Previously, I would not have thought to make danish pastry. I’m not a fan, and when faced with the choice of a breakfast sweet, I choose something else. (Who am I kidding – I’d choose a donut!) But in the constant need to challenge myself in the kitchen, I’ve become intrigued by the interesting – and easy – technique of danish pastry.
So apparently, I’ve been sleeping. Good, honest bakers are making fine danish pastries in every corner of the world, but the majority of danish one encounters are the industrial kind, served at airport kiosks and hotel buffets. My research revealed that industrial bakeries use hydrogenated safflower products in lieu of butter – which is a reminder that, as always, there is no trust in mass-produced food products. You have to be very, very, very careful.
Homemade danish pastry represents the opposite way of thinking: when you put the best, real ingredients into something, not only are the results magnificent, but the naughtiness of it becomes something else. I didn’t feel bad or guilty enjoying homemade danish, butter and all. I felt amazed.
Since the first fruits of summer have arrived at the market, it seemed right to use apricots. The gentle acid tang of apricots, their intense flavor and velvet texture made a delicious apricot curd. Make it the day before (danish are a two-day process anyway), and the flavor will deepen during the overnight chill. Nor should you save apricot curd for danish pastry – use a spoonful or two over ice cream, or tuck it into any type of pastry, tart shell, pie or choux pastry.
Danish pastry is a member of the laminated dough family, which includes all butter-layered doughs, croissants and puff pastry included. If you’re intimidated by laminated doughs, don’t be – this recipe is made in the food processor, and while the technique is unorthodox, make it once and it will make perfect sense. And long repose in the fridge means that the technique is flexible enough to fit into your schedule – I had mine ready for Sunday brunch.
What came out of the oven worried me a bit at first – the pastries seemed light when commercial danish are heavy, they seemed pale when others are deeply tanned. My idea of what danish are supposed to be had been formed – without my realizing it – by a standard we all recognize: certain shapes, color, that zig-zag of icing. Yet – how delicious, feather-light and yet deliriously rich they were! I feel as if, once again, I’m being taught a valuable lesson: that all things – even the mediocre danish – can become elegant and worthy will just a bit of homemade effort, and the love of a cook.Baking with Julia. Makes 12 large individual pastries or two coffeecake/braided pastries, for slicing. The dough can be easily divided, and what is not used stored in the freezer for a month. For the apricot curd: Cut about 1/2 lb ripe apricots in half. Cook with a few sprinkles of water (to keep from sticking) over low heat until they release their juices and become tender. Purée them, strain, and measure out 1 cup of juice. While the purée is still warm, add 1/2 cup sugar, to taste, and mix in 4 tbs. softened butter. In another bowl, beat together 2 eggs and 1 yolk, add this to the purée. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until it bubbles and thickens. Cool overnight before using. A few apricot kernels add a magnificent flavor – add then when you cook the curd, and spoon then out after chilling. Makes about 2 cups, enough for 12 individual pastries. For the dough: in a large bowl combine 1 scant tbs. active dry yeast with 1/4 cup warm water, and set aside for a few minutes to dissolve. Then add to the yeast mixture 1/2 cup milk at room temperature, 1 egg, 1/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine, then set aside. Into the work bowl of a food processor, measure 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, and add 2 sticks/8 oz butter, cut into 1/4 thick slices. Run the machine in pulses 2 or 3 times, or just until the butter is roughly cut, but still the size of a nickel or your fingernail. Turn the flour into the yeast-milk mixture and fold until just combined – it should be a shaggy mess. Don’t over mix! Cover with plastic and let rest, chilled, overnight. The next day, turn the dough – it should have risen slightly and become somewhat puffy – onto a lightly floured surface. Gather it into a rough square, and begin to turn, fold and roll. Repeat this about 4 times. Chill for 30 minutes before shaping, or wrap again, chill or freeze if you aren’t baking today. After shaping and filling, let the pastries proof for 90 minutes (or overnight in the fridge) – they should nearly double in size and become puffy. Bake at 350º until lightly golden, about 20 minutes. Let cool. I sprinkled my finished product with poppy seeds, but that was just a momentary whim. If you would like a shine to your pastries, brush with a mixture of equal amounts of water and sugar, cooked to dissolve and cooled (1/4 cup each for 6 pastries). A drizzle of confectioner’s sugar moistened with water or milk is also nearly obligatory, and screams “danish”.