This is a semi-success.
This is a kinda-failure.
Both are delicious. Why does one go to the head of the class, the other straight to the principal's office?
File this blog post under: be careful what you ask for.
Awhile ago, I polled our Facebook fans about what new recipes they'd like to see us write about here in the blog. One of the top vote-getters was Danish pastry.
You speak – we listen. I dutifully added "Danish pastry" to my list of future blog topics.
And there it sat. And sat, buried under a blizzard of duties, deadlines and the detritus of social media.
At last, I opened my King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook – the go-to on my bookshelf for all kinds of baking basics – and found the recipe.
It was 10 pages long.
You know, much as I love baking, I'm just not a 10-page-recipe kinda gal. A single page is good. Two pages? Well, sometimes yeast breads can be a little complicated.
But 10 PAGES? It was all I could do not to run shrieking from the kitchen, vowing to satisfy myself henceforth with recipes featuring boxed cake mix and Cool Whip.
But I sighed, pulled my virtual socks up, and dove in.
And boy, what a deep dive it was!
In the end, I discovered that the 10 pages it took to explore Danish pastry in our cookbook could actually be boiled down to many fewer steps.
Think "cut to the chase." I have an advantage in this blog that Brinna Sands, the wonderful baker who wrote our original cookbook (and my dear friend), didn't have:
So rather than fill 10 pages with words, I can simply show you how to make these wonderfully flaky, buttery, totally delicious, and absolutely attainable pastries.
Work with me here, OK? We can do this together.
All about butter
Danish pastry is all about the butter; there aren't many yeast pastries that are as buttery as this one. So it stands to reason you want to use top-quality butter – like these unsalted sticks from our friends up the road at Cabot Creamery.
Why unsalted? Because salt is sometimes used by unscrupulous butter manufacturers (though not our friends at Cabot or Land O'Lakes, certainly) to mask "off" flavors. So salted butter can have a longer sell-by date, and can stay in the refrigerator case at the supermarket longer than unsalted. We prefer our butter as fresh as possible.
Also, using unsalted butter allows you to add as much (or little) salt as you like, to taste.
If you choose to use salted butter, cut back the salt in the following recipe to 1 1/2 teaspoons.
We're going to give the dough an overnight rest, so let's get started.
You'll need an entire pound of butter for this recipe: 4 sticks. Begin by cutting 1/4" butter off the end of each of the four sticks in the pound; you'll have about 2 tablespoons butter. Set them aside.
Cut each stick of butter in half lengthwise, to make eight long rectangles. On a piece of floured parchment or plastic wrap, line up four of the butter pieces side by side, to form a rectangle. Sprinkle lightly with flour, and cover with another piece of parchment or plastic wrap.
Gently pound and roll the butter until it's about 6" x 9". The pieces may or may not meld together. If they do, great, they'll be easier to work with. If not, though, that's OK; don't stress about it.
Repeat with the remaining four pieces of butter. You should now have two butter rectangles, about 6" x 9" each. Set them aside while you make the dough; if it's really hot in your kitchen, stick them in the fridge to keep cool.
In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, whisk together the following:
5 1/2 cups (23 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons instant yeast
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cardamom, optional; for traditional flavor
Work the 2 tablespoons cold butter (reserved from the sticks) into the flour mixture, rubbing it in with your fingers until no large lumps remain. This step makes the pastry a tiny bit more tender by coating some of the flour with fat, which prevents its gluten from forming tough strands.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the following:
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold milk
1/3 to 1/2 cup lukewarm water*
2 large eggs
*Use the greater amount in winter, or in a dry climate; the lesser amount in summer, or when it's humid out.
Pour the milk mixture into the dry ingredients, beating or stirring to combine.
Mix and knead to make a cohesive, but quite sticky dough. This is easily done in a bread machine set on the dough cycle; or in a stand mixer – about 7 minutes on medium speed should be sufficient.
If you use a mixer, the dough won't completely clean the bowl; it'll probably leave a narrow ring around the sides, and stick at the bottom.
Scrape the dough into a ball, and transfer it to a floured work surface. Cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 10 minutes, to relax the gluten.
Some friendly advice: Before we start creating the Danish, I want you to fully understand and embrace the following: don't be a perfectionist. When it says to roll the dough 24" wide, don't measure to the 1/8"; go ballpark. When I talk about a rectangle, 90° corners aren't necessary. Consider all of these measurements a guide. So long as you roll the dough and butter together a few times – e.g., give the dough a few "turns," as the pros would say – your pastry will be delicious and flaky and tender.
Begin by patting the dough out into a rough rectangle; it's soft and quite malleable, so this isn't difficult. When it becomes too thin to pat easily, roll it into a rectangle about 12" wide and 24" long. Don't worry about being ultra-precise; this is just a guide, but do try to get fairly close to those dimensions.
Place one of the butter slabs onto the center third of the dough. Fold one side over the butter to cover it. Place the other butter slab atop the folded-over dough, and fold the remaining dough up over it. You now have a rectangular "packet" of dough-enclosed butter.
Pinch the open ends and side closed as best you can.
Turn the dough 90°, so a 12" side is closest to you. Roll the dough into a 10" x 24" rectangle (approximately). Fold each side into the center; then fold one side over the other to make a rectangular packet about 6" x 10".
Dust the surface of the dough with flour, wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.
Remove the dough from the fridge, and again roll it into a rectangle about 10" x 24". Fold it into a packet as you did before; it'll be about 7" x 12". Give it another short rest in the fridge.
Roll one final time, fold into a packet, and flour the dough lightly. Wrap loosely (but completely) in plastic, and chill for 2 hours, or up to 16 hours; we prefer the longer refrigeration, as it gives the dough a chance to relax and rise.
While the dough is taking a rest, think about your fillings. A typical American-style Danish will have its center filled with fruit and nuts, or with a cheese blintz-type filling.
To fill all 2 dozen to 3 dozen of the pastries you're about to make, you'll need about 1 1/4 cups jam, preserves, fruit pie filling, or the chopped cooked fruits of your choice. Or try the following cheese filling:
1/2 cup cream cheese
1/2 cup cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix everything together. Stirring will yield a rather chunky filling; a food processor will smooth it out. Feel free to flavor with the extract of your choice: almond, vanilla, or butter-rum are all good, as are a few drops of lemon oil or Fiori di Sicilia. Store in the fridge until ready to use.
Either of these filling suggestions makes enough to fill all the pastries; so if you want to mix and match, make a half-recipe of the cheese filling, and use only half the amount of fruit filling called for.
OK, we're nearing the finish line – let's assemble the pastries.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and cut off one third. You'll work with this piece first; return the remainder to the fridge.
Now, this is where things begin to get sticky – not literally, but certainly figuratively. Before you go ahead and just follow these directions willy-nilly, read all the way through to the end of this post. Trust me, you may not want to go down the following path...
There are two ways to shape these pastries. One yields all kinds of fancy shapes; the other, detailed later, makes simple rounds. The fancy shapes turn out to be a bit problematic. Follow along with me, and you'll see why.
Roll the dough into an 8" x 16" rectangle, and cut it into eight 4" squares. Notice I haven't managed to cut a single "square;" a bunch of raggedy rectangles is more like it. I'm the anti-Martha, so do as I say, not as I do!
Here are three easy shapes (top to bottom): cylinder, square, and pinwheel.
Dollop a heaping measuring teaspoon of filling into the center of each square of pastry. Shape as shown above, squeezing the edges of the dough together where they meet in the center.
Then there's the cock's comb: Spoon a strip of filling down the center of the dough, fold it over, and use a knife or pair of scissors to cut partway through the dough at the open edge several times. Shape the dough into a crescent to open the cuts.
Filled round? Well, that's kind of awkward, considering we're starting with a square piece of dough. But let's give it a try. Dollop filling in the center, then gather all the edges up – rather than just four corners – and squeeze them together at the top. I've added another spoonful of filling on top, just to see what'll happen.
Cover the pastries with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let them rise for 2 hours; they'll puff noticeably, though not vigorously.
Towards the end of the baking time, preheat the oven to 400°F. Brush each pastry with an egg wash made from 1 large egg white whisked with 1 tablespoon cold water. Bake for about 18 minutes, until the pastries are a deep golden brown.
ZOUNDS! What happened to my carefully crafted shapes?
Well, the yeast did its job, and the dough just busted out all over, creating pastries that were ethereally light and flaky... but ridiculously unhandsome, and that's putting it kindly.
Would I serve these to friends? Well, good friends, maybe, accompanied by a wry chuckle and a rueful shrug. But looking like this, they're not really ready for prime time.
Well, that's fine, I still have 2/3 of the dough left. Let's try it again; maybe 2 hours is simply too long a rise.
For this second batch, let's shape the dough and let it rise for just 20 minutes before baking.
Better, but still suffering in the looks department.
And the texture? That's a 2-hour rise on the left – see all the air holes? On the right, the 20-minute rise. The 20-minute pastries were definitely denser and heavier.
Sigh. Still some dough left. What next?
Most Danish are round, right? What about if we forget all the fancy shapes, and simply start with flat disks?
Let's divide this final 1/3 of the dough into 12 pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball, then flatten the balls into 3" to 3 1/2" rounds, making the center thinner than the edges. You want to build up a slight wall of dough all around the circumference; this will help hold the filling. Place the rounds on a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet.
Cover the Danish lightly with greased plastic wrap, and let them rise for about 1 hour; they'll become slightly puffy. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 400°F.
Use your fingers to press the centers of the dough rounds as flat as possible, leaving the "sidewalls" puffed. Spoon a slightly heaping measuring teaspoon of filling into the well of each round.
Note: As you can see in the photo above (bottom row, left), at the last moment I decided to take one of the risen rounds and simply flatten it, leaving the edges just slightly puffy. I spread filling across the center of the disk, creating a circle of filling about 2" in diameter. Then I scattered crushed walnuts over the filling.
Remember to brush the exposed edges of pastry with the egg wash; this will create a satiny, golden crust.
Bake the pastries for 15 to 18 minutes, until they're golden brown.
And wouldn't you know it, that final pastry, nearly an afterthought, is the one with the nicest combination of shape and texture. While not quite as light as those pastries in the first batch, it's light enough; and much handsomer.
Especially once it's drizzled with glaze.
Speaking of glaze, here it is:
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons water or milk, enough to make a "drizzle-able" glaze
pinch of salt
Whisk everything together. Drizzle over the pastries.
And here they are, some of the many, many Danish I made in an attempt to figure out the elusive secret of this delicious pastry.
Some beauties; mostly beasts. As I said at the outset, though – ALL delicious.
Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Danish Pastry.