You can thank the Austrians for the confusion
Upon moving to Copenhagen in 2006 for a year-long exchange, one of the first words I learned in Danish was wienerbrød. As important as it was to know how to say “hello” and “goodbye” (hej and hej hej, respectively), it was just as imperative that I be able to order the flaky, sweet pastries that are the highlight of an indulgent breakfast spread.
But a danish (the pastry), translated in Danish (the language), actually means "Viennese bread," hinting at the pastry’s origin. There are two reigning tales of how wienerbrød came to be. One story tells of a strike among local Danish bakers in the mid-1800s. Workers from abroad came in to fill the vacancies, including Austrian bakers with their pastry traditions which Danes later adapted by adding sweet, buttery fillings. The second origin story describes a baker from Denmark’s royal court who travelled to Vienna, also around the mid-1800s, to improve his baking skills. When he returned to Denmark, the royal baker customized the Viennese pastry dough with a sugary filling. Either way, the wienerbrød’s combination of flaky, croissant-like pastry and indulgent filling quickly became a bakery staple across the country. By the early 1900s, a Danish emigrant to the United States popularized the danish in America and beyond.
While Americans, along with much of the western world, think of the iconic danish as a round pastry with a custard or jam filling and a white icing drizzle, the term wienerbrød in Denmark encompasses a wide array of baked goods. “There are several types of Danish pastries, so there's a pastry for everyone,” says Sandra Pedersen, a project coordinator from Copenhagen. “They are all crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Some are creamy. Some are more dry. Some are a little sweet, while others set your teeth on edge because they are filled with jelly and cream and topped with a sweet white or brown icing.”
Much like the Inuit have 50 words to describe types of snow (although, that’s a hotly-debated topic), Danes have dozens of different names for wienerbrød, each with their own characteristic shape, texture and filling. The iconic yellow custard pastry we refer to as a danish is actually called spandauer in Denmark. Snegle or "snails" are a prominent sub-group of danishes; the kanelsnegl features cinnamon and icing rolled into a round pastry while a højkanelsnegl, a "tall cinnamon snail," is a loftier, breadier version of the kanelsnegl quite similar to a classic cinnamon bun. And for a direktørsnegl, which stands in height somewhere between a kanelsnegl and højkanelsnegl, replace the cinnamon with chocolate icing for what’s typically the most sickly-sweet wienerbrød you can find in the bakery.
In Denmark, not all danishes are round. One of Pedersen’s favorites is the tebirkes, which is made by folding over a length of pastry dough and slicing it into individual portions before baking, resulting in a flattened rectangular shape. Tebirkes usually have a sweet butter and sugar filling, known in Danish as remonce, and they’re always topped with a generous sprinkling of poppy seeds. But if you venture into Jutland, Denmark’s mainland region, what looks like a tebirkes in the bakery window will actually be called a københavnerbirkes, or a "birkes from Copenhagen." A regular birkes ordered in Jutland won’t have that buttery-sweet remonce inside.
This regional slang is just one several wienerbrød variations and adaptations found across the country. “It’s really polarizing depending on where you come from in Denmark,” says Anne Elisabeth, an IT professional born and raised in Copenhagen. “The same pastry can be called different things around the country and people will add different things like butter or cheese and call it something else. Regardless, a Dane will have an opinion on the origins and only eat and refer to the specific pastry as they have learned.”
While Elisabeth only eats danishes once a month, she makes an exception for special occasions and visits to older family members, where large-format, shareable wienerbrød often make an appearance. “I could never go to my mom’s aunt’s house without her serving some kind of pastry,” Elisabeth explains. “She is an elderly lady and for her, it’s a Danish tradition to serve pastries after dinner with a cup of coffee and some small chocolates on the side."
While single pastries are typically eaten for breakfast or grabbed on-the-go for solo consumption, larger wienerbrød like dagmartærte—a giant pastry composed of mini round danishes, typically with white and/or chocolate icing and optional custard, marzipan and and raisins in the filling—or kanelstang, similar in texture and flavour to the kanelsnegl but woven into a long, rectangular strudel-like shape, is meant to be sliced and shared with a group to mark an occasion. “If we don't buy cake for our colleagues to celebrate a birthday or a child’s birth, we buy a wienerbrødsstang or a kanelstang to share,” Pedersen says.
When I returned to Copenhagen this past August for a ten-year reunion with a dozen of my exchange student friends, it was definitely a cause for celebration. Every morning, someone from the group was tasked with visiting the local bakery to fetch a generous array of wienerbrød for our daily Danish breakfast spread.
After a decade away, I forgot how satisfying it was to take the first bite out of a spandauer – the gratifying crispy crust giving way to the pastry’s softer core and creamy custard filling. But I stopped before the second bite, sliced off a quadrant of the pastry for myself and returned the remainder to share with the table in Danish danish tradition.