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The Twelve Thousand Vínartertas of Christmas


By Rob Olason


Over the previous twelve days before Christmas in 2023, a conversation exploded over a topic every Western Icelander has a personal experience with: vínarterta.


In years gone by this conversation would have been conducted during the after-service coffee hour in the community’s Lutheran Church social hall, and much the same in Unitarian after-service gatherings.



The debate could also turn up in print whenever a local Icelandic club included a vínarterta recipe in the club newsletter. It could spill over into the letters to the editor on the pages of the Lögberg-Heimskringla, as correspondents went to great lengths describing the proper components of the perfect vínarterta.


Today that conversation plays out across the North American continent—in real time—and has reached the shores of Iceland on its way to also include voices from across the globe.


No longer limited to Sunday morning coffee hours, or strongly argued letters, the conversation has expanded to reach everyone, everywhere, all at once.


Thousands conversing, even more thousands listening in, and thousands of perfect vínartertas described, be they seven-layered or three-layered, round or square, prune filling or rhubarb, with or without cardamom, maybe with a splash of spirits, maybe covered in icing, or not.


This conversation is the present-day installment of a conversation that has continued across two centuries in North America, has been passed down from one amma to the next generation’s amma, as each Western Icelandic family re-embraces the meaning of vínarterta in their lives.


Arden Jackson, professional vínarterta maker for many a Western Icelander, recently described the real meaning of vínarterta in the simplest, yet most profound phrase:


“Vínarterta is Love.”


When I first heard Arden proclaim this about vínarterta, I was confused. I had thought vínarterta was merely a dessert of cake and prune. One that appeared by magic (maybe via local huldafólk?) whenever Western Icelanders gathered.



As Arden elaborated on this description of vínarterta, teasing out the deepest meaning of this three-word phrase, I slowly started to understand. I began to see my amma’s hands expertly kneading the dough, dipping a finger into the pot of simmering prunes for a taste test. Then, carefully assembling the alternating layers of cake and fruit, conjuring up anew an object that brought her closer to her own mother.


And to her mother’s mother, whom she had never met, ocean and time barriers too immense to straddle. Her connection to that part of her heritage was known to her only through the stories she heard as a child. And through the presence of this new vínarterta she just completed.


Amma, like many other ammas across North America, made her vínartertas Christmas after Christmas, through the decades, until she no longer could. Somewhere along the way, her daughters, including mom, took over remaking the vínarterta. After witnessing this creative event, year after year, I now see this Yuletide task as an act of remembrance.


Remembrance of family members no longer here, remembrance of past Yuletides, remembrance of the Iceland left behind.


Each year, the annual appearance of a new vínarterta, was like having all those ammas, and all those lang ammas, stretching back through the years, still present in our lives; their love shared with us as we tasted their simple cake that embodied so many memories of family, of a land left, and of love passed down through the ages.


During the last few years, I have tried to continue the tradition with my own less-than-perfect renditions. I like to believe that they are getting better, but I know my path on this journey has just begun.  



Thanks to Arden Jackson for her succinct description of what a vínarterta really is. I now know why I, joining with so many other Western Icelanders, continue to create this symbol of enduring love.

 


 


Part of the impetus for exploring the meaning of vínarterta was inspired by a simple question I posed to Icelandic Roots members on the Icelandic Roots Membership page on Facebook. I posted a photo of a vínarterta and, perhaps inspired by Arden Jackson's three-word definition of vínarterta, I asked a simple four-word question:


“What is this stuff?”


I gathered many responses (nine pages worth) and learned a great deal more about our relationship with this simple dessert. There is not enough room to post every statement, but I will share several wonderful comments that range from advice on “how to make one” to some funny stories, along with some deeply heartfelt observations. If you are looking for tips on how to make a vínarterta, what follows is an opportunity to learn from some very accomplished vínarterta makers. And to also hear how this humble dessert has played a huge role in the lives of generations of Western Icelanders.


And of course, at the end of the discussion, we finally reveal the one true recipe for the perfect vínarterta. (Spoiler alert: It’s always the vínarterta Amma made.)


So go grab another cup of coffee and a slice of the perfect vínarterta. We’ll wait till you get back to start the conversation.


Rob: What was your experience with this food growing up? Good? Bad? Conflicted?

Kathy: Always a good experience. In fact, it's always been my birthday cake since my birthday is at Christmas.

PA:  It was a Christmas delicacy. I now have to make it because my brother will make a fuss if I don’t have a chunk ready for him.

Melissa: Fantastic experience and memories!!

Ruth: Growing up my only memories of vínarterta were I didn’t like it at all, prunes were like huge raisins and I didn’t eat raisins.

Terri: Always a good experience!

Viv: Deliciousness right out of the freezer, my Auntie Halla made one for us every Xmas, I make it every year and have hooked non-Icelanders to it!

Lois: We've always had vínarterta in our family and I love it. We make it for Christmas and are teaching our children to make it because my kids and grandkids all like it.

Karen: Grew up eating vínarterta, mostly at Christmas but also at other celebrations. I loved it!!! 💕 Has been the choice of wedding cake at relative's weddings. Love the taste ... my Mum and numerous aunts made it .. seven round layers ....prune filling ... cardamom flavouring .. no icing.

Nancy: I've never had it but I want to try it!

Beverly: Okay I am the one who did not like vínarterta growing up. I remember my mom making it and people loving it. I believe it had six or seven layers and the filling was prune. There was also an almond type icing which I think was the part I did not like. I have ordered some so I can give it a try as an adult and see if my opinion has changed. Kids are weird. Lol!

Patty: Beverly, I hope you enjoy it🤞😊

Beverly: Patty, Thanks. I hope so too.

Shaune: I have always enjoyed vínarterta. It was always a part of Christmas, especially visiting the Icelandic side of the family. My mother did make it likely for my dad. Mom was non-Icelandic, but was raised in the Elfros district in Saskatchewan, a prominent Icelandic settlement area in the Vatnabyggd (Quill Lakes). Growing up I had no idea I was surrounded by so many Icelanders! I just couldn't figure out why none of the Jonassons there were related to us, because all the Clarks were!! (Clark was my mother's maiden name.)

 

Rob: Do you like eating it? Do you associate it with certain times of year? 

Susan: My Amma, mom and now I make it in November. It's a Christmas thing.

PA: I’d eat it any time of year but it’s really a Christmas thing.

Kathy: I eat it anytime it is available at events, but it is most often tied with Christmas and our Icelandic celebrations.

Melissa: Love it. As a child, it is mostly associated with Christmas but as an adult; because I make it now, I can and do have it throughout the year.

Terri: Love it! It’s part of Christmas and Gimli Íslendingadagurinn.


Rob: Have you ever made it? If so, do you enjoy making it, or do you not?

Connie: I make it every other year…7 layers; taught by my Aunt Krissy Eyolfson in Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada and my mother, Anna Evans, Southern California. Love the prune filling and I actually use an excellent recipe I found in a magazine years ago. I made it for my daughter’s wedding in 2019 and last year for Christmas.

PA: I never feel that mine is as good as my mom’s, but it’s up to me to make it. I should teach my kids so they can take over.

Shaune: I do enjoy vínarterta, almost more after the holidays than before, probably because there is always an abundance of other goodies. I am not a huge lover of sweets, so the vínarterta is the perfect treat with a cup of tea. Also, it lasts only because with just the two of us here, I get what's left all to myself after the Christmas company departs.

For me, it is not Christmas without it. I love it then, but it is served when there is a family gathering. My son and his family love it and when I go to Regina, I take him one frozen. He squirrels it away, but some of it is always enjoyed together, usually as our dessert. I made it most years in the past, but these last almost twenty years, it is an annual event. I started making it when I had a young family and lived in Saskatchewan; it is what we had at Christmas. When I moved to Ontario almost 30 years ago, I didn't make it for quite a few years, but started again about fifteen years ago. It's done every year now.

Making vínarterta is a long process. It can be arduous, so I have to be in the right mindset.

Patty: I always make 3 before mid-December so I can gift 1 to my sister for her birthday, 1/2 each for my girls and 1 for me (although when I worked I would most often cut up half to share with staff along with other Christmas goodies.

Melissa: I make it a few times a year. I enjoy making. I like thinking about all the kitchens it’s been made in and the people who have enjoyed nibbling it.

Terri: Yes, I make it. It’s a satisfying experience and I am always proud of myself for doing it.

Ruth: I love eating it now as an adult, and of course it’s pretty much Christmas but we can have it whenever we have company for coffee or going to one of our Icelandic events. I make it every year, it’s for the main fundraiser for the Icelander of Victoria Icelandic club. Every year I make about 50 little 4 inch rounds, I absolutely love making them I’ve got quite an assembly line system when I make them. It’s hard to have people bake with me, they don’t know the system and slow me down. I weigh each cookie piece before patting them out on tartlet inserts, then each scoop of prunes is done with a cookie scoop so each cake is pretty much the same weight when finished.

Kathy: I make one or 2 every year and share with those that don’t make any.


Rob: When was the last time you ate it?

Alfreda: We had some was last July, I had a small chunk left over from Christmas and shared it with company from Norway and Red Deer, AB. Still tasted wonderful.

Terri: Last Christmas, unless you count the vínarterta cookie I had from the batch I made this week.

Melissa: Last time I ate some was earlier this year, probably in the spring.

PA: I last had it Christmas 2022.

Shaune: I just had some yesterday. I made it a week ago and after it steeped for about four days, I froze most of it but for a small portion to taste. I tasted it last week to see how my recipe turned out. It's different most years.

 

The first bite of vínarterta is always special to me; memories of family and Christmases past flood back to my mind. It is to be savoured and enjoyed without interruption! 

Kathy: I ate some today.  I cleaned my freezer and found some from last Christmas. Delicious.

Ruth: Last week. Lol

 

Rob: Four layers? Seven layers? Nine layers?

Susan: 7 layers, prune filling. Sets on counter for a couple of days before going into the freezer.

Lois: Round cake, 7 layers, prune filling, no icing.

Melissa: Always seven layers!!!!

Viv: 7 layers.

Patty: I love 7-layer, light cinnamon spiced prune vínarterta.

Terri: 7 layers all the way.

PA: Six. My mom had six pans to make the cookies. I still have them and still make six cookie layers.

Alfreda: I do not make it but 5 layers is what I am used too. We have it every year as my daughter-in-law makes it and even makes her own vanilla as well. It is simply delicious.

Ruth: Only 7 layers. Honestly, I broke the rule once when I finished baking and was one cookie layer short, so I made a rebellious 6 layer and we ate it that night!

Shaune: I always do seven layers in a round shape. And, always uniced. I've never had an iced vínarterta and I don't think I would like it. To me, an iced cake is not the tradition that I know.  My one sister always makes six layers according to her recipe. My other sister has started icing her cake. I don't know which she likes better. We all live so far apart that I don't get to taste their vínarterta at Christmas.

Kathy: 6 or 7 layers--I don't have a requirement --just so it looks about right--round, unfrosted!


Rob: What is the best filling?

Kathy: Any filling is good as a sweet, but it is not really ‘terta unless it is prune filled. And fresh ground cardamom--the more the better.

PA: Prune with cardamom

Melissa: Best filling is prune.

Viv: Traditional prune filling. Other variations are sacrilege.

Ruth: Prunes with almond extract sugar and cardamom powder in it too.

Terri: I’m a traditional prune filling person. When I suggested anything else, my family was horrified. (I’m still contemplating a rhubarb experiment.)

Shaune: I've always done the prune filling, but I am very curious about apricot or rhubarb. They might be nicer for a summer vínarterta, (lighter in flavour?) or even a vínarterta wedding cake.

Connie: When I was on a cruise tour in Iceland, we had some…one person guessed the filling was chocolate!



Rob: Icing? No Icing?

Susan: Icing is optional, my husband likes it to have icing.

Melissa: No icing!!!

Patty:  I grew up without icing but my in laws always had pink icing at Christmas and white icing for Easter. Pink icing has been the tradition in our house.

 

Rob: Is a vínarterta round or square?

Melissa: Round.

Ruth: I have a question for everyone. Round cakes, how do you cut them? Traditionally my aunties and Amma would slice a row then cut into diamond-shaped cuts. And of course, layer them on the plate to see all the white and black layers.

Terri: Round all the way! Trimming the edges is a bonus treat!

Karen: Ruth, with a round ‘terta, sliced and as you said, placed on a plate to see all the yummy white/black layers!

PA: Ruth slice the round cake into sheets and then cut into bars with the icing topper!

  

Rob: Whose recipe do you use? (Psst: Have you modified the recipe?)

Patty: My recipe is a combo of my mom's and a recipe in our local personal care home’s pioneer cookbook.

Susan: I still use my Amma's recipe, I may modify it a bit, but not often. Was our wedding cake.

Terri: Susan, my sister and I used it for our wedding cakes too!

PA: It’s my grandmother’s recipe that was probably tweaked by my mom. My grandmother used to have recipe cards with bullet points: “Mix flour and baking powder…” My mom added more detail.

Melissa: My langamma’s recipe. Haven’t modified it except for the size of the cookie. If I make two batches of the cookie part, and make smaller circles, I can make three cakes. It’s a win-win!! More is always good!

Patty: I always make hálfmonur cookies for my daughter as it’s her favorite way to eat vínarterta.

Viv: I use mum's recipe.

Karen: Recipe was handed down from my Lang Amma. Didn't start making it until my Mum died in 2013. Took a few times to perfect it!😁 My one daughter wants me to make it more often and every year at Christmas I have to make one additional ‘terta for my cousin Darcy. Last time we had it was Christmas 2022 ... so tomorrow I am making the layers and later in the week pönnukökur production will start! Haven't made any adjustments to the ‘terta recipe my Mum had, even though details were sparce. My aunt assisted with some general comments on how long to cook the layers at at what temperature... as this ínformation was missing in the recipe card!🤣 Must always taste test the warm ground prune filling to ensure cardamom flavouring is good, just like I did when I was a kid!😋🥰🇮🇸

Kathy: I’ve modified a recipe I have used for years.

Terri: For regular vínarterta I use my mom’s recipe. I found my gluten free version online and have modified it over the years.

Ruth: I used Hulda’s recipe in the Riverton Hnausa Lutheran cookbook, of course with alterations, my Amma used milk not water, and I never use cinnamon, always substitute cardamom and put both almond extract and cardamom in both the cookie and the filling.

Shaune: I started out baking my mother's recipe. I don't know where she got it from. I found the amounts weren't helpful especially as a younger baker (‘add flour until you have a stiff dough’). My layers weren't as light as they could have been, so I guess I did have a stiff dough. It was also hard to work with and didn't make it enjoyable.


My sisters and I all started making vínarterta with Mom's recipe, but I know now that we all do a different recipe. One sister, makes six layers, while Mom and I always made seven. I was never that thrilled with the recipe originally. When I first came to the Toronto area, I belonged to the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto, and they had sent out printed newsletters at the time. One edition had a list of Christmas recipes. Yay!  A club with a vínarterta recipe, which was actually from the Leif Eirikson Club of Calgary. So, their recipe was square in shape and I forgot how many layers.


I was always exposed to and ate from a round cake. The earlier recipes' instructions were round. For me it was round only. To make the round layers, I learned by watching wax paper being cut to fit the bottom of a round cake pan and the dough was rolled to fit that shape. It was a demanding process. Then, the round dough was placed on the upside-down bottom of the cake pan and placed in the oven. Normally only two layers were cooked at a time for about 10-12 minutes, until just barely golden on the edges. Convection ovens make it much easier and cake layers are cooked much faster.  Now, I buy precut round shapes, but I still roll my dough onto that shape after I weigh it out to get an even thickness for each layer. It is still an arduous process, but all in all, it is truly a labour of love and a nod to my Icelandic heritage, even if it is more a North American thing now.

 

These past few years, I like a less sweet vínarterta and have reviewed no less than six different recipes (who'd have thought there'd be so many variations??). I have revised it and experimented somewhat, but I have to admit, this year is likely my best. My husband is not a huge fan, but commented the other day that he quite liked this year's version. I still need to cut the sugar a bit more. So, this one's the keeper for me!


Rob: Finally, what is your strongest memory about vínarterta?

Lois: My memories are watching my Mother and Amma spread the filling, and my Dad who was British savoring the first piece. I use my Amma's recipe, but it likely came from a previous generation.


PA: Being allowed to gush around in the cooked prune mixture to remove all the pits. A second memory: I had no idea that every Icelander believes they have the one perfect way to make a vínarterta. Ours must be round, have six cookie layers, and be covered with almond buttercream icing. If I presented the family with a nekked vínarterta, I would be told to go back and do it right.

Patty: I first thought my vínarterta memories have been all good but there has been some conflicting times and thoughts- do I break tradition this year and add cardamom? 😅 such a challenge and tradition usually wins out. Then I have to go visit and find the cardamom kind too!

Melissa: Strongest memory…so many!!! Coming home from school and smelling the simmering prune filling. Being sent downstairs to fetch the tightly wrapped cake. Sitting with family, laughing, chatting and nibbling on vínarterta. Taking one to Iceland and eating it while traveling around the island.

Ruth: My strongest memory is all my aunties made them but especially my Amma making them, with 3 minutes before someone pulling into the driveway for kaffi Amma would have vínarterta, Cala lilies and kleinur on the table.

Terri: My strongest memory is of course from childhood when we spent our summers in Gimli with Amma. I was sitting in the kitchen with her, eating the leftover prune filling when my aunt came from next door looking for a little bit more to finish off her vínarterta, just as I was licking the spoon clean. I was 4 or 5 years old.

Karen: Must always taste test the warm ground prune filling to ensure cardamom flavouring is good, just like I did when I was a kid!😋🥰

Kathy: My memories include removing the pits out of several pounds of prunes each year and grinding the filling and making hálfmonur cookies out of any leftover dough and filling --or even making several pans of the cookies. They were time-consuming to make but fun to have on a plate.

Shaune: Vínarterta and Christmas. That combination takes me back to visiting my dad's family in Wynyard, SK. The house was small and was quite full when we all got together. My Aunt Gudrun always had vínarterta. I think now of all the work and with that crowd, a vínarterta would disappear in mere minutes. To me, vínarterta is the taste of Christmas. Add rúllupylsa, and Christmas is complete.


A few years ago, pre-covid when we used to host a big Christmas open house for our staff and friends, I would serve vínarterta. One of the ladies came in. She had barely said hello when her eyes locked onto the vínarterta on the table. She went straight for a piece and was surprised to see it there. She is of Icelandic descent and, like me, savoured that first piece of vínarterta because she hadn't had any for years. The next year, she and her husband came over to learn how to make vínarterta. It was a wonderful experience. I am so glad we shared that moment.


Thanks for asking these questions I now realize how much vínarterta has been a part of my life. And the memories that writing this brought back has made me feel very nostalgic, a bit sad knowing those days will never happen again, and yet feeling so blessed because those days did happen. Time passes.


We have to cherish the good times with our families and carry on with making new memories together.


 

 

And lastly, the perfect vínarterta is…


…the one you make from amma’s recipe, of course.


And if you no longer have a copy of amma’s recipe, you can start making your perfect vínarterta by trying one of the recipes in our article “Wanna Make a Vínarterta?” and make it your own!

 





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