Denmark often has topped the United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report, which rates countries’ degree of contentedness.
Surely, one reason is Danish pastry.
Eating this tender treat is a joy, of course. But making Danish also can produce a deep sense of calm and satisfaction with its series of clear and deliberate steps.
You can’t be in a hurry, can’t watch the clock. Give yourself over to rolling and folding, to measuring and cutting, to filling and glazing. When you finally look over a cooling rack filled with jewel-toned fruits in golden pastries, you may be amazed at how content you feel.
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A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported how therapists and mental health professionals across the country had begun instituting cooking and baking classes as a way to help people with depression. Baking, it found, requires people to focus on a singular activity, which gets their minds off their thoughts and feelings.
In other words, when you bake something, it’s like taking a mini-vacation. With butter.
Danish pastry is a laminated dough, meaning that butter is distributed throughout the dough to create a flaky effect. But unlike a shatteringly crisp puff pastry, Danish dough has eggs, which makes the pastry more tender, more bread-like.
Now, you may not achieve pastry shop perfection the first time out, but that’s the cool thing about baking: We learn something more each time we repeat a recipe – how the dough should feel, how much flour to use when rolling, the importance of cutting precise squares.
Plus, we’re creating! With Danish, we’re choosing which fruits to use and which shapes to make. When you’re carefully placing an apricot on a dollop of cream cheese, then nestling a few blueberries in the corners, the world’s headlines start to fall away.
Then, upon returning to the real world, there’s a plateful of Danish waiting to be eaten.
Denmark, we owe you one.
DANISH PASTRY WITH LEMONY CHEESE FILLING
Note: The Danish dough is from “The Vanilla Bean Baking Book” by Sarah Kieffer. This recipe is best begun the night before you wish to serve the pastries. A small paintbrush is best for applying the egg wash and final glaze.
3/4 cup milk
1 egg, room temperature
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut in 1/2-in. pieces
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese (not light), room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Various fresh or canned fruits, as desired
1 tablespoon milk
Optional glazes (see below)
To make the dough: Warm milk in a microwave for 45 seconds, then whisk in the whole egg, egg yolks and vanilla. Set aside.
In a large bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together flour, yeast, sugar, salt and cardamom. Add the room-temperature butter and mix until no pieces are visible. Add the cold butter pieces and mix until the butter is incorporated, but some pieces still are visible. Slowly add the milk mixture and mix until just combined. The dough will be very sticky.
(By hand, mix in the room-temperature butter with your fingers, pinching and rubbing until no pieces are visible. Use the same technique with the cold butter, mixing until only some pieces are visible. Use a spatula to stir in the milk mixture.)
Spray a bowl with cooking oil, and scrape the dough into it. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours, or as long as overnight.
Transfer the chilled dough to a well-floured work surface and knead a few times to form a ball. Pat the dough into a 6-inch square, sprinkle with flour, then roll into a 16- by 20-inch rectangle, sprinkling more flour on top and beneath as needed. Take special care to keep the corners square and the sides straight. Run your hand over the dough every so often to make sure that the surface is even.
Brush excess flour from the dough, then fold down the top third. Bring the bottom third up over that, folding the dough like a letter. This is the first turn.
Turn the dough 90 degrees so the open edge is on the right. Roll to an 8- by 16-inch rectangle, again taking care to keep the corners square and sides straight.
Fold in the short ends letter-style, as above. Repeat the steps twice again, flouring as needed, for a total of four turns.
Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour (3 or 4 hours is better) before shaping. The dough also may be refrigerated for up to two days.
To make the filling: With an electric mixer, whip together the cream cheese, powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth and fluffy. Drain canned fruit on paper toweling before using; toss fresh fruit with a sprinkling of sugar.
To make egg wash: Whisk together 1 egg and 1 tablespoon milk until well-combined. You'll use this for sealing pastry flaps and for brushing on the dough before baking.
To make pastries: Preheat oven to 400 degrees with racks in bottom and middle positions. Place parchment paper on 2 baking sheets.
Cut chilled dough in half; rewrap remaining half and return to refrigerator.
On a floured surface, roll dough into a 9- by 13-inch rectangle, lifting at times to make sure it’s not sticking and keeping corners and sides square and straight. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, trim 1/2-inch strip from all 4 sides to make a clean edge and expose fresh layers of dough. Save trimmings.
With a ruler or tape measure, carefully mark the rectangle into 6 (4-inch) squares (cut in half lengthwise, then cut each half into thirds). For easiest handling, transfer the squares to baking sheet before shaping.
Cut and shape each square as desired (see accompanying photos.) Top with 1 to 2 tablespoons of cream cheese filling, then arrange fruit to your liking.
With a small paintbrush, carefully paint the dough surfaces with egg wash (take your time; it’s quite calming). Let the pastries rest uncovered for 20 minutes.
Repeat with remaining dough. By the time the second pan is done, the first will be ready to go into the oven.
Place first pan on the bottom rack and bake for 9 minutes. Switch to middle rack and bake 7 to 8 minutes more, or until golden brown.
Repeat with second pan.
Cool Danish on wire racks, then serve. (If not serving until the next day, refrigerate pastries, then refresh in a 250-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes.)
Optional glazes: For an especially shiny “pastry shop” appearance, brush baked pastries while still warm with a sweet glaze. Some options:
Heat 1/3 cup honey in a microwave until liquid. Blend with 2 teaspoons lemon juice.
In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1 tablespoon lemon juice to a simmer and whisk until translucent.
Microwave 1/2 cup clear jelly (such as apple) for about 15 to 20 seconds, or until it’s melted to a brushable consistency.