Sunday, February 27, 2011

Danish Danish

You know those little fruit-filled round morning disks called "Danish pastry" that are usually found on insipid continental breakfast buffets in this country? And you know how we eat them because of either: 1) casual passivity, 2) they’re there, 3) you’re half asleep, or 4) otherwise you’d starve? Until about six years ago I thought these ubiquitous pastries were one of life’s little tricks because they look and sound good, yet each time I bite into one I’m reminded of how awful they are. Here’s the thing: what we call Danish are Americanized Danish, in the same way that Panda Express is Chinese food.

Several years back I read an article about the real Danish of Denmark, or what I like to refer to as Danish Danish. Both croissants and Danish are said to have originated in Vienna. With 27 layers of butter-filled dough as the goal before baking, creating authentic Danish pastry is a delicate operation taken quite seriously in Denmark, and the results are almost impossible to replicate. The article’s author insisted that the Danish we know here are more closely related to cardboard wheels than to their originating pastry in Europe. Once this truth was revealed to me, it became my personal mission to visit Denmark and see for myself. It took a few years (okay, ten) to get there, but get there I did.

If memory serves, Copenhagen bakeries are marked by a golden pretzel crown because they are regulated by the monarchy. Filled-to-the-brim pastry cases made me feel like a guest at Willy Wonka’s factory (had he specialized in pastry). My first pick: a “slice”—a flat pastry layered with cream and crushed nuts. This euphoric Danish Danish was more than I could have hoped for! And my first revelatory taste was transcendent, like waking up from a "Matrix" sleep with the realization that all my life I’d been living a lie—a Danish pastry lie—and the sadness that comes from knowing everyone I know is still asleep.

I left the bakery in a bit of a fog, then walked through the streets of Copenhagen for hours and found myself stumbling into other royal bakeries and purchasing more pastries. First a kringle bar, then a Spandauer or round pastry with cream inside and both chocolate and vanilla icings. Before the day was out I had to eat one more “slice.” Danish Danish count for the day: four. Believe me, you would have done the same. On later days I had two pastries a day, and only two because I was supplementing this diet with fresh Danish butter cookies (omg).

This Danish Danish feeding frenzy helped me see how much of a misnomer the word “Danish” is in the U.S. The pastries we mass-produce here do look and chew like cardboard wheels, and they taste only of dull oil and whatever sweet filling-from-a-can are in them. I propose we call Americanized Danish pastries by another name, one that better represents their blandness and sheer inappropriateness.

For your consideration, I give you this new word: fleckdreck. At Starbucks a person could say, "Hello, may I please have one cheese fleckdreck?" It's just not right to call something a thing that it is not. Do you call a knife a fork? Do you call cardboard “pastries” from complacent continental breakfast buffets delicious? I don’t think so. Listen, most people eat fleckdreck because it’s there and it's all they know. There’s no judgment here for that. I just think in this case ignorance is the opposite of bliss; when eating a Danish pastry, one should expect only bliss.

If you want to try a real Danish pastry in this country, to my knowledge you have three (that I know of!) options:
1. Make it yourself using real Danish butter (available at most Whole Foods), but it’s an intense process and with mostly American ingredients and flour, the flavor and consistency won’t be quite right.
2. Visit Solvang, a Danish settlement town in California. However I personally wouldn’t recommend this option, since the Danish pastry I’ve tried at the shops there are not very flavorful nor authentic to me.
3. Go to Hygge Bakery in downtown Los Angeles. To date this is the closest I’ve come to tasting a Danish Danish outside of Copenhagen. Oh and for those seeking fleckdreck, there's a Starbucks only one block away.

Until we eat again,

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