Icelandic Christmas Cake / Vínarterta – Recipe

I visited Reykjavik both this year and the last, and I have to admit I'll kind of miss is next year. I'll miss the people, the food (of course) and even the absolutely bonkers weather that rivals even Great British weather. In a nostalgic moment, I decided to make vínarterta (also known as 'randalín'): a many-layered chewy stack of buttery shortbread and sweet prune paste, traditionally eaten at special occasions because of the time and patience needed to make one.

Apparently the correct way to make a vínarterta can cause a heated argument amongst vínarterta fans. I've definitely fallen at the first hurdle: an authentic vínarterta is only supposed to have seven layers, whereas I was a little gung-ho about it and make eight. Sorry, vínarterta experts!

Also there's much debate on the types of spices used (always cardamom, but cinnamon and almond extract are hotly debated), and also how it's presented (ALWAYS or NEVER iced with buttercream). I decided to leave out the almond extract, because as much as I love it, I wanted to cardamom and a touch of cinnamon to be the star of the show. I also decided not to ice it, but only because I wanted to slice it up and serve it as a stack and I felt like squishy icing would get in the way. In short, I was lazy.

I couldn't for the life of me find store-bought ground cardamom, so I went to the trouble of splitting open a few green cardamom pods with my bare hands and grinding them down with a mortar and pestle, old school-style. On the bright side, the flavour is fresher this way.

Don't worry too much about getting absolutely even layers of shortbread: once the vínarterta goes soft and ready to slice and eat, you can trim the sides to make it look even, anyway. I literally just rolled each dough ball out, shaped them into roughly even squares by squashing the sides with the flat of a palette knife and baked them like that. Easy.

Really, the most difficult thing about this recipe is not eating it straight away: once you assemble it you wrap it up and leave it for a couple of days to mature. Trust me though, it's worth it: it becomes soft and chewy, and the flavours improve greatly for the wait.

Ready? Let's do this.

Ingredients for Filling:

1kg pitted prunes
300ml water
150ml dark spiced rum
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp vanilla
4 tbsp punsch (a Swedish spiced arrack liqueur – optional)

Ingredients for Shortbread Layers:

250g unsalted butter, softened
180g caster sugar
1 egg
500g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
Pinch of salt


1) To make the filling, pop everything apart form the vanilla and punsch into a large pan and simmer for 15 mins, or until the prunes are soft. Add the vanilla and punsch when done, and blitz with a hand blender. Transfer to a bowl, cover and leave to cool to room temperature.

2) Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment. Lightly brush the parchment with oil to stop the layers from sticking (or use non-stick magic lining like I do).

3) To make the shortbread dough, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, and beat in the egg, vanilla, salt and spices. Stir in the remaining ingredients with a wooden spoon, switching to kneading the dough with your hands when it gets too stiff to stir.

4) Divide the dough into seven (not eight) even balls. Roll one out fairly thinly to your chosen shape. (I just made rough squares, but you might want to cut around a homemade cardboard template or cake pan or something.)

5) Place the rolled dough on your prepared baking sheet and bake for about 12 mins, or until only just going brown at the edges (check at 10 mins: each oven is slightly different). Let it cool for five mins on the baking tray before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

6) Repeat until you have seven layers of shortbread.

7) Spread a thick layer of your prune filling on each layer, stacking them up firmly but carefully and leaving the bare. Wrap up well with clingfilm, store in a cool, dry place (not the fridge), and let the flavours melt and the shortbread soften for at least three days.

8) When you're ready to eat it, trim the sides so you have even edges. Then slice, serve and enjoy.

Have fun, and gleðileg jól!


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