Icelandic Baker Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail Sets Up Shop in Dover-Foxcroft

Vail’s Custom Cakes & Bakery is part of a trans-Atlantic culinary fusion happening in the small Piscataquis County town.

danishes from Vail’s Custom Cakes & Bakery
Danishes are well liked in Iceland too
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Alberto Lopez
From our August 2021 issue

Inside Vail’s Custom Cakes & Bakery, one wall is adorned with photos of Maine, another with shots of northern Iceland, where baker Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail grew up. Her mother snapped the latter set, and the pictures signify an unusual bit of trans-Atlantic culinary fusion happening in the small Piscataquis County town of Dover-Foxcroft. Consider the meat twist, which is not, as the name might suggest, a gnarled piece of jerky, but rather a staple Icelandic pastry of ham and cheese folded into a handheld bread that’s flecked with sesame and poppy seeds. Traditionally, bakers use a spreadable Icelandic cheese — “so salty it burns if you get it on your skin,” Oskarsdottir-Vail says. Because that cheese isn’t available here, she subs in cream cheese doctored up with garlic and salt for a similar, but less inflammatory, effect.

Baker Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail in the shop’s kitchen; Joel Vail is husband and helper.

Before immigrating, Oskarsdottir-Vail was a rising star on her home country’s baking scene — she was the first woman to win the coveted Cake of the Year award from the National Association of Master Bakers. Then, in 2016, she met Joel Vail online, and the two married the next year, settling in Vail’s native Dover-Foxcroft. Oskarsdottir-Vail got a job baking at the local Spruce Mill Farm & Kitchen, but when Spruce Mill closed its café earlier this year, she found herself out of work in a part of Maine that wasn’t brimming with opportunities. So in stepped her father-in-law, Charlie Vail, who decided to open the family’s own bakery in downtown Dover-Foxcroft, for Oskarsdottir-Vail to run.

Since then, she’s set a repertoire that ranges from fancy wedding cakes to humble kleinur, doughnut-like Icelandic snacks accented with lemon and cardamom — “Every proper grandma in Iceland makes kleinur,” she says. Much of what’s popular in Iceland is familiar here. Cinnamon rolls, for instance, cross cultures, although she does hers the Icelandic way, topping them with chocolate icing. Croissants are as common in Iceland as they are in the U.S., and Oskarsdottir-Vail makes both a plain and a pepperoni-stuffed version. She also bakes danishes, scones, cookies, a rotating cast of daily breads, and more.

Raspberry-frosted doughnuts; kleinur are a semi-sweet Icelandic fried dough.

One decidedly uncosmopolitan baked good is Maine’s official state treat, the whoopie pie. When Oskarsdottir-Vail first saw one, she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking at — possibly a screwy riff on a cupcake. “They’re not really known outside America,” she notes. Now, though, she has her own whoopie recipes, and she’s itching to put them up against the competition at this fall’s Maine Whoopie Pie Festival, which, coincidentally, is held every year in her new hometown.

Vail’s Custom Cakes & Bakery, 83 E. Main Street, Dover Foxcroft. 207-802-8063.

Down East Magazine, August 2021