Whomever first applied the term “rustic” to food, and meant it as a good thing, is my hero. He or she has opened up the door for those of us who do not achieve picture-perfection to still present a handmade Danish braid without shame.
I myself feel a little superheroic for having made Danish pastry from scratch, on a weekend when the temperature went over 30 degrees (and stayed close to 30 up until midnight). Why on earth would I attempt buttery, flaky Danish pastry from scratch on the last weekend of June?
Because I went ahead and joined a group called The Daring Bakers, the activities of whom I have caught glimpses of here and there as I trip through food blogs. The group has a collective challenge every month – something baked that everyone must do on the same day and post on their blog. It looked like fun. I thought; I have to cook every day anyway, why not have someone choose something for me once a month? How hard could it be?
The very first month of my membership the challenge is making and working with yeasted laminated dough. (Danish dough is in the butter-laminated or layered dough family with puff pastry being the ultimate; Danish dough is sweet and is yeast-leavened, whereas puff pastry is not.) I fancy myself a relatively good baker; I couldn’t really imagine any challenge being too far out of my league. But puff pastry is something I’ve never made from scratch before. Why would I when you can buy a frozen block of it for $3?
Now, with the pressure on and an audience of hundreds of bakers watching, I didn’t want to mess up on my first go. We cannot stray from the recipe save for lemon zest instead of orange, and there is the option to make our own filling (which I took – an apple filling would be delicious but seemed blasphemous at almost the height of summer). As you know I am notorious for taking off in another direction while following a recipe, so a couple things tripped me up:
- it says the dough makes two Danish, but it doesn’t specify anywhere to divide the dough into two pieces; I did anyway
- when instructing the baker to cut 5″ slits an inch apart down the sides of the dough it doesn’t mention doing so on an angle; I thought I should, but didn’t want to blow it. Turns out I should have – the first braid didn’t have “flaps” of dough on the ends to fold up and down and trap the filling, but I cut them on an angle the second time and it turned out much neater
- the egg wash calls for an egg and an egg yolk; just the beaten egg was far more than enough to brush over two Danish, so I didn’t bother adding a yolk too
My berry filling was simple – about 2 cups of fresh or frozen berries and 3/4 cup sugar, and a squeeze (about a tablespoon) of lemon juice – simmer on the stove, mashing with a spoon, until it simmers and thickens a bit, and the mixture is jamlike. Cool completely. Mine was a bit juicy. I knew this, but pushing better judgement aside, I attempted to spoon out the solids and lay them along the middle of my quickly melting pastry. The pool of crimson juice didn’t waste any time spreading as I attempted to eloquently alternate the flaps, and it sat there and bled out for 2 hours as it proofed. Despite this, it turned out wonderfully, and the burnt juice just wiped right off the Silpat mat.
For the other, I thought I’d make use of a small jar of spiced fig caramel I bought awhile ago from The Girl and the Fig, but obviously didn’t want to stuff a cup of caramel into the braid for moral reasons. So I figured goat cheese crumbled in might make a good experiment. After all, so many Danish are stuffed with sweetened cream cheese, and figs go brilliantly with goat cheese, and there’s no need to sweeten the goat cheese in the company of all that caramel. (I do have a recipe for fig caramel, so if you love the idea of it, like I did, here you go. Don’t make it now though; save it for the fall, or to make a stash of when you need all those little holiday gifts for so many people.)
Spiced Fig and Orange Caramel
4-5 dried figs, stems removed and finely chopped
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
zest and juice of an orange
1/2 c. whipping cream
pinch cinnamon (optional)
pinch allspice (optional)
In a small saucepan, cover the figs with water or orange juice and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until the figs are very soft and mushy. Drain off any excess liquid and set aside while you make the caramel.
In a heavy medium saucepan, stir together the sugar and water and set over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, without stirring, for about 8 minutes or until the mixture is a deep amber colour. Occasionally swirl the pan and brush the sides down with a pastry brush dipped in cold water.
Carefully add the orange zest, juice, whipping cream and spices; step back, as the mixture will bubble and spit. Turn down the heat to low and whisk until smooth. Stir in the figs and cool completely.
Makes about 1 ½ cups. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks; rewarm on the stove or in the microwave.
Fortunately we were going to watch the European soccer final today, then to a friend’s house for dinner tonight (steak, orzo salad, caramelized onion focaccia, cookies and a giant bowl of cherries for dessert) so I had the opportunity to pawn them both off. Unfortunately, I started to shape my braids at 9 and was not finished until 10 – the rectangles of dough just didn’t want to be any bigger than a piece of 8 1/2″ x 11″ looseleaf. Every time I rolled over the dough it would shyly pull back. If it does this, just let the dough relax for awhile, and try again in about 10 minutes. Eventually you’ll be able to coax it out to a large enough rectangle.
So by noon, the braids were just finishing up their 2 hour proofing and didn’t have time to bake before going to watch the game, so they had to go with us and bake there. Not a big deal, except that delicate, buttery puff pastry does not like to travel in a hot car at 30 degrees, and it particularly does not like it when I make Mike pull over and hold the tray while I go buy vintage polka-dot glasses and an old sunburst juice pitcher at a garage sale.
But, the braid. Check out this recipe – when I printed it out to take down to the kitchen with me, it took three full pages. But it was worth the effort, and I will likely make it again. Maybe when the temperature drops below 20.
I mean, how cool is this – I made Danish pastry from scratch! I’m so glad they made me.
Danish Braid from Sherry Yard’s The Secrets of Baking
Makes 2-1/2 pounds dough
For the dough (Detrempe)
1 ounce fresh yeast or 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
Zest of 1 orange, finely grated – I used a lemon, but will likely omit both next time
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 large eggs, chilled
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
For the butter block (Beurrage)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Combine the yeast and milk in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed. Slowly add sugar, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds, eggs, and orange juice. Mix well. Change to the dough hook and add the salt with the flour, 1 cup at a time, increasing speed to medium as the flour is incorporated. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, or until smooth. You may need to add a little more flour if it is sticky. Transfer dough to a lightly floured baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Without a standing mixer: Combine yeast and milk in a bowl with a hand mixer on low speed or a whisk. Add sugar, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds, eggs, and orange juice and mix well. Sift flour and salt on your working surface and make a fountain. Make sure that the “walls” of your fountain are thick and even. Pour the liquid in the middle of the fountain. With your fingertips, mix the liquid and the flour starting from the middle of the fountain, slowly working towards the edges. When the ingredients have been incorporated start kneading the dough with the heel of your hands until it becomes smooth and easy to work with, around 5 to 7 minutes. You might need to add more flour if the dough is sticky.
Combine butter and flour in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle and then beat for 1 minute more, or until smooth and lump free. Set aside at room temperature.
After the detrempe has chilled 30 minutes, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a rectangle approximately 18 x 13 inches and ¼ inch thick. The dough may be sticky, so keep dusting it lightly with flour. Spread the butter evenly over the center and right thirds of the dough. Fold the left edge of the detrempe to the right, covering half of the butter. Fold the right third of the rectangle over the center third. The first turn has now been completed. Mark the dough by poking it with your finger to keep track of your turns, or use a sticky and keep a tally. Place the dough on a baking sheet, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Place the dough lengthwise on a floured work surface. The open ends should be to your right and left. Roll the dough into another approximately 13 x 18 inch, ¼-inch-thick rectangle. Again, fold the left third of the rectangle over the center third and the right third over the center third. No additional butter will be added as it is already in the dough. The second turn has now been completed. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.
Roll out, turn, and refrigerate the dough two more times, for a total of four single turns. Make sure you are keeping track of your turns. Refrigerate the dough after the final turn for at least 5 hours or overnight. The Danish dough is now ready to be used. If you will not be using the dough within 24 hours, freeze it. To do this, roll the dough out to about 1 inch in thickness, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and freeze. Defrost the dough slowly in the refrigerator for easiest handling. Danish dough will keep in the freezer for up to 1 month.
Makes enough for two braids
4 Fuji or other apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Toss all ingredients except butter in a large bowl. Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until slightly nutty in color, about 6 – 8 minutes. Then add the apple mixture and sauté until apples are softened and caramelized, 10 to 15 minutes. If you’ve chosen Fujis, the apples will be caramelized, but have still retained their shape. Pour the cooked apples onto a baking sheet to cool completely before forming the braid. (If making ahead, cool to room temperature, seal, and refrigerate.) They will cool faster when spread in a thin layer over the surface of the sheet. After they have cooled, the filling can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Left over filling can be used as an ice cream topping, for muffins, cheesecake, or other pastries.
Makes 2 large braids
1 recipe Danish Dough
2 cups apple filling, jam, or preserves
For the egg wash: 1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
1. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll the Danish Dough into a 15 x 20-inch rectangle, ¼ inch thick. If the dough seems elastic and shrinks back when rolled, let it rest for a few minutes, then roll again. Place the dough on the baking sheet.
2. Along one long side of the pastry make parallel, 5-inch-long cuts with a knife or rolling pastry wheel, each about 1 inch apart. Repeat on the opposite side, making sure to line up the cuts with those you’ve already made.
3. Spoon the filling you’ve chosen to fill your braid down the center of the rectangle. Starting with the top and bottom “flaps”, fold the top flap down over the filling to cover. Next, fold the bottom “flap” up to cover filling. This helps keep the braid neat and helps to hold in the filling. Now begin folding the cut side strips of dough over the filling, alternating first left, then right, left, right, until finished. Trim any excess dough and tuck in the ends. Whisk together the whole egg and yolk in a bowl and with a pastry brush, lightly coat the braid.
Proofing and Baking
1. Spray nonstick spray onto a piece of plastic wrap, and place over the braid. Proof at room temperature or, if possible, in a controlled 90 degree F environment for about 2 hours, or until doubled in volume and light to the touch.
2. Near the end of proofing, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Position a rack in the center of the oven.
3. Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan so that the side of the braid previously in the back of the oven is now in the front. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F, and bake about 15-20 minutes more, or until golden brown. Cool and serve the braid either still warm from the oven or at room temperature. The cooled braid can be wrapped airtight and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, or freeze for 1 month.
Yes, it tastes exactly like it looks.