recipe for Jewish cookies, plum jam, vanilla extract and almond flavouring.
Translation from the Icelandic: Make with the same dough as Jewish cookies, and then cut it into 4 cookies with a plate and bake until light brown. When they are cold put some plum jam between.
I think it’s wonderful that Vinarterta has become a North American phenomenon. It’s delicious and is recognized as a refined and storied cake, decadent, not too sweet and packs a lot of unique flavour into a compact serving composed of readily available ingredients. Icing, of course, was a later incarnation when Icelanders in North America went crazy baking with easier access to an abundance of ingredients, ovens and refrigeration.
Vinarterta has become our culture’s ritual and craving. It has been a winner from the time of its invention in the Icelandic kitchens of the 1800s created an elegant rblend of flour, butter, sugar, eggs, stewed dried prune plums, and varying flavours of vanilla, almond, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. It seems that no one knows how it caught on to the extent that it has, however, the fact that it could be made without an oven and that it keeps well for an extraordinarily long time truly has much to do with it.
All-loving intelligence with certainty continues to seduce us with the layering of cookies and jam.
In the New Iceland kitchens, it made regular appearances at 4 o’clock coffee time throughout the year where there were always freshly baked cakes and cookies, not only at Christmas or Weddings. If it was left on the counter, it disappeared in paper-thin slices. No one could be blamed for loving it so much.
Sending lots and lots of love,