Feb 052016


Today is the birthday (1804) of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, a Finnish-Swedish poet, and the national poet of Finland. He wrote in the Swedish language. His birthday is commemorated in Finland as Runeberg Day, and is a true foodie anniversary because the centerpiece of the celebration is the locally famous Runeberg Torte (Finnish: Runebergintorttu; Swedish: Runebergstårta).

Runeberg studied first in the cities of Vaasa and Oulu, later on at the Imperial Academy of Turku, where he befriended Johan Vilhelm Snellman and Zacharias Topelius. His studies concentrated mainly on the classical languages of Latin and Greek. From 1837 onwards he lived in Porvoo, where he served as professor of Latin literature in the Gymnasium of Porvoo. He was married to his second cousin Fredrika Runeberg, née Tengström, with whom he had eight children and who wrote poems and novels, too. His eldest son was the sculptor Walter Runeberg.


Many of his poems deal with life in rural Finland. The best known of these is Bonden Paavo, (Farmer Paavo, Saarijärven Paavo in Finnish), about a smallholding peasant farmer in the poor parish of Saarijärvi and his determination, “sisu” (guts) and unwavering faith in providence in the face of a harsh climate and years of bad harvests. Three times, a frosty night destroys his crops. Every time, he mixes double the amount of bark into his bark bread to stave off starvation and works ever harder to dry off marsh into dryer land that would not be as exposed to the night frost. After the fourth year, Paavo finally gets a rich crop. As his wife exults, thanks God and tells Paavo to enjoy bread made entirely out of grain, Paavo instructs his wife to mix bark into the grain once more, because their neighbor’s crop has been lost in a frost and he gives half of his crop to the needy neighbor.

Runeberg’s most famous work is Fänrik Ståls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål, Vänrikki Stoolin tarinat in Finnish) written between 1848 and 1860. It is considered the greatest Finnish epic poem outside the native Kalevala tradition and contains tales of the Finnish War of 1808–09 with Russia. In the war, Sweden lost Finland, which became a Grand Duchy in the Russian empire. The poem, which is composed episodically, emphasizes the common humanity of all sides in the conflict, while principally lauding the heroism of the Finns. The first poem “Vårt land” (Our Land, Maamme in Finnish) became the Finnish National Anthem.


Runeberg torte is a Finnish pastry flavored with almonds and arrack* (or rum). Raspberry jam inside a sugar ring is commonly placed on top of the tart. Runeberg, according to legend, ate the torte with punsch* at every breakfast. Runeberg tortes are typically eaten only in Finland and are generally available in stores from the beginning of January to Runeberg’s birthday on February 5. Popular legend says that Runeberg’s wife, Fredrika Runeberg, created the torte. Her recipe book from the 1850s has the torte’s recipe, which is believed to be a variation of an earlier recipe by confectioner Lars Astenius from Porvoo. The moulds should be deeper than the usual Western cupcake or muffin pan.

Runeberg torte


200 g butter
120 g sugar
2 eggs
130 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
80 g crushed sweet plain biscuits (cookies)
80 g ground almonds
12  mL single cream

To moisten

25 mL water
120 g sugar
2 -3 tbsp arrack liqueur (or 2 -3 tbsp rum)


raspberry jam (or raspberry marmalade)


120 g icing sugar
2 tsp lemon juice


Preheat the oven to 200° C.

Mix the almonds and biscuit crumbs.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer. Add one egg at a time to the butter and sugar, and beat the mixture well after each egg. Combine the flour and baking powder and stir into the mixture. Add the, bread crumbs and almonds, then the cardamom, and finally the cream. Fold everything together gently.

Grease 24 deep muffin moulds and divide the mix between them (with room left for the cakes to rise). Press a hollow in the top of top of each cake with a finger tip. Fill each hollow with raspberry jam. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes.

Boil the water and dissolve the sugar in it. Turn off the heat and add the arrack. Moisten the baked muffins with the liquid. While the muffins are still hot, add another half a teaspoonful of jam to the middle. Let the muffins cool.

Combine the icing sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl. Use a piping tube to pipe the icing in a circle around the jam.

*Note: [on arrack and punsch]


Arrack, also spelt arak in Indonesian, is a distilled alcoholic drink typically produced in South Asia and Southeast Asia, made from either the fermented sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain (e.g. red rice) or fruit, depending upon the country of origin. The clear distillate may be blended, aged in wooden barrels, or repeatedly distilled and filtered depending upon the taste and color objectives of the manufacturer. Arrack is not to be confused with arak, an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage traditionally drunk in Eastern Mediterranean and North African countries.


Punsch is a traditional liqueur in Sweden and Finland (known as punssi in Finnish), produced from arrack, other spirits (often brandy or rum), sugar and water. Arrack, first imported to Sweden from Java in 1733, is the base ingredient of punsch. Punsch usually has 25% alcohol by volume (ABV) and 30% sugar.

Originally, Swedish/Finnish punsch was a variant of punch, which became a popular drink all over Europe in the 18th century, having been introduced to Britain from India in the late 17th century. The word punch/punsch is a loanword from Sanskrit पञ्च (pañc), meaning “five”, as punch was originally made with five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices. The English spelling of the word was in Sweden and Germany adapted to local spelling rules, thus becoming punsch. In Sweden, regular punch is also served, but in order to differentiate it from the liqueur known as punsch, it is known as punschbål (punch bowl) or simply bål (bowl).