Many Midwesterners can identify with traditional European (and specifically Scandinavian) treats that have been passed down through generations. These traditional desserts include Norwegian Krumkake, Swedish pancakes, Finnish pinwheel cookies and French Crêpes. The lesser known, but strictly kept, tradition of Icelandic descendants is called vínarterta (vee-nar-tear-ta). In Icelandic, vínarterta means Viennese Torte, but since the English language doesn’t have accented I’s, the word vinarterta means Friend’s Cake.
A more common and modern European version of this traditional torte goes by the name of Randalín, which translates to ‘the striped lady’.
Most modern Icelanders are not familiar with what North American Icelanders know as vínarterta, but it is a recipe that has been traced back to the 1860s when prunes (the main filling of the torte) were a luxury.
Many Icelanders emigrated between the 1870s and the early 1900s due to a volcanic eruption. The descendants of those who left their country can now be found in much of Canada and in the northern parts of the midwestern states.
Now, vínarterta is “one of the most common markers of modern Icelandic North American identity”, according to Laurie K. Bertram, a woman who has published her doctoral dissertation on the origins of vínarterta. Bertram also explains that the strong “…dedication to preserving vínarterta in its original form illustrates that community members understand it as a powerful and culturally significant way of connecting to the Icelandic past, while re-asserting their Icelandic identity in the present.”
Like many other family traditions, the way an Icelander makes their vínarterta is nothing to be messed with.
Depending on the region of North America an Icelander is from, or just based on the recipe a family has grown up with, there can be many disputed variations on this traditional torte, no matter the subtlety.
The most commonly disputed aspects of this Icelandic delight can range from the amount of layers, to the filling and whether or not it should have icing.
Subtleties aside, the most essential aspects of this treat include thin cookie-like layers flavored with cardamom and vanilla with a prune filling.
My mom’s side of the family comes from Icelandic descent and we have never been extremely strict about the way we follow the recipe, though we’ve never really deviated from it besides adding a little extra cardamom or making a five layer versus a seven layer torte.
Making vínarterta is somewhat of a coming of age holiday tradition in my family and now, three generations partake in the making.
The reason it is partially a coming of age event is because of the skill that goes into the construction of the torte.
The cookie-like layers are very thin and require a steady hand to transfer them without breaking them. Spreading the prune filling is also a delicate process because it needs to be even in order for the layers to support each other.
Since I can remember, my family has been enjoying traditional vínarterta over the holiday season.
It has served as both a delicious treat and as something that brings the women of three generations together to share in the tradition and learn the delicate art.
- 1 cup shortening
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 6 cups flour
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. fresh ground cardamom
- 1 tsp. real vanilla
- Mix creamed & dry ingredients together. It should form a big, doughy ball.
- You can make this ahead of time. Works best to roll out when it's cold.
- 2 lbs. pitted prunes
- 1/2 cup sugar
- juice of 1/2 lemon or any fruit
- MORE cardamom!!!
Stew the prunes in water until they can be mashed easily or whipped in food processor. Makes a nice, thick paste to spread between layers of cookie.
Roll out cookies on the bottom side of a greased 9" round pan for the perfect shape!
Bake for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees. When cookies are cooled, spread prune mixture between layers. This recipe makes 10 big cookies, enough for 2, 5-layer cakes. Wrap in foil & plastic bag when assembled & store in cold place for a week before eating for best result! Cut into thin pieces. Keeps for 1-3 months in refrigerator.