Solo Flying On Annual Cake Day

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summary: annual Cake Day; revised vinarterta recipe to add weights; staying at home again; Amaretto to the rescue; What? No Scrabble??

I made this cake on 15 November. Because I have WAY too much time on my hands now, it has taken me this long to write the report….

Vinarterta 2020

This is the first year in ages that my sister and I have not arranged to have way too much fun with our annual Scrabble Clout and Cake Making Day. It’s all due to being under quasi house-arrest again because of COVID-19 lockdowns. (Shouldn’t they change the name to COVID-19-20??) :stomp: :stomp:

Of course, we’re still allowed outside, and we’re still allowed to go to the grocery store. But are in a “red zone” and have been advised by the government to “Limit close contact to your household (the people you live with) and stay at least 2 metres apart from everyone else and not visit any other household or allow visitors in [our] home. If [we] live alone, [we] can have close contact with only one other household“.

At first, when my sister and I agreed that we would not be making cake together this year, I announced via email to everyone that we just wouldn’t make the cake at all.

  • My Reasoning:
    » Rationing has been imposed.
    » I would have to make the cake by myself and have no Scrabble game as a reward for my labours.
    » With the continued COVID-19 gathering restrictions, we will have nobody to serve the cake to.
    » Half of our family think my ground almond substitution for almond extract is wrong.
    » I can’t stand almond extract and…
    “I won’t!” said Mary.
    “I’ll make you,” said Colin. “They shall drag you in.”
    “Shall they, Mr. Rajah!” said Mary fiercely. […] “I’m going,” she said. “And I won’t come back!”

There it is then: The real reason for me refusing to make Vinarterta this year is the idea and memory of the revolting stench of almond extract.

And then T reminded me that we had said we would try using Amaretto in place of the vile extract. He was so excited about the prospect that when we went to the liquor store to get wine, along with the Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons, he slipped a bottle of Amaretto onto the cashier’s counter.

So. Yeah. (heeheehee – I love starting and ending a sentence with “So” followed by “Yeah”) This year, I ended up making vinarterta after all. In November! On the 15th! In plenty of time for it to cure properly for Christmas.

The most exciting change this year was using Amaretto. I confess that I’m not the biggest fan of Amaretto (even though I went through a phase in my misspent youth when I loved “Abracadabra” shooters (3 parts Irish cream, 1 part Amaretto, 2 parts brandy – or was it 3 parts Irish cream, 1 part Amaretto, 2 parts Cointreau??? It’s been so long since I had one that I can’t remember….)


Here is how the conversation went when we opened the Amaretto (What’s with this stupid giant square cap?) just before making the cake:
he: Let’s taste it! Maybe it will be go well with the cake after dinner.
me: [sighing] I can’t open it. The cap is too big for my hand!
he: Give it to me. [teeth grinding] Whaaa??? [heavy sighing] …finally!!
me: Hmmm. [sniffing] It sure does smell like almond. [sipping gingerly]
he: [sniffing then tasting] Whoa! …well, I sure hope it works in the cake because you now have years’ and years’ worth of Amaretto for vinarterta.

When I got over the fact that I had to make the cake ALL by myself, things went pretty smoothly.

  1. I remembered to put the butter into the oven, with only the light turned on, the night before; the butter was beautifully soft for creaming the sugar.
  2. I remembered to get out all the ingredients. (I forgot to buy cream again; I used milk instead, so happy that the precedent had already been set.)
  3. I remembered to put the eggs into the oven with only the light turned on first thing in the morning.
  4. I remembered to check for prune pits.
  5. I remembered to put in the vanilla and the cinnamon.
  6. I remembered to set the timer.
  7. I remembered that we have a new oven so the timing might be different.
  8. I remembered to have lunch; (it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as our lunches in previous years).
  9. I finished the cake in plenty of time to leave the kitchen free for T to make excellent dinner.

Following my sister P’s lead when she made Mum’s Christmas cake this year, I weighed the vinarterta ingredients as I measured them so we would have a slightly better idea of exactly how much to use.

The [vinarterta] recipe is filled with cautionary notes: stir constantly; don’t forget the vanilla; cut each prune to check for pits. This year, […] even though each prune had been cut in half, we still heard that unmistakable rattle of pit when we began to puree the prunes. And so began of the painstaking search for stray prune pit(s).
-me, blog from OUR kitchen | pre-pitted prunes, eh?, 16 December 2007

I was also very careful to follow my sister B’s instruction to “cut each prune into quarters”. Almost right away, I spotted a portion of pit, and spent the rest of the time searching madly for the rest of the pit.

Checking Machine Pitted Prunes

And because I can’t stand the noise of the food processor, I decided to use our hand-crank food mill for the prunes. Wow. It’s WAY easier to get out, use and clean and put away. There’s no wrestling with various other things on the cookbook shelf. It simply has to be lifted from a hook on the wall. AND. If there were any errant prune pits, it would easily catch them, without chopping them up further. (I never did find the rest of that pit….)

Cooked Prunes in the Food Mill
Prunes Pureed in the Food Mill

Here is the revised – again! – recipe, using Amaretto instead of almond extract for the cake layers.

Vínarterta, revised
based on Mum’s recipe for Vinarterta clipped from one of the Winnipeg daily newspapers in the 1950s

makes one 5-layered 9-inch round cake; make at least 4 weeks in advance of eating

If you plan to make two cakes at a time, it is preferable to use TWO bowls for making the layers. ie: doubling the recipe in one bowl makes it extremely difficult to mix in the dry ingredients. (Don’t ask how I know this….) The prune filling, however, can safely be doubled/tripled in one pot. Just make sure the pot is large enough.

Prune Filling

  • 454 grams (1 lb) pitted prunes, quartered
  • cold water
  • 160 grams (¾ cup) sugar
  • all of the cooking liquid
  • 7 grams (1 Tbsp) ground cinnamon
  • 15 grams (1 Tbsp) pure vanilla extract

5 Cake Layers

  • wax paper
  • 2 cake tins (9-inch round)
  • 227 grams (1 cup) good quality salted butter, softened
  • 300 grams (1½ cups) sugar Mum’s recipe calls for “fruit sugar (super fine)” – it is increasingly difficult to find….
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 500 grams (4 cups sifted) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2.5 grams (1 tsp) double acting baking powder
  • 5 grams (1 tsp ground) cardamom seed, finely ground
  • 45 grams (3 Tbsp) milk Mum’s recipe calls for “cream” – it is such a small amount that it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s just milk….
  • 15 grams (1 Tbsp) Amaretto Mum’s recipe calls for “almond extract” – I loathe the smell and taste of almond extract….
  1. Filling:
    1. Wash the prunes by swirling them around in warm water – to remove any oils that have been added by the packaging company. Drain them well, then cut each prune in quarters to check for pits – even if they are pitted prunes. Actually, especially if they are pitted prunes. Machine pitters operated by robots can be careless…. Do NOT be tempted to leave this step out.
    2. Put prunes into a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer 10-15 minutes (until tender). Watch for burning!
    3. Drain and reserve liquid.
    4. Put prunes through a food mill and purée.
    5. Return prunes to the pot. Add sugar, cooking liquid and cinnamon. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly until thick. Again, watch for burning! (Trust me, I know….) When the prunes resemble molten lava and allow you to see the bottom of the pot for a longer bit of time after a stir, they’re probably ready. 5 minutes?? 10 minutes?? You want the mixture to be the consistency of thick, loose (but not too loose) jam.
    6. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Cool.
  2. Layers:
    1. Using the outside of one of the cake tins, trace 9 inch circle onto wax paper. Cut out 5 circles. Set aside.
    2. Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in eggs one at a time.
    3. Into a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and cardamom. (If you have purchased whole cardamom pods, remove the outer husk and grind the seeds in a coffee spice grinder. (Run a few grains of dry rice through to clean your spice grinder first.) Green cardamom pods are preferable to white or brown.)
    4. Add a small amount of the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture.
    5. Mix in cream (or milk) and Amaretto. Mix in rest of flour. (Let your hands be your friends.)
    6. Divide the dough into 5 equal parts. A scale is helpful… each ball will be around 240 grams.
    7. Put a wax paper round into each of the two 9 inch cake tins. Press one ball each onto the wax papered 9 inch cake tins. Make sure they are even and flat. the layer should be around 6 millimeters thick. Bake 2 layers at a time at 350F (do NOT try to do more than 2! The cooking time goes way off and leads to disaster) until each is very delicate gold on the edge. (15-20 minutes)
    8. As soon as the layers come out of the oven, overturn the pans onto a footed wire rack to release the layers. Let each layer cool separately. Wait a brief moment until the pans cool before repeating the process with wax paper rounds and pressing in each new dough ball.
  3. Assembly:
    1. Put cooled layers together with prune filling (did you remember to put in the vanilla?) that is evenly distributed in four parts. There is no prune filling on top layer.
    2. Make sure the cake is completely cool, before wrapping it tightly in plastic, then again in foil, and into a cake tin. Store in a cooler part of the kitchen (NOT the fridge) for three to eight weeks before serving. (The cake can be frozen but it will not cure in the freezer.)
  4. Serving: When the cake is served, cut it into small rectangles like Christmas cake. The cream coloured layers contrasting with the prune filling are quite stunning on the serving plate.


Weights: As an experiment, I used our cup and spoon measures, but weighed the ingredients. What I discovered was fascinating.

  • Sugar: When measuring the sugar for the prune filling, I used our quarter cup measure 3 times, each time trying to get the same amount in the cup. I came up with 52 grams, 53 grams, and 54 grams, for a total of 159 grams. When I weighed 1.5 cups for the layers, I had a total of 311 grams. Gourmet Sleuth says that 3/4 cup of sugar equals 160 grams, and that 1.5 cups equals 300 grams.
  • Spices: When measuring the spices, I came up with 7.2 grams cinnamon, 4.2 grams cardamom (I had to guess about how much to use, measuring the whole seeds in the teaspoon before pulverizing them in our not-coffee grinder – because we only have whole green cardamom pods), and 2.4 grams baking powder. Interestingly, Gourmet Sleuth says that 1 Tbsp of cinnamon equals 7.8 grams, 1 tsp ground cardamom equals 2 grams, and 1 tsp baking powder equals 4.6 grams!
    Cardamom […] When you’re asked to crack a whole pod with the flat side of a knife, gently press down while rocking the knife back and forth for a few seconds over the pod to break it open. You want to crack the hull, not smash it. […] Look for whole green cardamom pods, which have more fragrance than white, black, or brown cardamom (white cardamom is merely bleached green cardamom) […] Don’t buy hulled cardamom seeds, since the longer the seeds are out of their pods, the less flavorful they’ll be.
    – James Oseland, Cradle of Flavor, p.49
  • Flour: When measuring the flour in our half cup measure, I came up with 133 grams, 134 grams, 131 grams, and 131 grams for a total of 530 grams. Gourmet Sleuth says that 4 cups unbleached all purpose flour equals 500 grams….

Sugar: Mum’s recipe calls for using “fruit sugar” (aka “berry sugar” or “super fine sugar”) for the cake layers. We used to be able to find it easily on the supermarket shelves. Fruit sugar appears to have disappeared entirely – even before the somewhat bizarre COVID-19 shortages like toilet paper, flour, yeast, and dried pasta. For some years now, we have been substituting with regular old granulated sugar and have noticed zero difference in the results.

Baking powder: Next time, instead of using commercial baking powder, we will use a mixture of cream of tartar and baking soda.
In the back of Edna Lewis’s immortal classic The Taste of Country Cooking is a word of advice about baking powder. Mrs. Lewis feels that double-activing baking powder, the kind now generally available, leaves a bitter aftertaste, and he is right. She suggests making your own with 2 parts cream of tartar to 1 part baking soda. Since I read this piece of advice, I have never looked back.
– Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking, p.57,58
Baking powder does not last forever! It has a shelf live of 6 to 12 months and it is sensitive to moisture so it is best kept in a cool and dry place. You can test if your baking powder is still active and ready for your baking by pouring some hot water over 1/2 a teaspoon of the powder. If it immediately and enthusiastically starts to bubble you are good to go!
– Ed & Marieke, Weekend Bakery | Make your own baking powder & self raising flour

We tested this substitution with baking powder biscuits. Wow! They were deliciously lofty. Like Laurie Colwin, we’re never going to buy baking powder again!

Dividing the Filling: If we were smart, we would weigh the filling and divide it evenly into 4. But we are not smart. We simply eyeball the amount to go between each layer. Therefore, some layers have more prune filling; some have less.

Filling Ingredients: T vied for dividing the cake in half this year and using apricot jam between the layers of one half of the cake. That may well be really good. But I nixed it. Some traditions are meant to be unbroken…. Because Mum always used prunes. Always. And as far as I know, Aunt Selina always used prunes. Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir said that her mother used to make two kinds of jam to go between the layers: either rhubarb or prune. But it’s not as if rhubarb is that easy to come by here in November….
[P]rune filling [is] probably what most Icelandic housewives would have used at the time, but it would just have been called “jam”. No fruits were grown in Iceland (and few grow here now), and there are only a couple of species of edible wild berries, so jam-making was more or less unknown. Prunes could be bought fairly cheaply, however, so they were much used instead. When I was growing up on a farm in Northern Iceland in the 1960s, my mother only made two types of “jam” – rhubarb jam (rhubarb became widespread at the beginning of the century) and prune jam, mostly used as a filling for crescents. Her vínarterta was filled with rhubarb jam – still is, since she makes it a few times each year, at least. Only we call it “sultuterta” (jam cake).
– Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, in email message, 25 September 2000

Wax paper vs. parchment paper: I have only once used parchment paper, for just 2 out of 10 of the layers one year when my sister B and I were making 2 cakes. Because parchment slips easily out of a pan, both layers broke in half. I now ALWAYS use wax paper. We get the vegetable wax kind rather than the generic paraffin wax paper: the vegetable wax paper’s expensive, in comparison to the usual kind of wax paper, but it works – and, the layers don’t tend to break when being turned out of the pans! It also doesn’t lend any off-flavours when it is baked.

Oven Temperature: Our new oven runs a little less hot than our old one (we would have had to bake the layers at 375F for 11-12 minutes in our old oven). I suspect that every home oven is notoriously inaccurate. Andrew Whitley concurs:
Most domestic ovens, whether gas, electric, fan assisted or solid fuel, will bake bread quite adequately. But, not surprisingly, some are better than others. […] [T]he temperature in the oven may have to fall by as much as 30°C before the thermostat calls for renewed heat, so the item being baked is subjected to a constantly oscillating temperature. […] The knobs and dials on domestic ovens are notoriously unreliable. Even where they indicate a precipe temperature rather than a rough guide or a regulo number, you should regard the setting as approximate. […] [A]ll that is really required is to know what setting gives a cool, moderate or hot oven. […] [I]f you understand roughly what heat a loaf requires (e.g. pretty hot for a big, wet, rye sourdough, moderate for an enriched sweet bread), you won’t go far wrong
– Andrew Whitley, Bread Matters, Chapter three: Taking Control


Some People Like to Make Square Vinartertas….

There were many many many text messages and a subsequent long phone conversation between me and my sister P a couple of weeks ago! (It’s all her fault that I have now revised – again – the Vinarterta recipe.)

Solo Flying On Annual Cake Day

My Sister P's Square Vinarterta with Prune Jam

I don’t have any almond extract so I used ground almonds. We looked at buying Amaretto but for the half tablespoon we decided not to get the $17 bottle. I’m really going to be radical because I’m going to make 6 layers and cut the 6th layer into four pieces so I can put my own plum jam in the layers.
my sister P, text message in late November

P being P – the girl whose high school home-ec teacher declared that “there will be NO guesswork in our kitchen!” – made two cakes, both of them square. She used Mum’s drop-bottom 4-inch square Christmas cake pan. One of her cakes is filled with {gleeps!!} apricot jam… (hey!! that’s not the same as plum jam?!) sprinkled with cardamom. Because she suddenly realized, as she was asking me frantically exactly how thick the layers should be, that she forgot to add the cardamom to her cake layer dough.


My Sister P's Tiny Vinarterta with Apricot Jam


Specialties that are disappearing back home still thrive in “New Iceland”
At the New Iceland Heritage Museum, I stumble upon a young woman telling the sales clerk about her trouble finding vínarterta in Iceland. […] [T]his multi-layered prune jam and cardamom cake is Icelandic, but much easier to find in parts of Canada: Every amma (grandma) in the region bakes vínarterta, and the museum gift shop sells a version from the excellent Sugar Me Cookie bakery in town. […] New Iceland’s food culture feels trapped in amber, stuck at a point in time closer to their volcanic emigration than to modern Iceland.
According to Laurie Bertram, a history professor at the University of Toronto and author of the upcoming book The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans, this disconnect is because the New Icelanders became something of a lost tribe. […] One chapter of Bertram’s book is devoted to vínarterta, which was the subject of her doctoral thesis. The cake was at the height of fashion, she says, in 1875, when the first wave of immigrants arrived to Lake Winnipeg […], and that’s one reason why it’s such an important marker of culture in New Iceland. “For them, vínarterta, was a symbol of success, prosperity, and fashionability. It’s a survivor of that Iceland. That’s why it’s really taboo to, for example, try chocolate instead of prunes. That’s not what that’s for. It’s symbolic for having not changed.”
– Karen Burshtein, Gastro Obscura | The Canadian Towns That Icelanders Visit for a Taste of Their Past, 19 July 2019


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4 responses to “Solo Flying On Annual Cake Day

  1. barbara

    Wow! You made it! I can’t wait to hear whether the amaretto worked.

    It was December 9 when you posted this. Isn’t “almost a month” plenty of time to have a taste?

    edit 11 December 2020, 07:37: Ha. It’s true that “almost a month” is plenty of time, Barbara. And you may have noticed from the photo that there is some missing. We sent a small amount via Canada Post to vinarterta-starving westerners (we sure hope it survives the long journey in the Postal system!!). We tasted a little then (I had to trim some edges…): It. Was. Delicious. It tastes exactly as I remember it tasting when I was a child. There is no vile almond extract stink, just a gentle almond(ish) scent from the Amaretto. I think you’re going to be pleased when you taste your portion of the cake. And. Maybe we’ll be able to throw away the little bottle of almond extract because we’ll never have to use it again. (We have LOTS of Amaretto that will be available to us for our Cake Days and Scrabble Fests for years to come.) – Elizabeth

  2. barbara

    Excellent! I can’t wait to try it! (Me, I like to break the rule about ending too many sentences with exclamation marks!)

    edit 17 December 2020, 17:30: Just one exclamation mark per sentence, Barbara?!! How sedate!!! – Elizabeth

  3. Kelly (A Messy Kitchen)

    Shall they, Mr. Rajah! They shall drag me in but they can’t make me talk! … They were a nice, agreeable pair as they glared at each other… I can hear this being read out loud and I thought it was Claire Bloom, but as that recording is available on Youtube, now I know it is not and I can’t figure out who the narrator is. I need to find my old cassettes! Claire Bloom did narrate some of my Narnia tapes…
    I need to make vinarterta again but it is too late for this year. Maybe I just need to get a leg up on next year!
    (And sorry, I do love almond extract.)

    edit 17 December 2020, 17:31: I can’t remember now if I first read “The Secret Garden” myself, or if Mum read it out loud to us. I do know that I read it several times. I had no notion that anyone famous might read it aloud!
    Yes, you DO need to make vinarterta, Kelly. You should be in time to serve it for 12th Night. I highly recommend dumping out that awful almond extract and using Amaretto instead. It is just a little more subtle and doesn’t reek. (heh. You are wrong – or at least highly mistaken – to love almond extract… :stomp: :stomp:)
    – Elizabeth

    1. Kelly (A Messy Kitchen)

      Lol, it was very popular the last time I made it. Nicely rich and not overly sweet. And I recall forgetting it at Christmas and having to bring it for Spring Break!!

      edit 18 December 2020, 19:04: Spring Break might be perfect. And who knows? Maybe by a miracle you’ll be able to serve it to a larger group than 5 people and you won’t have to wear masks by then! …fingers crossed! (Just don’t make the cake with almond extract. :lalala:


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