Why This Recipe Works

  • Chilling the dough in-between folds allows the gluten to rest and gives the butter time to become cold again, which is crucial for creating flaky layers.
  • The higher protein content in bread flour provides more stability and structure to the dough.
  • Using European-style butter—which has a higher percentage of butterfat—lends the pastries rich flavor.

We’ve all seen the cold, wan Danishes sitting behind the bakery case or forgotten about in a pile of breakfast pastries in some conference room. Pale, stodgy, and cloying, their most attractive quality is that they’ll go down easier than the stale croissants next to them. It isn’t a new problem—late food writer Mimi Sheraton complained about the state of the Danish back in 1977. She wrote in the New York Times that if Denmark ever broke off diplomatic relations with the US, it’d likely be because of our misuse of the word Danish “to describe the leaden, oily, artificially yellow and cloyingly sweet cakes we find in luncheonettes… Compared to the yeasty, buttery , flaky and delicate pastries that the Danes know as Vienna bread—wienerbrod—the impostor we produce amount to a national insult.”

She wasn’t wrong then, and, sadly, her comments still ring true. So while it may be a labor of love to make your own Danishes from scratch, it’s worth taking the time to do it right. Made with a yeasted dough that’s layered with butter, the pastry is something of a cross between a brioche and a croissant. A great Danish should be tender, flaky, and nicely browned, with a balanced filling of cream cheese, jammy fruit or pastry cream. These Danishes are rich with butter and packed with sweet, tangy cream cheese—and may very well convince you that the only ones worth eating are warm, freshly baked ones.

Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

As with so many origin stories of popular foods, the supposed birth of the cheese Danish sounds a little too cute to be true. According to Jan M. Olsen, who dug into the Danish’s beginnings for the Los Angeles Times in 1993, the pastry was accidentally created by a baker named Claudius Gelee, who apparently (and oh, so conveniently!) forgot to add butter to his dough. In an attempt to conceal his mistake, Gelee began “folding lumps of [butter] into the dough.” Much to Gelee and his colleagues’ surprise, the pastry turned out to be a success—what Olsen describes as “the lightest dough ever seen in France.” Soon after, Gelee opened his own cafe in Paris and Florence, and somewhere along the way, Italian bakers brought the pastry to Austria.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century, according to Sandra J. Weber in the New York Times, that the pastry arrived in Denmark when Danish bakers went on strike. In desperate need of bakers, the country sought replacement workers from Vienna, who brought with them the Wienerbrod so beloved in Denmark today. “By the time the strike was settled,” Weber noted, “Danes had acquired a passion and flair for the rich, light pastries.”

Getting Danish Dough Right

Traditionally, Danishes are made with a yeasted, laminated dough enriched with sugar and eggs. While Danishes bear a similar resemblance to puff pastry and croissants, the doughs all differ slightly from one another. Puff pastry is made of flour, water and salt; Croissant dough consists of flour, sugar, yeast, milk and salt; and Danish dough is essentially a croissant dough that’s been further enriched with eggs. After the doughs are mixed, they are then laminated—rolled and folded over themselves several times—with a chilled butter block. As the dough bakes, the butter between the layers melts and creates pockets of steam, lifting the pastry and creating crisp, flaky layers.

Now, making a laminated dough from start to finish is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that strikes fear in the hearts of even the most experienced bakers and pastry chefs. Luckily for us, there’s a shortcut we can take that will still result in a rich, buttery dough. Instead of laminating our dough with a butter block, we’re going to take a cue from rough puff pastry (or blitz puff pastry) by incorporating pieces of butter into the dough, then folding the dough over itself three times to create a total of 27 layers.

How to Fold Your Dough Using the Letter Fold Method

The best way to fold the dough is with what’s known as the letter fold method. To make a letter fold, you first roll your dough out into a rectangle—in this recipe that’s an 18- by 9-inch rectangle—and bring the right third of the dough over the center, then fold the left third on top to create a smaller rectangle. The dough is then chilled so that the butter can firm up, and then folded in the same way a second time. The whole process is repeated once more for a total of three letter folds.

Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Each letter fold creates exponentially more layers; by the time you’ve completed three folds, you’ll have a total of 27 layers. (The first results fold in three layers; the second fold in nine; and the third fold in 27.) Even though we aren’t laminating with a butter block, folding our butter-enriched dough will still create the flaky layers we want in a Danish.

Controlling Gluten Development

Each time we roll out our dough, we’re developing gluten, a network of protein molecules called glutenin and gliadin which are responsible for the springy, chewy texture in bread, pizza, and noodles. (You can read more about that here.) While we do want some gluten development to provide structure for our pastry, we don’t want to develop so much gluten that our Danishes become tough and rubbery.

This is a bit of a balancing act, as fats like butter and eggs act as a tenderizer in dough by coating the proteins and preventing them from bonding as easily to each other. Since fats reduce gluten development, and since Danish dough is quite ample with fat, we need to turn to a higher-protein flour (ie, one that forms gluten more readily) like bread flour to compensate. What also helps limit excessive gluten development is resting the dough between folds, which, in addition to keeping our dough and butter cold, helps gluten relax. The result of this gluten and fat balancing action is a dough that is tender yet stable, able to hold the high-moisture cheese filling without collapsing under it.

Using European-Style Butter

This recipe calls for European-style butter, which has a higher percentage of butterfat (typically 82-to-85{ebea9d5847bd78db73673675e8a4786d1e11955363e2960615a0efdb904da7cb}) and lends the pastries a richer flavor. “These butters,” wrote Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, “contain 10-20{ebea9d5847bd78db73673675e8a4786d1e11955363e2960615a0efdb904da7cb} less water, which can be an advantage when making flaky pastries.” Is it crucial to use European-style butter? No. But since so much of the pastry’s flavor comes from the quantity and quality of butter used, it’s worth considering using a higher-quality European-style butter, which is also often cultured and thus more full-flavored.

If you can’t find European-style butter, don’t fret—it may be some consolation to know that American and Canadian butters are required to have a minimum of 80{ebea9d5847bd78db73673675e8a4786d1e11955363e2960615a0efdb904da7cb} butterfat, so if you’re choosing between a butter with 80 {ebea9d5847bd78db73673675e8a4786d1e11955363e2960615a0efdb904da7cb} butterfat and another with 82{ebea9d5847bd78db73673675e8a4786d1e11955363e2960615a0efdb904da7cb} butterfat, it’s very unlikely it will make or break the recipe.

Making a Balanced Cream Cheese Filling

What sets a truly superb Danish apart from a mediocrity one isn’t just the dough—it’s also the filling. It may be tempting to beat cream cheese together with an ungodly amount of sugar and an egg yolk, but taking the time to make a few low-effort additions can mean the difference between a spectacular pastry and a subpar one; here, a little lemon juice adds brightness and acidity, while vanilla brings a delicate floral note. Seasoning with just the right amount of salt highlights these subtle flavors.

Baking and Finishing the Pastry

Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

After all your hard work, it’s time to trim, proof and bake the pastries. You’ll portion the dough into four-inch squares, then pipe two tablespoons of cream cheese frosting into the center of each. Filling the pastries before they’ve proved allows the dough to puff around the cream cheese and lets us squeeze a bit more filling into each Danish. It’s crucial to properly proof the pastries before they bake—this helps to further develop both flavor and dough strength, resulting in crisp, flaky pastries with plenty of layers. Baked until golden brown and topped with a sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar, these Danishes will be the first you’ll actually want to try while they’re still fresh…and maybe even with a cup of coffee. You’ll have to put in the work to make them from start to finish, but you’ll also never be sad at the sight of a Danish again.