Let us eat cake

4 February 2010 | This 'n' that

A national favourite. Photo: Ville Koistinen

Here at Books from Finland central we’re celebrating, with the one Finnish literary anniversary that involves its own dedicated cake.

The fifth of February marks the birthday of the poet J.L. Runeberg (1804–1877)  – writer, among many other things, of the Finnish national anthem (actually unofficial, as there’s no mention of such a thing in the legislation), which he wrote in Swedish, Vårt land (in Finnish, Maamme).

Many of his poems inspired composers, and the songs became popular among ordinary people, both in Swedish and in Finnish. Two volumes of patriotic praise of the heroes of the Finland’s war 1808–09, Fänrik Ståls sägner (‘The tales of Ensign Stål’), were published in 1848 and in 1860; both were best-sellers, and as a result of their success Runeberg began to be called ‘the national poet of Finland’.

Runeberg’s birthday is celebrated among the literary community by the award of the annual Runeberg prize for fiction: jurors gather at the poet’s home (click the words ‘Astu sisään’, Come in, and see the pictures – sorry, text in Finnish only) in the picturesque town of Porvoo, about 50 km east of Helsinki eastwards, on his birthday to announce the winner.

Everyone else celebrates by the consumption of the delicious ‘Runeberg’s cakes’, which are available in the shops only in the dark days between new year and the beginning of February.

Tradition says that the recipe was invented by Mrs Fredrika Runeberg – heroic housewife, mother of seven, and a writer of some note herself – and that the sweet-toothed poet enjoyed them for breakfast, with a glass of sweet liqueur. But in truth these cylindrical cakes were first baked by a Porvoo innkeeper and confectioner, Lars Henrik Astenius, in the 1840s, and given Runeberg’s name when they became a favourite of the poet. Ekberg’s café in Helsinki (still in business, and a favourite of ours) began to sell ‘Runeberg’s tarts’ as early as 1856.

Fredrika’s recipe book. Photo: SLS

Fredrika’s own recipe book includes a recipe entitled ‘Runeberg’s cake’, a kind of shortcake rather different from the tart we know – which actually isn’t a tart either, but more like a spiced cake.

For those who can’t get along to Ekberg’s, here’s our favourite recipe:
100g margarine (or butter)
1 dl caster sugar
1 egg
1 dl flour
1 dl breadcrumbs or crushed bisquits
1/2 dl ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
1 drop bitter almond oil*
To decorate, raspberry jam and icing:
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp water
2-3 dl icing sugar
Makes 12.

Cream the margarine and the sugar. Add the egg, beating well. Season the mixture with the drop of bitter almond oil. Mix the remaining dry ingredients together and add them to the dough; mix well. Divide the dough into 12 muffin cases (as you probably don’t have those cylindrical tins at hand) or a non-stick muffin pan and cook the cakes at 200C for about 10 minutes. Allow to cool. (If you like your cakes moist, pour spoonfuls of a mixture of water and amaretto liqueur or rum over them; in the original recipe, it’s water and arrack liqueur – probably available only in Sweden and Finland.) Mix the icing ingredients, make a circle of icing on the top of each cake, with a dollop of raspberry jam in the centre. Enjoy. No need to sing the national anthem.

*) The bitter almond contains traces of prussic acid; the toxicity is destroyed by heat, but the sale of unrefined bitter almonds is prohibited in the United States, for example. Fifty unprocessed bitter almonds can be lethal. Refined, they can be used for almond extract and almond-flavored liqueurs. In Finland, bitter almond oil is sold in pharmacies; in this recipe it can be replaced by a teaspoonful of amaretto liqueur.

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