We’ve all seen the cold, wan Danishes sitting behind the bakery case or forgotten about in a pile of breakfast pastries in some conference room. Pale, stodgy, and cloying, their most attractive quality is that they’ll go down easier than the stale croissants next to them. It isn’t a new problem—late food writer Mimi Sheraton complained about the state of the Danish back in 1977. She wrote in the New York Times that if Denmark ever broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S., it’d likely be because of our misuse of the word Danish “to describe the leaden, oily, artificially yellow and cloyingly sweet cakes we find in luncheonettes… Compared to the yeasty, buttery, flaky and delicate pastries that Danes know as Vienna bread—wienerbrod—the imposters we produce amount to a national insult.”
She wasn’t wrong then, and, sadly, her comments still ring true. So while it may be a labor of love to make your own Danishes from scratch, it’s worth taking the time to do it right. Made with a yeasted dough that’s layered with butter, the pastry is something of a cross between a brioche and a croissant. A great Danish should be tender, flaky, and nicely browned, with a balanced filling of cream cheese, jammy fruit, or pastry cream. These Danishes are rich with butter and packed with sweet, tangy cream cheese—and may very well convince you that the only ones worth eating are warm, freshly baked ones.
As with so many origin stories of popular foods, the supposed birth of the cheese Danish sounds a little too cute to be true. According to Jan M. Olsen, who dug into the Danish’s beginnings for the Los Angeles Times in 1993, the pastry was accidentally created by a baker named Claudius Gelee, who apparently (and oh, so conveniently!) forgot to add butter to his dough. In an attempt to conceal his mistake, Gelee began “folding lumps of [butter] into the dough.” Much to Gelee and his colleagues’ surprise, the pastry turned out to be a success—what Olsen describes as “the lightest dough ever seen in France.” Soon after, Gelee opened his own cafe in Paris and Florence, and somewhere along the way, Italian bakers brought the pastry to Austria.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century, according to Sandra J. Weber in the New York Times, that the pastry arrived in Denmark when Danish bakers went on strike. In desperate need of bakers, the country sought replacement workers from Vienna, who brought with them the wienerbrod so beloved in Denmark today. “By the time the strike was settled,” Weber noted, “Danes had acquired a passion and flair for the rich, light pastries.”
Getting Danish Dough Right
Traditionally, Danishes are made with a yeasted, laminated dough enriched with sugar and eggs. While Danishes bear a similar resemblance to puff pastry and croissants, the doughs all differ slightly from one another. Puff pastry is made up of flour, water, and salt; croissant dough consists of flour, sugar, yeast, milk, and salt; and Danish dough is essentially croissant dough that’s been further enriched with eggs. After the doughs are mixed, they are then laminated—rolled and folded over themselves several times—with a chilled butter block. As the dough bakes, the butter between the layers melts and creates pockets of steam, lifting the pastry and creating crisp, flaky layers.
Now, making a laminated dough from start to finish is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that strikes fear in the hearts of even the most experienced bakers and pastry chefs. Luckily for us, there’s a shortcut we can take that will still result in a rich, buttery dough. Instead of laminating our dough with a butter block, we’re going to take a cue from rough puff pastry (or blitz puff pastry) by incorporating pieces of butter into the dough, then folding the dough over itself three times to create a total of 27 layers.
How to Fold Your Dough Using the Letter Fold Method
The best way to fold the dough is with what’s known as the letter fold method. To make a letter fold, you first roll your dough out into a rectangle—in this recipe that’s an 18- by 9-inch rectangle—and bring the right third of the dough over the center, then fold the left third on top to create a smaller rectangle. The dough is then chilled so that the butter can firm up, and then folded in the same way a second time. The whole process is repeated once more for a total of three letter folds.
Each letter fold creates exponentially more layers; by the time you’ve completed three folds, you’ll have a total of 27 layers. (The first fold results in three layers; the second fold in nine; and the third fold in 27.) Though we aren’t laminating with a butter block, folding our butter-enriched dough will still create the flaky layers we want in a Danish.
Controlling Gluten Development
Each time we roll out our dough, we’re developing gluten, a network of protein molecules called glutenin and gliadin that are responsible for the springy, chewy texture in bread, pizza, and noodles. (You can read more about that here.) While we do want some gluten development to provide structure for our pastry, we don’t want to develop so much gluten that our Danishes become tough and rubbery.
This is a bit of a balancing act, as fats like butter and eggs act as a tenderizer in dough by coating the proteins and preventing them from bonding as easily to each other. Since fats reduce gluten development, and since Danish dough is quite ample with fat, we need to turn to a higher-protein flour (i.e., one that forms gluten more readily) like bread flour to compensate. What also helps limit excessive gluten development is resting the dough between folds, which, in addition to keeping our dough and butter cold, helps gluten relax. The result of this gluten and fat balancing act is a dough that is tender yet stable, able to hold the high-moisture cheese filling without collapsing under it.
Using European-Style Butter
This recipe calls for European-style butter, which has a higher percentage of butterfat (typically 82-to-85%) and lends the pastries a richer flavor. “These butters,” writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, “contain 10-20% less water, which can be an advantage when making flaky pastries.” Is it crucial to use European-style butter? No. But since so much of the pastry’s flavor comes from the quantity and quality of butter used, it’s worth considering using a higher-quality European-style butter, which is also often cultured and thus more full-flavored.
If you can’t find European-style butter, don’t fret—it may be some consolation to know that American and Canadian butters are required to have a minimum of 80% butterfat, so if you’re choosing between a butter with 80% butterfat and another with 82% butterfat, it’s highly unlikely it will make or break the recipe.
Making a Balanced Cream Cheese Filling
What sets a truly superb Danish apart from a mediocre one isn’t just the dough—it’s also the filling. It may be tempting to beat cream cheese together with an ungodly amount of sugar and an egg yolk, but taking the time to make a few low-effort additions can mean the difference between a spectacular pastry and a subpar one; here, a little lemon juice adds brightness and acid, while vanilla brings a delicate floral note. Seasoning with just the right amount of salt highlights these subtle flavors.
Baking and Finishing the Pastry
After all your hard work, it’s time to trim, proof, and bake the pastries. You’ll portion the dough into four-inch squares, then pipe two tablespoons of cream cheese frosting into the center of each. Filling the pastries before they’ve proved allows the dough to puff around the cream cheese and lets us squeeze a bit more filling into each Danish. It’s crucial to properly proof the pastries before they bake—this helps to further develop both flavor and dough strength, resulting in crisp, flaky pastries with plenty of layers. Baked until golden brown and topped with a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar, these Danishes will be the first you’ll actually want to try while they’re still fresh…and maybe even with a cup of coffee. You’ll have to put in the work to make them from start to finish, but you’ll also never be sad at the sight of a Danish again.
For the Danish Dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together warm water and the 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in yeast until well-combined; let stand, uncovered, at room temperature until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together bread flour, salt, and remaining 6 tablespoons granulated sugar on low speed until combined, about 15 seconds. Add egg and 84g (6 tablespoons) butter; pulse mixer between low speed and off until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 3 minutes. Add remaining 168g (12 tablespoons) butter; pulse mixer between low speed and off until butter is coated with flour, about 10 seconds. Stir cold milk into yeast mixture, then slowly add yeast mixture while pulsing mixer between low speed and off, until a shaggy dough forms, about 2 minutes. (There will be pieces of dough that have formed together, but it will not be a smooth or homogeneous dough.)
Using a silicone spatula or a dough scraper, scrape dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Gently shape into a 7-inch square about 1 1/4-inch thick; the dough will be slightly sticky. Tightly wrap in plastic wrap; freeze until chilled, about 30 minutes.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll dough into a 18- by 9-inch rectangle (1/4-inch thick), with the long sides parallel to the counter edge. Fold the dough like a business letter: Fold dough into thirds (each section should be 6-inches wide) like a letter by bringing the right third over the center, then folding the left third over to create a smaller rectangle. (Use a bench scraper or the flat side of a chef’s knife to lift dough if necessary.) Transfer to a lightly floured 9- by 13-inch rimmed baking sheet. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes. Repeat rolling, folding, and chilling process 2 more times for a total of 3 folds. After the final fold, refrigerate dough for 1 hour 30 minutes or overnight.
For the Cream Cheese Frosting: In a medium bowl, whisk together cream cheese, egg yolk, powdered sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt until smooth. Using a silicone spatula, transfer the frosting to a pastry bag and secure the top with kitchen twine, a rubber band, or a chip clip; set aside at room temperature.
Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a roughly 13-inch square (1/4-inch thick). Using a sharp chef’s knife or pizza cutter, trim edges into a 12-inch square; cut into nine 4-inch squares. Working with 1 square at a time, brush each corner of the square with beaten egg. Fold each corner into the center of the square (all corners should touch in the center) and press down gently to seal. Repeat with the 8 remaining squares of dough. Transfer to prepared baking sheets, placing each square 2 to 3 inches apart.
To Bake the Pastries: Cut tip off the pastry bag to form a 1/2-inch hole. Gently press down in the center of the dough squares to create a small indentation; pipe the frosting in the center (about 2 tablespoons each; it’s okay if the mound of filling is taller than the dough.) Loosely cover with plastic wrap; let rise in a warm draft-free area (75°F or 24°C) until slightly puffed, about 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425°F (220ºC) with racks in upper third and lower third positions. Remove and discard plastic wrap. Gently brush tops and sides of dough with beaten egg. (For best results, try not to get egg wash on the cut edges of the dough.) Bake until puffed and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Rotate baking sheets from top to bottom; reduce oven temperature to 375°F (with baking sheets in oven), and bake at 375°F until Danishes are puffed and deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes longer. (Keep a close eye during the last few minutes of baking; 1 tray may be ready before the other). Let cool slightly on baking sheets for 15 minutes. Garnish with additional powdered sugar; serve warm or at room temperature.
Stand mixer, silicone spatula, rolling pin, whisk, pastry bag, sharp chef’s knife or pizza cutter, two 18- by 13- inch rimmed baking sheets
Make-Ahead and Storage
The pastries are best eaten the day-of.