Any word with the suffix ‘terta’ is well known to those of you who have grown up in a household where there was someone of Icelandic ancestry influencing the home baking. Your mind’s eye immediately pictures a cake with layers. We all know what a vínarterta is. That very traditional Icelandic-North American layered torte with the prune filling. Also, there is that incredibly rich and delicious rjómaterta; the one with the several layers of cake, chocolate or fruit and mounds of whipped cream. This is what we have come to expect at an Icelandic themed special cake-and-coffee party. Birthdays, christening parties or other special events call for a special treat. In Iceland these special parties would very likely include a brauðterta as well.
What’s a brauðterta, you ask? My question is why is it we don’t see them at our Icelandic cultural themed parties in North America. Why has the tradition of serving a brauðterta not made the jump into our homes here in Canada or the United States where we are celebrating with other classic foods from Iceland?
Let’s introduce our readers to a brauðterta. For those of you who are not familiar, here are the basics. Brauð is the Icelandic word for bread. Buy or bake (if you are an expert culinary specialist) a loaf of bread. You will need to start with one of the big, square, sandwich-type of loaves, not a flat artisan loaf. It needs to be an unsliced loaf because you will be slicing it yourself. Begin by trimming the crusts, top and sides, so you have a neat rectangle. Slice your loaf as if you were slicing a cake to prepare it for a layered torte. Slice side to side, not up and down. A brauðterta usually has three internal layers so you will need to do three even slicings and end up with four rectangular pieces. If you are a baker, you are not necessarily restricted to a rectangular finished product. Bake a loaf of bread in a round cake pan and proceed as described herein.
Now for the fillings; there are multiple options for fillings, so use your imagination. Traditionally, Icelandic brauðterta has an egg salad layer, a smoked lamb (hangikjöt) layer and a shrimp salad layer. Alternately, a layer could include smoked salmon. There needs to be a variety of textures and colours. Brauðterta really has no hard and fast rules. You could for instance, use the same filling for all three layers. One quite common Icelandic option is to press a layer of green peas into the egg salad layer or cover a layer with thin cucumber slices. There is invariably lots of mayonnaise, crème fraîche or cream cheese involved. Living in Blaine or Brandon for example, there may not always be a convenient grocery store in your neighbourhood selling hangikjöt, so this is where your own brauðterta tradition may have to deviate to a chicken salad or ham.
Assemble your brauðterta with the bread base; your first choice of filling, second bread slice, and so on. Once the three fillings have been piled into the bread layers, you cannot think your brauðterta is a finished product. This masterpiece is not complete until it has been iced and decorated.
The finishing touches are only limited by your artistic talents. The basis of the so-called ‘frosting’ is mayonnaise. The whole terta is covered with a mayonnaise spread. Because mayo tends to yellow when exposed to the air, it loses its sparkling white appeal after a short while out on the serving table. A trick to maintaining the white appeal of the mayo is to mix in a bit of sour cream before spreading. This keeps the mayonnaise from oxidizing.
Brauðterta decoration is usually done by incorporating bits of what was used in the interior fillings. For example, if you have used a shrimp layer, the top of the brauðterta will feature a carefully placed pinwheel of shrimp and perhaps a few thin slices of lemon. Thin strips of ham can be arranged into swirls and vines. Very thin cucumber slices with quartered grapes can form very artistic flower-and-leaf arrangements. Pressing leaves of parsley or small sprigs of dill into the mayo on the sides of the brauðterta will give you an appealing focal point for your buffet table. Use your imagination. Presentation is the key component of the appeal of a brauðterta. Finally, to serve your brauðterta, slice as you would slice a loaf of bread and enjoy.