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These are excerpts of e-correspondence I received from Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir (quoted with her permission)
From: Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir
Date: Fri, 15 Sep 2000
The name literally means "Vienna cake". We got the name (but perhaps not the recipe) from Denmark in the mid 19th century - many cakes and pastries were named for Vienna at that time, as Austrian and Hungarian bakers were first to use the very white, refined cake flour made by a new method. Danish pastries, for example, are called "wienerbrød" (Vienna bread) in Danish - the Icelandic name is "vínarbrauð".
The popularity of the cake probably stems partly from the fact that it could be baked without an oven and ovens for baking were extremely rare in Iceland until the turn of the century. So while this cake survived in the Icelandic communities in Canada and the US as more or less the only Icelandic cake they knew, it was more or less overshadowed in Iceland by the wealth of cakes that could be baked when ovens became common.
From: Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir
Subject: Re: vine terte recipe
Date: Sat, 16 Sep 2000 00:54:47 -0000
in the Icelandic communities, it is very popular at all kinds of feasts. And it has travelled widely - I got a recipe from Australia last year. That one was covered with a potato marzipan icing, which I was assured was absolutely delicious. Here, the modern (mostly factory-made) versions are never iced. The old-fashioned versions occasionally are but usually not. My mother still makes the cake but never ices it. And the cake she makes is a large 4-layer sheet cake, not a round cake.
From: Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir
Subject: Re: more on Winnipeg vínarterta recipe
Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2000 00:16:52 -0000
I´ve been looking into vínarterta history and it seems the cake is even older than I thought. I recently aquired a Danish cookbook that was extremely popular in the 19th century and was much used here (Iceland was a Danish colony at the time). This is the 6th edition, published in 1844, and it has a recipe for "Wienerkage", filled with jam (the recipe seems to suggest that a different type of jam should be used for each layer). There is another "Wienerkage" too but that one is filled with apple compote and covered with whipped cream. Maybe the term was originally used for all layered cakes.
John Ayto, in A Gourmet´s Guide, says: "... the so-called "Vienna flour", a type of high-grade white wheat flour much used in Britain during the second half of the nineteenth century which in fact came mainly from Hungary and Rumania. It was not employed only in bread, of course (indeed cakes made from it became known as Vienna cakes, first referred to by Eliza Acton in her Modern Cookery, 1845)... The First World War put a stop to the importation of the flour, and it never reappeared."
This old Danish recipe I have uses 1 lb washed butter, 1 lb flour, 1 lb sugar, 1 lb ground almonds, a few bitter almonds and some grated lemon zest. I´ve also found a "Wiener-Tærte" recipe in a Norwegian cookbook from the mid-19th century but that one is rather different.
Unfortunately I don´t have the two Icelandic cookbooks published in the 19th century at hand but the earliest one I have, published in 1906, has a recipe for "Vínarkaka"; it has 1 lb washed butter, 1 lb flour, 1 lb sugar, 10 sweet almonds and a few bitter, and chopped lemon peel (probably candied or dried, I don´t think fresh lemons were available here back then). The cake is filled with jam and it is suggested that you could colour each layer, for instance, red, brown, yellow ...
Although none of these recipes mentions the prune filling, that 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).
I only have the 1937 edition of the most popular Icelandic cookbook of the first half of the century but it has two recipes for vínarterta. One is rather like the old versions but has replaced part of the butter with eggs and milk, and hartshorn (ammonium carbonate) is used as a leavener. This one has a prune filling made of prunes cooked with sugar, cinnamon and cloves, but no vanilla. This is the recipe I´ve found that most resembles your recipe.
There are some English-language recipes for Vienna cake online but they seem to be for a chocolate layer cake. The only modern Danish recipe I´ve found is also for a cake of this type.
That´s as far as I´ve gotten yet in my research but I´m planning to go through a few Viennese pastry books soon and see if I come up with anything similar.
Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir is a food writer whose book Icelandic Food and Cookery was published by Hippocrene Books, Inc in 2001. It includes a vinarterta recipe that according to Ms. Rögnvaldardóttir "is an old Icelandic recipe that could be called the "ancestor" of [our] family recipe".
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ejm (aka llizard)
Toronto Ontario Canada