It’s a funny thing about Danish. When I graduated from pastry school, they were one of the few pastries that I felt I did not have complete command over. I half-wished that I would never have to make them again. The dough always shrank in the most frustrating way when I tried to cut it, and the baked pastries were never as flaky as I would have liked. I certainly never imagined that they would become a sort of specialty of mine.
This started a few years ago, when I decided, for reasons I can no longer remember, to make Danish pastries for my confirmation class at church. I tinkered with the recipe a little, attempting to get the flaky results that I wanted. The solution was quite simple. Danish dough belongs to the laminated dough family. Now basically, laminating means that the dough is used to encase a block of butter, and then they are rolled out together and given a series of folds—these are also called “turns”—to create numerous thin layers that puff up and become flaky in the oven. (The steam evaporating from the butter expands and gets trapped between the layers of dough.)
The recipe that I was taught in school called for Danish dough to be given only two folds. I decided to try it with three folds instead, and was very pleased with the results, although I have now increased the number of turns to four and would never do it any other way.
I also discovered that I could eliminate the exasperating shrinkage that always caused my pieces of dough to come out misshapen and uneven by chilling the sheets of rolled-out dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. The cold relaxes the strands of gluten in the dough, which allows you to cut it into neat, even squares without any shrinking or snapping back.
With these two issues cleared up, I started making Danish more frequently. But it wasn’t until I made them for my brother’s hockey team that it really became serious. The boys were fanatical about them. Soon they were all they ever wanted me to make. They even started putting in requests for them.
I was surprised; I had thought that a locker room full of fifteen-year-old boys would have had slightly more plebian tastes. Brownies or peanut butter cookies perhaps, but not Danish pastries.
So I ended up making a lot of Danish. But the wonderful thing about making Danish is that, no matter how often you make them, it doesn’t get boring. Danish dough is a playground for culinary imagination. You can shape it a hundred different ways, fill it with anything you please (provided that it can be baked), and dress it up with garnishes and glazes to your heart’s content.
Today I decided to re-work a recipe for an apple-custard tart that I had learned at school, and make it in Danish form instead. Now, making Danish dough is a fairly long process, especially since the dough has to be rested in the refrigerator overnight for a long, cool rise. And then there will be extra recipes for the fillings, and all the instructions about shaping them—too long for one post. So I’m going to split it up over three days. Today I’ve given you the recipe for the Danish dough, up to the overnight rest. Then tomorrow I’ll write up the recipes for the fillings, and on the third day we’ll “put it all together.”
Note: Traditionally, the dough portion is referred to as the ‘de trempe,’ and the butter block is called the ‘beurrage.’ I won’t use these terms in my recipe, but for those of you who like to know the proper French names for things—well, there you are.
Ingredients:2 teaspoons active dry yeast (9 g.) ½ cup warm water (125 ml), about 105°F (40°C) 1 lb. all-purpose flour (3 cups/450 g.; you’ll notice that I have listed the weight first in this case. If you have a kitchen scale, I strongly encourage you to weight out the flour for this recipe; you’ll get more consistent results.) ½ t. salt (5 g.) ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (2 ½ oz./70 g.) 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (½ oz./ 14 g.) 2 large eggs, beaten ½ cup milk (125 ml) For the butter block: 8 oz. cold unsalted butter (227 g.), cut into ¼” chunks 2 oz. all-purpose flour (1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons, 56 g.)
- Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water, add a pinch of sugar, and let stand for 5 minutes until frothy.
- Meanwhile, in an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, and salt on low speed.
- Add the tablespoon of butter, and cut it completely into the flour mixture. No clumps of butter should remain.
- Now, with the mixer still running, drizzle in the yeast mixture and the eggs. Add the milk in 3 or 4 quick successions.
- Increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough clears the sides of the bowl. If the dough is too soft, you may add up to two ounces of additional flour (a heaping half a cup).
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently until smooth.
- Shape the dough into a round and place it on a floured baking sheet.
- Cover the dough round with plastic wrap and allow it to rise at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour, or until an impression made in the dough with a floured finger does not spring back.
- Gently deflate the risen dough. Cover it back up with the plastic wrap and then place the tray in the refrigerator until the dough is chilled and the gluten has relaxed, about an hour.
- While the dough is chilling, prepare the butter block:
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the flour and butter together thoroughly. You should not see any shiny bits of butter remaining; the mixture should be completely cohesive. (Adding flour to the butter makes it easier to roll out later.)
- Scrape the butter out onto a piece of lightly floured wax paper and use floured hands to pat it out into a ½” thick square.
- Fold the edges of the wax paper over the butter, and place the packet in the refrigerator. Chill until the butter is firm.
- Once the dough is chilled, take it out of the refrigerator and gently deflate it again. On a floured surface, roll it out into a 10” x 15” x ½” rectangle.
- Now take the butter block out of the refrigerator and use a rolling pin to flatten it into a rectangle half the size of the dough. Ideally, the butter and dough should be close to the same temperature.
- Turn the dough so that one of the long ends is facing you. Place the flattened butter in the middle of the rectangle of dough and fold both ends of the dough up over it to meet in the middle. Pinch the edges to securely enclose the butter.
- Use your knuckles to flatten the dough package slightly, and then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a ½” thick rectangle again.
- Now you are ready to give the dough its first “turn.”
- Turn the dough so that one of the long ends is facing you. Fold one of the short ends a third of the way across the dough. Fold the other third over it, like a letter. Wrap the folded dough in plastic wrap.
- Place the dough in the refrigerator and chill for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the butter has firmed up again. If you handle the dough while it is too warm, the butter will melt out of the layers and the dough will not be flaky. But you also don’t want to refrigerate it until the butter is completely hard, as the layers of butter will splinter when you try to roll out the dough again.
- Once the dough is chilled, take it out of the refrigerator, roll it out into a ½” thick rectangle again, and give it another turn. Then return it to the refrigerator for another 30 or 45 minutes. Repeat this process for a total of four turns.
- Once all the turns are completed, wrap the dough in several pieces of plastic wrap (it will expand, so you need to make sure that the dough is sufficiently covered), and then refrigerate it overnight.
- The dough should not be refrigerated for longer than 36 hours. If you don’t want to make the Danish within this time period, place the dough in the freezer instead of the refrigerator. Then, the night before you are intending to make the Danish, transfer it to the refrigerator and allow it to thaw overnight. The dough can be frozen for up to four weeks.
Yield: Enough dough to make 4 dozen Danish