Who was Johan Ludvig Runeberg and what is Runeberg Torte?
The 5th of January is a national flag day in Finland which celebrates Runeberg’s Birthday. Why am I writing about this? Well there is something yummy that is made available for this celebration that involves baking. Bakeries and patisseries around Finland, roughly not long after New Year start to produce and sell Runeberg Torte, the sales of which culminate on the 5th of February, after which they disappear again until the following year.
I thought it would be fun to delve into the history of the torte and to Who was Johan Ludvig Runeberg? Current younger generations of Finns are perfectly aware of Runeberg Torte and that they are in season from the beginning of the new year until the 5th of February but often not much more…..
This is what I discovered
Johan Ludvig Runeberg was a Finnish poet & author in the 19th Century (1804-1877) who had a significant role in the shaping of Finnish culture. One of his most popular works was: The Tales of Ensign Stål
I do remember reading them as a child and absolutely loving them. What I didn’t realise, and I feel like egg on my face, is that he was also the wordsmith of the Finnish National Anthem. Apparently I’m not the only one guilty of this, particularly where younger generations are concerned – something I discovered whilst looking into this subject, makes me feel slightly better, mind you – only slightly!
The 5th of February in Finland is Runeberg’s Day – a national flag day whereby flags are hoisted up flag poles all around the country in his honour, this date commemorates his birthday. The Finns started to celebrate this from his 50th birthday onwards, whilst he was still alive – he was regarded as a National Treasure.
But how did the Runeberg Torte come about?
Today there are many variations of Runeberg Torte in the sense that they come in all forms, shapes and sizes and strictly speaking not quite how they originally started. Curiously, this torte has had all sorts of adaptations. Surfing the net you will find recipes of all kinds of different formats for Runeberg Torte: cakes; tarts; etc. The ingredients tend to be similar but the format will vary.
The story behind them originates from Runeberg’s partiality to a sweet tooth and his wife’s skills in baking. (Frederika Charlotta Runeberg was also an author in her own right). The popular belief is that Frederika Runeberg rustled up a sweet pastry for her husband from ingredients she had on hand in her pantry cupboard when he one day expressed a craving for something sweet to her. Definitely a romantic concept bound to appeal to the popular masses. However, according to other sources, this particular pastry was originally created by a pastry chef called Lars Henrik Astenius, who practiced his craft in Porvoo around 1840s where Frederika would have purchased his creations.
During the preparation and research for the bicentennial celebrations of Runeberg Day in 2004, Frederika Runeberg’s Housekeeping Journal was discovered concealed in between other books. A typical journal of the period, where the wife would have recorded all advice and instructions starting from cooking, baking, preserving to how to make soap, polish furniture, perhaps even home-made cough medicine. What a gem of a find for a food historian, I say! In this recipe collection, there are also the instructions on how to make Runeberg Torte. This recipe was based on the creation of Lars Henrik Astenius. Apparently the ingredients in Frederika’s version are pretty much the same as those of Astenius, except her instructions how to make them do differ and are more unorthodox to how Astenius would have made them. Astenius would have made them as pastries on a baking tray, whereas, Frederika’s version are made in a cylindrical mould. One school of thought for this is that commercial baking powder was not available then, and she would have used the mould to keep shape and attain an even bake.
According to other sources, it is believed that the pastries originate from Venice and its Cafe culture in the 18th Century and that they appeared in Finland around the early 19th Century via Swiss pastry chefs. Today, Runeberg Torte are available around the year in various places around Finland but their popularity definitely peaks during the period after new year in the build up for the celebration of Runeberg’s birthday February 5th. It is believed that Cafe Ekberg in Helsinki was the first to advertise and sell Runeberg Torte in Helsinki December 1865. Rather clever marketing on their part to tie in the Torte with Runeberg’s name and his birthday and to make it seasonal, a bit like Hot Cross Buns.
Runeberg Torte are actually a good way of using up spicy biscuits that may have been left over from the Christmas festivities. I like using piparkakku, which are ginger & cinnamon biscuits predominantly baked in Finland during Christmas. I usually make these for Christmas.
The basic ingredients for the torte are:
- almond meal – I like to used crushed blanched almonds because they give a more interesting texture
- spicy biscuit crumbs
- arrack (almond) or rum
- glazed with a white icing ring
- topped with jam or a raspberry
The traditional mould used is cylindrical (diameter approx. 5cm) but cupcakes will work too, which is what I used when I made the ones pictured above because that was all I had. I’ve since realised that small tins, cleaned, with lids and bottoms removed would do the trick as well. I find dariole moulds are far too big for this purpose and such delicacies are best enjoyed in smaller portions!
Here is my version, if you would like to give it a go:
Makes 6 Torte
- 100 g butter
- 1 dl sugar
- 1 egg
- 50 g almonds (crushed)
- 1 dl piparkakku crumbs
- 1 1/2 dl plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp of ground cardamom
- 1 dl double cream
- rum or arrack (almond) essence
- Topping: icing sugar water mixture and raspberry jam with raspberry on top (latter optional but it does look pretty if they are on hand)
- Heat up the oven to 225 celsius degrees.
- Beat the butter and sugar until creamy.
- Add egg to the butter sugar mixture and whisk more.
- Mix plain flour, baking powder and ground cardamom together in a bowl.
- Add double cream, crushed almonds, biscuit crumbs and flour mixture to the butter sugar egg mixture and mix well.
- Put the dough into a cupcake or cylindrical mould and bake in the oven for 15-20min.
- When the torte are cool, add circle of white icing and in the middle of it place the raspberry heart and raspberry on top.
On a final note, I think these torte would be great for Valentines Day as well, don’t you think?