There are some who cook for comfort, revisiting family recipes whenever they get the chance. These are the people who shriek if you sneak a bit of cinnamon into the chili pot (even though it tastes better that way). There are others who cook in order to become better acquainted with places they haven't had the chance to visit yet, their fridges stocked with fish sauce, hot peppers, and funky cheeses. I wanted to do a little of both -- to honour my family history in making a cake I'd never had a chance to try, now a culinary emblem for a place I've never visited. The place in question isn't what some would consider particularly exotic; it's Gimli, Manitoba, north of Winnipeg.

Why, you might ask, did I want to take a culinary journey to this little town on the prairie? My family history runs deep in what many consider a flyover province. On my mother's side, my grandfather was Icelandic-Canadian, with grandparents who were part of the exodus from Iceland, then a struggling Danish colony, in the 1870s. My grandfather on my father's side was Icelandic without the hyphen; he was born in Kópavogur, a fishing town outside of Reykjavík.

If I had to succinctly compare the two places, I'd say Iceland has hipster cachet, vodka, volcanoes, and Bjork whereas in the midst of a brutal Montreal winter, we point to the national forecast and say "Well, at least we're not in Winnipeg." However, there's one sweet reason for me to make a recipe from Manitoba. One of my grandfathers grew up eating a prune-filled layer cake called vínarterta; the other, as far as I know, never heard of it. It seems that vínarterta has an exalted status in Gimli and neighbouring Winnipeg, where "western Icelanders" put down roots. Yet the cousins they left behind in Iceland itself don't have the same attachment to the cake, though they do make a similar cake called randalín, which is often made with rhubarb filling. I have tried treats from all over the world; squeaky Japanese mochi; buttery Breton kouign-amann; pasteis de nata made by Portuguese migrants; gulab jamun as a finish to an Indian supper. Yet I'd never tried vínarterta, a dessert which comes from my own heritage, so I decided to try my hand at it for the Historical Cooking Project.

The first step was finding a recipe. Repeated needling of my mother got nowhere -- she remembers her grandmother's vínarterta lovingly (and was more than willing to add suggestions, such as cooking the prunes in rum), but didn't have a recipe to offer. I was lucky to find historian Laurie K. Bertram's website, in which she provides a 1949 vínarterta recipe from McCall's magazine which describes it as "Iceland's Christmas cake." I was a little late for Christmas, but right on time for Þorrablot (pronounce the þ like a "th"), the Icelandic midwinter festival. While a Þorrablot spread in Iceland is more likely to have squares of putrid shark rather than prune cake, I felt sure that a Canadian Þorrablot table would include vínarterta.

I only ended up buying 1.6 pounds of dried prunes, but was confident they'd plump up sufficiently in cooking. Also, I don't tend to keep prunes around, and couldn't imagine what I'd do with the rest of the third bag if I'd had to buy more than the recipe called for!

The recipe said I need to cook the prunes slowly for 45 minutes or until the prunes could be pierced easily with a fork - but that was possible after ten minutes of cooking over medium heat. I cooked them longer so that the liquid would be more pruney, but it seems clear that processing of dried fruits has significantly evolved since 1949. The skins were bursting, and the prunes had swelled into little cushions:

I drained the prunes, conserving all of the prune juice, as the recipe insisted. Instead of chopping the prunes with scissors or putting them through a food mill, though, as they were SO soft, I grabbed the potato masher to make them into a jammy paste. I then added a cup of sugar, some cardamom (I didn't have cardamom pods, but the prunes are so thick that the fact that I used powdered cardamom was imperceptible) and more of the prune liquid. That step was much easier than expected. I turned to the dough, which came together fairly easily, though I needed to add more milk than the recipe called for to make it hold together properly. I was struck by how strongly it smelled of vanilla!  I stuck it in the fridge until it had firmed up a bit. Then, I started rolling it out, a job which took my whole kitchen island. My roommate's partner sat at the kitchen table, now used to my historical cooking experiments. As I rolled and re-rolled the dough, I did need to add more water to help it stick together, then more flour to keep it from sticking to the counter, the rolling pan, and me! I cut a square out of parchment paper, using the cake pan as a guide, so that each of the seven squares of cake would be even. The recipe suggested that I bake the squares of dough on the top of an inverted cake pan.

I would recommend doing this -- these squares cooked more evenly than those I cooked on a baking sheet. I even had enough dough left over to make two mini-vínarterta, which would come in handy later.

The squares of dough cooled quickly, so I spread them with the prune filling and stacked them on top of one another.

I plopped the cake into the pan and covered it with tinfoil, then a heavy book, to let it age on the counter a couple of days. This step may seem unnecessary, but I would not recommend skipping it; the layers of dough softened from the moisture from the filling. The cake also held up fairly well in a suitcase to get to my mother's place in Ontario. She thought the cake was great, and, more important to me, very similar to what she remembered. I didn't take the time to photograph the cake at her apartment, but when I got back to Montreal, I found a mini-vínarterta, which I served to my housemates with extra filling. (Take note: the mini cake pictured has only four layers, while, from what I've read, it's important for the vínarterta to have seven).

Remember how worried I was that I didn't have enough prunes? I had about half the prune filling left over. I should have put more in the cake itself, but any leftover filling is, I have found, especially good mixed with yogurt.

Trying the cake myself, I was surprised at how familiar it tasted. I realized that, while I hadn't grown up eating vínarterta, I had occasionally eaten another prune-filled dessert: hamantaschen.

Hamantaschen are three-cornered cookies made to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. I don't have any Jewish ancestry that I know of, but my mother worked for a while in a bakery owned by Jewish friends of ours. While I went to Catholic school and Protestant churches as an awkward ten and eleven-year-old, I brought sandwiches on challah and preferred tiny rugelach to inflated cinnamon buns. While the prune-filled hamantaschen were never my favourite  (I always ate the cherry-filled ones first) the taste made me realize how complex my own food culture is. I am a woman of Icelandic, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh descent who has lived in the United States and Canada, but my cultural heritage isn't reflected very much in my food habits. I don't eat haggis or dried cod, and the two seasonings I avoid as much as possible are fresh dill and caraway seeds, both of which are used all the time in Nordic cuisine. I've never quite understood the appeal of Guinness, and I can't even think of a traditional Welsh dish. Yet, growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C, Philadelphia, and Toronto, I had tried versions of Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Jamaican, and Cambodian food before I ever attended an Icelandic Þorrablot feast. Like the vínarterta which has disappeared from the Icelandic culinary tradition, migration changes foods, adapting them to local tastes and available ingredients: the expense of refined wheat flour alone would have made this cake a special-occasion dish for Icelanders in the late 19th century. The Icelanders who moved to the Manitoba prairie to farm wheat during the same period, though, would have had an ample supply of flour to perfect their vínarterta recipes.

I may not be that well acquainted with the food traditions of my ancestors, but I do know how to make great guacamole, tomato sauce, and tagine, none of which my relatives in Gimli and Kópavogur would have eaten a hundred years ago. Now, I can add vínaterta to my repertoire. Maybe, if I get around to it before Purim, I'll try my hand at making hamantaschen, a food from my own childhood. After all, I still have some prune filling to use up!

UPDATE, 22 December 2014:
I made another vinarterta last week, replacing some of the wheat flour with almond flour in the batter (perhaps about 1/3 cup) and some red wine to the prune filling (instead of vanilla). The almond flavour didn't really come out in the cake, but the red wine was a delicious change. The hardest bit about making this cake, I think, is to make sure that the filling is evenly spread among all the layers - I had a bit of an oozy mess around the edges!


  1. Elizabeth Driver featured a recipe for Vinarterta in Culinary Landmarks, from a 1929 Winnipeg cookbook. It's actually been on my "to make" list for a while now, so I was pleased to see this post!


  2. Thanks for sharing! I like the idea of including almond meal in the cake batter...I will have to give this recipe a try, too!

  3. Gimli is a great town! Friends of mine would drive from Winnipeg to Gimli just to buy Vinatertas on special occasions. That or to go to the Islendingadagurinn (Islandic Festival - www.icelandicfestival.com). Definately worth checking it out!

    Got job Kathleen, looks delish!

    1. thanks Emili! Someday I will go to Manitoba on a vinarterta-tasting expedition :)


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