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Who knew danish was so easy?

evenTinierTown's only bakery has a for sale sign in front of the darkened building. Sad but true. What's sadder is that I never had one of their legendary maple bars during the brief time they were reopened — and by brief, I mean perhaps as long as six months. Since the building's for sale, I doubt there will be another bakery sprouting up there anytime soon. sigh

Looking for the silver lining, I decided it's time to master a few things I've somehow gotten away without learning so far. I'm pretty fearless when it comes to grabbing a recipe and going for it, but every time I've approached laminated doughs (those being the rich, butter-layered ones used for things like croissants and danish) I've had to make some urgent phone call or another. There's something about all that rolling and chilling and rolling again that's just intimidating. But what's a mage to do? The nearest bakery is an hour away...something had to give. First on the list is danish. With any luck it'll be followed by croissants and maybe even doughnuts someday...but first the danish.

Danish is one of those bakery temptations that disappoints as often as it delights. Too many times, what looks like layer upon layer of tender dough webbed with buttery goodness turns out to be more like yeasted coffeecake — not that there's anything wrong with a good coffeecake, mind you, it's just not danish — and fillings tend towards more sugar than fruit.

Then there's that sticky sugar glaze. What is up with the extra layer of sucrose? Maybe it helps keep it fresher — I can't help but think that if bakeries made their pastries better, with higher quality ingredients, they'd have to worry a bit less about shelf-life.  It certainly provides that extra bit of sweetness for tastebuds lulled into complacency by processed food — but what flavor there might be is overwhelmed by the pure sugar.

Don't get me wrong, I am not anti-sugar, even relatively straight. Oh no, in fact, I am a  huge fan of a thick tracery of icing, drizzled on while the danish is warm so it spreads just a bit, oozing into the crevices to offer a contrast to rich, buttery pastry and (hopefully) a filling with a bit more complexity than sugar+fruit. But that's enough sugar, there's no need to wash everything with it too! It's as someone decided to serve the five year-old's archetype of a danish: thick, sweet dough filled with sugar masquerading as fruit, and two layers of sugar toppings. Bleech.

Therein lies the first decision. Step away from the sugar. Fruit fillings should be fruity, not sweet; glaze and icing used somewhat reasonably. (Hey, I've seen the pictures, I know how much icing is on these babies.)

Next came a lucky stumble across a recipe for Food Processor Danish Pastry dough (from Nigella's Domestic Goddess) at Esurientes, which is, by the way, a lovely blog, even if it is fattening just to visit. Danishdone0111_1 I've made this dough twice and am rather pleased with the results, it's not perfect — to be honest, the recipe may be perfect, I am clearly not — but it's a great start. Better yet, it's resilient dough, maintaining a tender crumb and beautiful rise even after two weeks in the refrigerator and a stay in the freezer. Look at those layers!

 Food Processor Danish Pastry Dough
            (from How To Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson)

water    1/4 cup
milk       1/2 cup
egg       1 large
bread flour    1 2/3 cups
yeast     2 1/4 teaspoons active dry (1 package)
salt     1 teaspoon
sugar     1 tablespoon
butter     8 ounces (cold, cut into 1” pieces)

Combine water, milk, and egg, set aside.

Place dry ingredients in food processor with metal blade and pulse just to combine. Add butter and pulse briefly, there should still be a lot of gravel-sized pieces of butter.

Pour flour mixture into bowl, add liquid ingredients and mix gentl, just enough to barely combine. Cover and place in refrigerator for several hours. (At this point you will be looking at this mess and disbelieving the recipe, I know, I did too. But have some faith, it'll come together.)

Danishonefold Turn dough out onto very lightly floured surface and roll into a 20-inch (50cm) square. Fold dough in thirds, like a letter. (This is called a "turn" and is what builds all those layers.) Rotate dough 80 degrees and roll out into a 20-inch square again.

Repeat folding and rolling three times, refrigerating between every turn or two to keep dough cold. (That's three turns in theory, reality seems to be about doing it until it looks right. This took four turns, and extra flour each time it was rolled out, the first time I made it. The other time I made a double batch and split it in half, put half in the freezer and half in the refrigerator; the refrigerated half took three turns while the frozen one took five...or maybe it was the other way around.) In any case, the dough will go from having lots of visible butter (See all those bits of butter?  This picture was taken on the third turn for this dough, this must be the stuff that took five!.) to looking like something you'd make into danish. That's when you're done.

Cut in half, fold each piece into thirds, then thirds again, wrap well and refrigerate (I'd recommend no more than a few days, even though I totally forgot mine for two weeks and it was still pretty darned good) or freeze until ready to use. It'll look something like this, with a little butter still visible, but not so much as before.

When you are ready to make danish, preheat oven to 350F (180C) Roll dough into 14 inch square, cut into six pieces.  Place scoop of filling in center of each piece of dough, fold two opposite sides just across each other and seal them with a drop of water. Let rise until doubled in size. (This took from 30-90 minutes depending on temperature of the room and dough.)  Optional: brush on an egg wash (one egg yolk and a few spoons of water whisked together)  for a shinier, crisper crust. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until golden brown.

Let cool for 5 minutes. No, really. Let them cool. Do I need to slap your hand?

Drizzle with icing made from confectioner's sugar and a tiny bit of milk. I always end up with tons of frosting because it's really hard to drizzle a drop or two of milk from a gallon and I'm just too lazy to pour a little into a small pitcher or something. (Heaven forbid I should use some kitchen implement for its intended purpose to make my life easier; they're apparently all there purely for decoration.)

Notes on ingredients
The recipe calls for superfine or caster sugar, something which can be created by placing some sugar in the food processor and turning it on for about as long as it takes to gather the rest of the ingredients...otherwise known as a minute or two. Superfine sugar is handy to have on hand, it dissolves better and more quickly, especially in cold liquids — it's like powdered sugar without the cornstarchy powder. I keep a jarful of SF sugar with a couple of vanilla beans in it on the shelf for use in whipped cream...and something else...I am sure...I couldn't possibly eat that much whipped cream. (could I?)

Unsalted butter is often called for in recipes because the amount of salt in butter varies from brand to brand. In real life, as opposed to those cookbooks wherein the cheapOrganicFromHappyCowsAndPlants superGrocers is just up the street, I often have only salted butter on hand. gasp The butter I get isn't terribly salty tasting so I usually just use the called for amount of salt, or a little less if there's lots of butter and not much salt in the recipe. This has worked so far, and until I come across something more scientific it'll have to do. (hmmm, does it list the sodium content on a butter package? I'll have to go check.) I used all the salt the first time I made this and half the second time without a noticeable difference.

Notes on methods
As I said in the introduction to the recipe, it's very resilient. There are differences in the final results, although I'd hesitate to draw an conclusions based on what I've done so far. I froze both the dough and assembled danish in a variety of stages and here's what I've learned so far:
Dough (partially rolled) — Wrap well in a couple of layers of plastic wrap and place in freezer-safe container (i.e. freezer bag). Thaw overnight in refrigerator before completing rolling/turning.
Dough (completely rolled, not shaped/cut) — Same as above.
Dough (individual danish pieces, unfilled) — Wrap as above. Thaw overnight in refrigerator or in an hour on the counter. Fill once the dough has started to rise in the center. (I did this as individual pieces and my only complaint is that the finished pastries don't have visibly flaky edges. I think that next time I'll try a larger sheet so I can cut them while half-frozen.)
Fruit Danish — Wrap as above. Thaw in refrigerator, rising will probably take a few hours at room temperature. These turned out okay, the filling gets a little smooshy, particularly since we used no thickeners. Also, the section under the filling didn't rise at all.
Almond Danish — Wrap as above. Thaw in refrigerator, rising will probably take a few hours at room temperature. These turned out well, the drier filling worked better than the fruit and the section under the filling rose some.
Conclusions — I think my approach is going to be to make a double or triple batch of dough and roll it once or twice before separating it into reasonable portions to freeze. Then I'll take out a piece of dough the night before I want to use it, finish rolling, make filling, and refrigerate the dough when it was ready to be made into danish. The flat, unfilled pieces of dough take very little time to warm up enough to start rising (maybe half an hour) so by the time I have a cup of tea, I can fill them and let them finish rising for a few minutes before baking.
If I wasn't going to have much time on the serving end, I'd go ahead and freeze the complete danish, but I'd make sure the filling would stand up to freezing without getting too wet and use a little bottom heat when rising.

I have tried three fillings so far: the almond filling in this picture and two fruit fillings that a friend of mine and I made up on the spot one night when I showed up on her doorstep with a half-batch of pastry dough. Those are J's pastries shown up there on top of the recipe — with the visible flaky layers, aren't they pretty? The almond danish shown here are just as flaky, but I didn't trim the edges after I took the dough out of the freezer so you can't see the layers. I used this filling, which is a bit drier than I prefer, but not at all bad; maybe next time, I'll add a splash of amaretto to moisten it a little. These were frozen after two turns, thawed and given two or three more turns, then filled and baked the same day.

One of the fruit fillings was apples, briefly sauteed in a little butter and maple syrup with a sprig of rosemary for extra flavor. We added some carmelized nuts, I believe these were pecans. The second had pears, some citrus zest, a sprinkle of sugar, and I think a splash of something alcoholic. (or was that the cooks?) In any case, fillings for these can be made from whatever fruit you happen to have lying around, just keep in mind that your fillings should be dry enough to hold together without the juice running everywhere.

I've even found a similar puff pastry recipe that comes with strong recommendations. I'll have to come up with some excuse to try some. Then I suppose I'll have to shop for a deep fryer for those doughnuts.

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