Danish is famous. It comes in many forms and with a lot of things that are copied but have no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.
In Denmark, Danish pastry is called wienerbrød, meaning “bread from Vienna.” That is the general term, but there are individual names for each particular kind. When you go to the baker in Denmark in the morning, there will be a variation of Danish — all sweet and never savory. We Danes do not do savory and Danish together.
Danish is mostly sold in the mornings. Many kinds will be sold out before afternoon, as bakers don’t make new ones because Danes eat different cakes in the afternoon. A Danish is really a morning pastry, just like the croissant in France. People tend to buy wienerbrød from the baker and not make them at home because it takes time, particularly to make the dough. Most Danes have one or two favorites they always eat, so when sent to the baker on weekend mornings it’s a big responsibility to get your family’s wishes right.
Eating Danish is part of Danish culture
Wienerbrød is really embedded in Danish culture and remains very popular. It’s not eaten every day; it’s mostly reserved for weekends or special occasions. At work, it’s common to have Friday breakfast together with colleagues, and wienerbrød is often part of that. Sometimes it is exchanged for a multigrain bun, for health reasons.
Excellent wienerbrød in Copenhagen:
I recommend you try to make wienerbrød yourself. The results are worth it. If you happen to travel to Copenhagen, below are a few of the best places to buy wienerbrød.
Visit Brød for the cinnamon bun called kanelsnegl.
Try Lagekagehuset, a bakery chain with an outlet in Copenhagen Airport, among other locations, for chokoladeboller, spandauer, frøsnapper and tebirkes.
Café Europa, located in central Copenhagen, has excellent cinnamon Danish, or kanelsnegl.
La Glace, which is a time capsule where you can get a sense of old Copenhagen and have morning coffee, makes terrific wienerbrød.
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Wienerbrød is similar to a croissant; it’s a yeast dough folded with butter three times. Some bakers use margarine because it’s easier to work with, and they claim it gives a better texture. I don’t agree. I like butter best.
It’s important to make Danish in a kitchen that is not too hot; otherwise the butter melts. With a basic dough you can make all the varieties of wienerbrød. The variation comes in the remonce, which is a mixture of butter, sugar, sometimes marzipan, custard, jam and different nuts and seeds.
Different types of wienerbrød have names like spandauer, tebirkes, frøsnapper, snegl, rosenbrød, tryksnegl and chocoladebolle. The baker who comes up with the idea for a particular type usually also gives it a name.
If served in the afternoon with coffee, the cake has different names and is bigger. The most common name would be wienerbrødsstang, where the last part of the word, –stang, means “long piece.” Borgermesterkrans is another variant: borgmester means “mayor,” and –krans means it has a circular shape. They are cut out and eaten in pieces with your fingers, so they’re very handy. Often they are part of a bigger cake selection, like cream cakes and butter cookies.
Many stories exist about how the wienerbrød started in Denmark. The stories probably all have some truth to them, but it is difficult to pinpoint who was the first to bake wienerbrød. The inspiration most likely came from Vienna. One of the stories goes that the tradition started in 1843 in Copenhagen by a local baker who had visited Vienna and learned how to make croissants. Knowing how the locals loved sugar, he added some remonce, that is the sweet paste made of sugar and butter. It was an instant success, and the pastry’s local name became wienerbrød after the origin of the recipe. It was sold from the baker’s bakery in central Copenhagen, and initially, only the originating baker had the right to sell wienerbrød. However, in 1850, the magistrate allowed five conditors (bakers that only bake cakes) to bake wienerbrød.
For the dough:
1 ounce fresh yeast
⅔ cup lukewarm water
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2⅓ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold butter, thinly sliced
For the filling:
1 vanilla bean
1 cup light cream
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For the icing (optional):
1½ cups confectioner’s sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
For the dough:
1. In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water.
2. Stir in the egg, superfine sugar and salt. Add the flour and stir until the dough comes together and leaves the edge of the bowl.
3. Turn the dough onto a floured counter and knead for five minutes, until it is shiny but not sticky.
4. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
5. Roll out the dough into a 20-inch square. Spread the thin slices of butter over the dough about 4 inches in from the edge, so the square of dough has a smaller square of butter on top.
6. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter to meet in the center, making a square package.
7. Carefully roll the dough into a 16-by-24-inch rectangle, making sure it doesn’t crack and the butter stays inside the dough package. Next you want to fold the dough so the butter becomes layered within it: Fold the bottom third of dough over the middle third and fold the top third down over that.
8. Roll out the dough again and fold the same way.
9. Put the dough in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, then repeat the rolling and folding process three times, remembering to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes each time.
For the filling:
1. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife.
2. Put the vanilla seeds and cream in a pan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and superfine sugar together until the mixture is pale and fluffy, then stir in the cornstarch.
3. Pour a little bit of the hot cream into the egg mixture to temper it, then pour all the egg mixture into the pan.
4. Return the pan to a decreased heat and whisk until the custard starts to thicken. Take care not to let the custard boil, and beat continuously to avoid scorching. Remove from the heat and let cool before use.
5. Roll out the dough to a 20-inch square, then cut it into five rows of 4-inch squares. Place 2 teaspoons of the filling on each square. Take each square’s corners and fold them into the middle over the filling, pressing the edges together to seal. Turn each pastry upside down and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for 20 minutes at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Brush the pastries with a little beaten egg and bake them for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack.
For the icing:
1. Mix the confectioner’s sugar and cocoa powder together in a bowl, adding a little bit of hot water, and whisk to make a smooth, dark brown paste.
2. Place a spoonful of the icing on each pastry and let set for 10 minutes before serving.
Top photo: Danish, or wienerbrød. Credit: Trine Hahnemann