Many people think of any morning sweet roll as a “Danish.” According to master baker Nancy Silverton, co-owner of La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, a true Danish is made with a particular style of yeasted dough, richly layered with butter and fragrant with cardamom and nutmeg. As with doughnuts, a homemade version is a revelation, well worth the bother for special occasions. The multiple steps can be slowed down over several days to better fit into your schedule.
Game plan: Danish pastry benefits from a minimum of strokes and handling. If at any time the butter feels soft and squishy, immediately put the pastry in the refrigerator for a few minutes, long enough to firm it again. If the butter melts into the dough before baking, you won’t get the multiple layers that distinguish this pastry.
- Yield: 16 (5-inch) pastries
- Difficulty: Medium
For the pastry:
- 1 envelope active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup whole milk, heated to lukewarm
- 1 large egg at room temperature
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh nutmeg, grated
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, well chilled and cut into 1/2-tablespoon pats
For the filling:
- 1/2 pound cream cheese, softened
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 large egg yolk (save the white for the egg wash)
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh lemon
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Several tablespoons thick fruit preserves, optional
For the egg wash and topping:
- 1 large egg white
- Crystallized sugar such as sanding sugar or turbinado sugar
- Prepare the pastry. If you’ve ever made a croissant dough, this is somewhat similar, but with less butter and more sugar, resulting in a softer pastry. Combine the yeast, milk, egg, and sugar in a large mixing bowl and let stand for a few minutes, until the yeast foams.
- Place the flour, salt, cardamom, and nutmeg in a food processor, and pulse twice briefly to combine. Scatter the butter bits over the flour. Pulse quickly, in about 8 little bursts, just enough to submerge the butter and break it into chunks about half the size of what you started with. Spoon the flour-butter mixture into the yeast mixture and gently and quickly combine the two, just enough to moisten the dry ingredients. Stop while you still have a very lumpy mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to a couple of days.
- You’ll need a ruler for the next steps of rolling and turning and rolling some more. A dough scraper is helpful too. The steps are a little finicky but not as difficult as often portrayed and should be executed without hesitation. Lightly flour a work surface, marble if you have it, and spoon the dough out on it. Sprinkle the dough and your hands lightly with flour. Pat the dough into a thick square, then roll it out into a square of about 16 inches. Fold the dough over itself in thirds, like a business letter being prepared for an envelope. Turn it so that the closed fold is on your left.
- Roll the dough back out again (add a bit of flour to the surface or rolling pin as needed), this time into a long narrow rectangle about 10 × 24 inches. Again, fold the dough over itself in thirds. Position again so that the closed fold is on your left. Roll this time into a 20-inch square, then repeat the folding and positioning. Roll again into a long narrow 10 × 24-inch rectangle. Fold in thirds one more time. Wrap in plastic and return to the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes and up to a couple of days. (If you prefer, the dough can be double-wrapped and frozen for up to a month. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before proceeding.)
- When you are ready to shape and fill the pastry, prepare the filling. Combine the cheese and confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl, stirring until smooth. Mix in the egg yolk, lemon zest, vanilla, and salt.
- Cut the dough in half and keep one portion chilled. Flour a work surface and the top of the dough you’ll work with first. Roll the pastry out into a 10 × 20-inch rectangle. Use your ruler again. Exactness counts here. With a pizza cutter or sharp thin knife, trim off any uneven edges, then cut the rectangle into eight 5-inch squares.
- Turn the first square so that you have a diamond. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of filling from the top point down to the bottom point. (Don’t take the filling quite to the edge.) If you wish, dribble a teaspoon or two of preserves over the cheese filling. Bring the left and right sides up over the filling, pressing gently to seal them at the center. You will have a little open-ended tube. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Arrange on two greased baking sheets spaced about 2 inches apart.
- Make the egg wash, whisking together the egg white with 1 teaspoon water. Brush the mixture over the dough. Sprinkle with sugar crystals. Set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free spot until soft and puffy, about 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake the Danish for 20 to 23 minutes, until golden brown and crisp. Cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes, then carefully transfer to a rack to cool further. Serve warm or at room temperature.