On a recent Saturday morning, I hopped off the subway in Williamsburg and found my way to a tiny coffee shop, the kind where large chocolate walnut bars sit in a glass refrigerated case and you suspect coffee might come in an almost-bowl-sized mug. It felt kind of like the 90s—in a charming way. But I wasn't there for any of that. Like many curious diners in New York, I have been making pilgrimage to this coffee shop on Saturdays for the Danish bread pop-up run by Noma co-founder and cookbook author Claus Meyer.
Among the loaves of dense Danish rye bread and cinnamon twists piled high behind the pastry glass were what Americans call Danish. I ordered a circular pastry with a sunny little well in the center, filled with a layer of remonce (a sweet Danish paste mixed with marzipan) and a dollop of sweetly bitter Meyer lemon marmalade, finished with a skirt of white icing along its rim. As I bit into it, shards of pastry scattered everywhere, a snowstorm of crumbs covering the table. To an American who was raised on Entenmann's on Saturday mornings, this pastry felt like a revelation, a lighter, flakier croissant crossed with a Danish—but in reality, it was what a proper Danish should be (see our recipe for a not-so-classic pastry).
"The beauty of a Danish is a balance of real butteriness and lightness at the same time," Darra Goldstein, a food scholar and author of Fire + Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking, says. "It's almost self-contradictory."
In Denmark, where Meyer operates a small chain of bakeries called Meyers Bageri, Danish (called spandauer in Danish) are part of a category of pastries called Wienerbrød, or Viennese bread, which is generally thought to have originated with a bakery workers' strike around 1850. The strike forced bakery owners to hire foreign workers, including some from Vienna who brought with them the technique of folding butter into yeasted dough, but "the exact circumstances of their arrival in Denmark remain a little murky," Goldstein says in her book. Danish bakers around the same time were also traveling abroad for research and came across butter-laced yeast dough in Vienna.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the pastry first became popular sometime in the early 20th century. "Just with the new Nordic craze, there was one in the early part of the 20th century," Goldstein says. A Danish immigrant baker named Lauritz C. Klitteng (who is sometimes credited with baking the Danish at Woodrow Wilson's wedding to Edith Galt in 1915) opened the Danish Culinary Studio on Fifth Avenue. Klitteng "was associated with high society," and that's likely when the moniker "Danish" for the pastry came about, Goldstein says. Other accounts credit Herman Gertner, a New York restaurant owner, with popularizing the pastry. Either way, Danish took their hold.
High Street on Market's red-eye Danish and Runner & Stone's cheese Danish
But sadly, over the years, the Danish was forced into a paper box for supermarket shelves and mass-produced for the coffee carts that dot New York's streets. The pastry morphed into something cakey and almost too sweet, fresh fruit and jam were replaced by pie filling, and cream cheese lost its battle against sugar to hold on to any of its tang. Now, a century later, Danish are coming into the light once again—and often that light has a savory hue to it.
Open a box of tomato-and-goat cheese Danish from New York's Breads Bakery, and a wafting smell of pizza will hit your nose. The Danish, which is the first in a series the bakery is calling Designer Danish, which draw inspiration from figures outside of the food world, is a collaboration with fashion designer Steven Alan. "Both Steven and I are really intrigued by flavors that are earthy . . . when Steven mentioned goat cheese, immediately something popped into my head," baker Edan Leshnick says. That something was a just slightly sweet tomato jam from the Union Square Farmers Market, dill, and nigella and sesame seeds, which hug the outside of the pastry. The result is rich and intriguing, pulling unexpected flavors into something familiar.
In Brooklyn, Zachary Golper at Bien Cuit has been playing with savory Danish for several years but says that he's sold more of them in the past two years. Recently, it's been a leek-and-Romanesco option, and there's even a hen-of-the-woods mushroom Danish with a poached egg yolk on top.
In Philadelphia and now New York, pastry chef Sam Kincaid at High Street on Market and Hudson, respectively, helped set off this trend with her red-eye Danish topped with slices of country ham and shavings of Parmesan with coffee gravy tucked into the pastry's folds. At Semi Sweet Bakery in L.A., prosciutto meets goat cheese, and bakers at the Salty Tart in Minneapolis have played with tomatoes in theirs.
Apricot Danish from Épicerie Boulud
Even bakers like those at Tilda All Day in Brooklyn, who tend toward the sweet side of things in Danish, are keeping the sweetness in check with passion fruit, while the bakers at Crumble & Flake Patisserie in Seattle balance fresh jam with savory goat cheese. We even slip a little sour note into our tropical mango-lime Danish.
As for Meyer and his head baker, Thomas Steinmann, they are still figuring out all of the flavors that will be offered in May at the upcoming Meyers Bageri location in Grand Central at their Great Northern Food Hall and at the Williamsburg location, which will become a permanent fixture in June. "I could probably mention 25 ideas," Steinmann says, some sweet and some savory: "It's something we are learning by look at the American market. We don't typically have them in Denmark, but we have them on our brains." So do we.
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