The Danish: Denmark's divine bite



The Danish: Denmark's Divine Bite

You'll find the link to the complete book by Fodor's here

I believe above and beyond every gastronomic specialty a country offers, there is one, just one, perfect, delicious bit or bite or drop of something or another that sums up everything the country is and ever has been. As a transplanted American living in Denmark, I long thought the country's perfect bite was the smørrebrød, or open-face sandwiches: they are practical, well designed, and small -- in essence everything Denmark is.

Over time, however, I have revised my theory. Today, I believe that divine bite can be found in the pastries, the Danish pastries.

Take a stroll through Copenhagen, and before long, you'll have to make an effort to pass up the bakeries, to steel yourself not to try one of the flaky sweets. But then again, why should you?

A Danish pastry is effortlessly elegant, unobtrusively hedonistic, and often packed with a surprise -- an edible metaphor of the Danish experience.

Pastry in Copenhagen

Imagine this: you are walking through Copenhagen, and you happen to meander off Strøget, the store-crammed and remarkably congested pedestrian spine. Immediately, you notice the pace of the city slows. Antique shops sidle up to cafés while, a block away, rows of half-timbered houses lined with thick squares of convex windows wiggle to nowhere.

At the tip of Gammel Strand, literally the old beach, you spy a lone fisherwoman in worn shawls and head scarves hawking live eel and smoked herring. You wind back to the more-than-150-year-old La Glace, purported to be the oldest confectionery shop in Copenhagen. Decorous ladies in aprons serve you a dainty china pot of coffee and light, crisp, and exceedingly Danish, pastries.

Not just any sweets these -- not French, nor Austrian -- and certainly not those suspicious-looking pillows of white dough injected with Red Stuff you chance to order in the United States, but the real McCoy, made in the same way since the 19th century.

It makes me wonder why the Danes don't lay claim to the name, and insist upon it as an appellation d'origine.

The first time I had a Danish pastry, at the source, was 14 years ago, when the Dane of my affections (my husband today) introduced me to Copenhagen. A late night of debauchery had turned into an early morning amble, when Jesper and his best friend, Jan Erik, assured me that pastries would cure all of our ails.

Though most bakeries don't open until 6 AM, Jan Erik went to a side door and rapped on its top window. Shady conversation with a young, flour-dusted blade ensued, and paper bags and cash were quickly exchanged.

(I was never clear if it was law or legend, but in those days, most Danes believed the police enforced regular shopping hours.) Prize in hand, we strolled to Peblinge Sø, one of the city's lakes, where we sat on a bench, drank from a carton of milk, and ate several flaky pastries topped with nuts and sugar icings and filled with marmalades and creams.

As the sun rose, defining the ducks, swans, and occasional heron, I felt enormously happy just to be there.

Those who record such events mark the birth of the Danish pastry sometime at the end of the 19th century, when Danish bakers went on strike, demanding money rather than room and board as payment for their work.

Their employers replaced them with Austrian bakers, who brought with them the mille-feuille, or puff pastry, which they learned to make from the French. Once the Danes were back at work, they adopted the continental dough, making it their own by adding yeast and sweet fillings.

It was a tradition at the time (and to a lesser degree today) for Danish bakers to travel abroad to add to their repertoire. This pastry cross-pollination helps explain why the yeast-risen puff pastry is called Kopenhagener Geback, literally "Copenhagen bread," in Austria, and Danish pastry in America.

Ironically, the yeast-risen pastries are still called wienerbrød, or Vienna bread, in Denmark.

What makes Danish pastries special is the production process, which for most bakers is still done by hand. Essentially, the dough -- milk, flour, eggs, butter, sugar, and yeast -- is made, then chilled. It is then rolled into a rectangle, and, unapologetically, a slab of butter is put on the center third. The two ends of the dough are folded over the butter, and the process is repeated three times, until there are 27 layers in all.

Once the dough has been rolled and chilled, it is finally shaped into pretzel forms (called kringle), as well as braids, squares, triangles, fans, combs, swirls, pinwheels, horns, crescents, and wreaths, and filled with remonce, the stupefyingly rich butter, sugar, and nut (or marzipan) combination.

The word remonce only sounds French; since it was very fashionable in 19th-century Denmark to give things French-ified names, a Danish baker is said to have invented the word. Ask for it in Paris, and, no doubt, you will be met with bewilderment.

In addition to the remonce, Danish bakers also fill their pastries with raisins, fruit compotes, and vanilla and -- to a lesser degree -- chocolate custards.

As Gert Sørensen, the chief baker and owner of Konditoriet in Tivoli, says, "The final product should be crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside."

He should know: as one of the country's most respected pastry chefs, he has been educating and enlightening generations of young pastry stars. In fact, not just anyone can be a konditor, as they are known in Denmark.

The rigorous education takes three years and seven months, and entails basic economics as well as an apprenticeship at a bakery, making wienerbrød daily. Danes are happy to consume the schoolwork, and do so at breakfast, after lunch, or with their afternoon coffee, especially on the weekends.

Copenhagen alone boasts more than 150 of Denmark's 1,400 bakeries, the latter pulling in the equivalent of $727 million annually, about 20 percent of which is attributable to wienerbrød. At an average cost of 5 kroner (roughly 91 cents), I figure that's close to 30 million pastries a year.

Trying to pick the best of Copenhagen's -- let alone Denmark's -- pastries is like hunting down France's best truffle. Though Denmark's pastry chefs participate in a number of national and international pastry contests (and consistently rank among the world's best), nearly every Dane has found a bakery within a five-minute cycling radius of home that they claim to be the best in the land.

My own allegiance is to the bakery named Bosse, in the neighborhood of Østerbro. I often find my bed-headed self wandering there on Saturday morning to buy a bagful of pastries with names like rum snail, marzipan horn, and my husband's favorite, a rum ball, essentially the sausage of pastries, all the leftover bits rolled together and often covered with chocolate sprinkles.

My own favorites include the spandauer, a flat swirl of dough, centered with vanilla custard, and the marzipan horn, a crispy twirl of pastry rolled up with remonce. Even though these may not be the finest pastries in town, they are the genuine article, and uncommonly Danish.

But, there's much more to Danish pastries than wienerbrød. At La Glace the windows display delicate special-occasion cakes like those for baptisms, trimmed with marzipan pacifiers, cradles, and dolls. From her original 1920 pink, green, and gold tea room, proprietor Marianne Stagetorn Kolos explains that most guests come for her layer cakes, like the best-selling Sportskage, a mound of macaroons, whipped cream, and caramel chunks created and named for a play performed at the nearby Folketeatret in 1891.

It's a Danish custom to name confections for events and personalities, but there was a time when ordering a miniature Sarah Bernhardt, a chocolate-truffle-covered macaroon named for the French actress, was an act of courage. During World War II, resistance fighters and sympathizers recognized one another by ordering the pastry as a "radio macaroon," since it resembles an old-fashioned radio knob. The name stuck.

Close by, on a quiet cobblestoned courtyard, is the Kransekagehuset, where confectioner Jørgen Jensen makes the marzipan cakes compulsory at any Danish wedding. Using 1 kilogram marzipan to 400 grams sugar to 200 grams egg whites, Jensen molds the dough into rings of varying sizes. Once baked, they are fashioned into cones or cornucopias, squiggled with white icing, decked with paper decorations, or filled with wrapped candies.

I know the kransekage intimately. At our wedding years ago, Jesper and I split the difference in our Italian-Armenian-American-Danish backgrounds, and ordered two cakes, one of which was a kransekage laced with Danish and American flags, and tiny, shiny-paper firecrackers that made a polite, little bang.

"It's something special," smiles Jensen. "It's something very Danish."

Pastry - the Copenhagen kind - from the book Fodor's Denmark

Scandinavian Baking

Home Page