Icelandic Vinarterta Recipe – Icelandic Christmas Cake
“Children left unattended will receive a red bull and a puppy. But not a cute puppy – an ugly, hungry, mongrel one. Do not touch the fires. They are real and they are hot. If a tent is closed, it is closed for a reason – do not open it, as you may see a naked Viking. And trust me, this is something you do not want to see. If you have questions, please ask us, we are happy to answer them”.
On a recent family vacation to Manitoba, this was the welcome we received as we entered the gates of “Viking Village”, one of the highlights of Manitoba’s Icelandic Festival. Here, you can step back in time and witness many highly skilled re-enactors demonstrating the day to day lifestyle of the Vikings.
Of course my 11 year old niece begged us to leave her unattended. She really wants a puppy. And I guess she’s not that picky as to the breed. However, my poor brother flinched at the mental image of the naked Viking that flashed through his mind.
But it was too late, he claimed – this was something he could never ‘unsee’. Fortunately, we didn’t come upon any actual naked Vikings and we left with my niece, minus the ugly, mongrel puppy.
Icelandic culture has a long, rich history in Manitoba’s Interlake region. The Canadian province of Manitoba is located in central Canada, at the eastern end of the Canadian prairies.
In 2014, the Manitoba Icelandic festival ‘Islendingadagurinn’ commemorated 125 years of celebrating Icelandic history, culture, and its contribution to life in the province.
Icelandic Vinarterta, a traditional Iceland celebration cake since 1875, is also woven deep into the fibres of this culture. A culinary time capsule, this incredibly elegant and intricate 7 layered torte, a fragrant symphony of almond, vanilla and fruit filling, has been the belle of the ball at Icelandic Canadian Christmases, birthdays, weddings, special occasion celebrations, as well as dinner parties and even coffee time for well over a century. (See Icelandic vinarterta cake recipe below)
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History of the Icelandic Islendingadagurinn Festival
The festival itself, is known to be second oldest continuous ethnic festival in North America. The first Icelandic festival in North America was held in Milwaukee in 1874. The first Icelandic Festival in Manitoba took place in Winnipeg in 1890, but has been held in Gimli since 1932.
The town of Gimli, Manitoba, Norse for “home of the gods”, a haven for settlers who founded New Iceland on the shore of Lake Winnipeg in 1875, is still a welcoming harbor. Perched at the southwestern point of Lake Winnipeg, the largest of Manitoba’s lakes at 24,514-square-kilometre (9,465 sq mi), it is a mere 55 km (34 mi) drive from Manitoba’s capital, and largest city, Winnipeg.
Renowned for its beautiful and natural fresh water lakes and sandy beaches, Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg and Gimli are meccas for beach goers.
In addition to Viking Village, the festival hosts a FREE daily pancake breakfast, a Viking battle, live entertainment, vendors, fireworks, a midway, all culminating in a parade on the very last day.
And because the heart of Gimli is its waterfront, many of the festival activities take place on the beach. You will find a volleyball competition, sand castle building contest and lots of sunning, swimming and water fun.
As you stroll along the beach and the mural-covered seawall, you can marvel at the view of an inland ocean that stretches to the horizon.
Now on to my favorite part of any festival– the FOOD! Alongside the usual suspects, there is an entire kiosk dedicated to Icelandic Vinarterta, a favoutie of the Iceland desserts. And every imaginable flavor of Vinarterta, the famous Iceland cake, lives here – even Saskatoon berry.
Tips for making Icelandic Christmas Cake
However, since Icelandic Vinarterta, or Icelandic Christmas cake, is traditionally made with a prune filling, you will have fundamentalists of Icelandic food recipes shuddering at the mere mention of any modern incarnations of this traditional fare. So I decided to stick with the classic prune of this Iceland Christmas cake to honour vinarterta history.
But I must warn, the making of this cake is not for the faint of heart. If you are going to attempt this, I would recommend you are, at minimum, an experienced baker. It’s not that it’s “hard” to make, but the Icelandic prune cake is somewhat fussy and time consuming.
Although I was encouraged by my husband’s Aunt Norma (the sharer of this best of Icelandic recipes) to save myself some hassle and buy the prune paste for the filling, then simply add spice, I couldn’t find it. And good luck if you hope to locate it anywhere outside of Manitoba! I had no choice but to whip up a batch of prune paste from scratch. Again, the filling is not hard to make, just time consuming and a little finicky.
However, when I got to this point, I have to admit, I was a little confused. The directions actually ended here (photo below) and this was not the Icelandic Vinarterta traditional Christmas cake I knew and loved!
I had to ask Aunt Norma if this is how it was supposed to look. It did not look the way she made it. She replied to my Icelandic cake that “it wasn’t bad for my first time”, as she’s spent 40 years perfecting it!
Then the light bulb went off when she explained that you cut off the edges and make it into a square (photo above). Traditionally, the family eats the edges and the guests get the good part. Well, my family is pretty used to that system already!
But the fun does not end here! This cake needs another 3 full days to ‘cure’ before it is cut and eaten (for optimum deliciousness). And then it still needs to be iced with a recipe made from scratch! This is not a low maintenance cake and perhaps the most challenging of Icelandic desserts.
But I think it was worth every minute! This was a baking bucket list item for me, as I grew up in Winnipeg and have so many fond memories of eating Icelandic Vinarterta. Although mine doesn’t look quite as good as Aunt Norma’s (turns out I added a little too much prune)
*Note to self and reader: Don’t use ‘heaping’ tablespoons of prune paste. I don’t think it was too bad for my first time. Apparently, I need another 40 years to perfect it. Hopefully I’ll live that long! It certainly helps to have a tried and true family recipe on hand. That of which, I will now share with you.
So if you have some time (maybe about a week?!) on your hands or simply want a baking challenge, then this is the cake for you. If this is not your idea of fun, then why not add Manitoba’s Icelandic Festival to your travel agenda next year and have someone else bake the Icelandic Vinarterta for you?!
Happy travels, eating and maybe baking (for the super adventurous!)
Terri @Food Meanderings:
Terri is a competitive home cook and baker, recipe developer, food writer, and cake decorator. Her original and award winning recipes have been published in Taste of Home magazine, Saltscape Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens Family Circle Hometown Cooking Cookbook, The Old Farmer’s Almanac Readers’ Best Recipes 25th Anniversary Edition Cookbook, Safeway Destination Cheese Champions, among other publications and on several websites. She also contributes a monthly food & recipe column to The Rocky Ridge Royal Oak Community newsletter. She is a happily married mom of two that loves everything food. By day she works as a Project Manager in the health care field.
How to Make Icelandic Vinarterta
Icelandic Vinarterta Recipe
- 1 cup butter
- 11/4 cups white granulated sugar
- 3 Eggs
- 1/2 cup milk
- Dash of salt
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 31/2 cups flour sifted
- 11/4 tsp baking powder
- 2 pounds pitted prunes
- 2 cups water – water to cover
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Icing 1- shortening based icing recipe:
- 4 Tblsp shortening
- 3 cups of icing sugar
- 2 egg whites
- ½ tsp almond extract
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Cream butter and sugar.
- Add eggs one at a time beating well after each addition.
- Add dry ingredients alternately with milk.
- Add almond extract. Then add up to 2 cups more of sifted flour, but add cautiously. (I only used ½ cup more, but I live in a very dry climate)
- *Dough should not stick to hands.
- Divide dough into 14 pieces and roll out each piece separately.
- Cut each piece into a 7” in diameter round. Aunt Norma uses a pot lid with relatively sharp edges. Most pot sets have a lid this size. I used this and it worked well. It will be very thin.
- Bake rounds on a large cookie sheet covered with parchment paper for 10 minutes. You can do two rounds at one time in a regular oven. I was able to do all 7 for one cake at once in my convection oven
- Let the rounds to cool before handling.
- *If you end up using store-bought prune paste, you need 2 cups of prune paste for each cake. And a teaspoon of cardamom per each 2 cups.
- TIP: Use cornstarch when rolling dough out and on rolling pin (it will not make the dough tough)
- Combine prunes and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until prunes are tender, about 15 minutes
- Strain, reserving liquid. Coarsely chop prunes in a food processor, and return to saucepan with reserved liquid and the granulated sugar.
- Cook over medium heat until mixture is thick, about 15 minutes. Add vanilla,salt and cardamom.
- Refrigerate until slightly firm, about 30 minutes.
- Start with one round and top it with approx. 3 tablespoons of prune paste.* Do not use ‘heaping’ tablespoons, as I made the mistake of doing this– it’s too much prune. You should only go through 2 cups of paste for 1 cake.
- Add your next round. Again top with 3 tablespoons of paste. When you have added your 7th round, do not put prune paste on top of it.
- Put in a round tin or plastic container and let sit on counter for 3 days in order to cure. The prune paste will soften the rounds.
- Ice the cake with either of the icing recipes (below) after it has cured. Then serve or freeze immediately.
Shortening Based Icing (see Notes for alternative Butter Based Icing)
- Cream shortening and add ½ of sifted icing sugar and cream for 2 minutes.
- Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Add to creamed icing sugar/shortening mixture.
- Beat together again, then add almond extract.
- If too stiff, add water (a few drops). If too thin, add a little icing sugar.
- Eat and enjoy! Or freeze for future enjoyment!
Icing 2 - Buttercream icing recipe:
Ingredients: 1/4 cup butter (soft)
2 cups sifted icing sugar
2 Tbsp cream
1 tsp each almond and vanilla flavoring
Directions: Blend together the ingredients and spread on cake.
Other holiday recipes
This article was originally published in August, 2016 and updated October, 2022.