A masterclass in viennoiserie from Vaucluse's Zoe Kanan

EC: The Secret to Making Great Danish Is a Sourdough Starter
Credit: Photo by Rebecca Firkser

It was Rory Gilmore who once said that the day her local diner serves Danish was “the happiest of all days." I’m inclined to agree. When made properly, Danish are so much more than the drab pastry-like items one may find at a motel continental breakfast. They’re just barely sweet, impossibly buttery, and delightfully flakey gems of laminated dough. A cousin of the croissant, another yeast-risen dough similar to puff pastry, Danish are known as viennoiserie pastries. Good Danish are hard to find, but luckily there are a few bakers making the real deal, one of whom was kind enough to let me in on her secrets at a Danish class.

Zoe Kanan is the head baker at New York City’s Vaucluse. A veteran of Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar, Kanan knows her way around a classic pastry, but she’s not afraid to experiment. Armed with an affinity for making sourdough breads, Kanan has introduced sourdough into the pastry program at Vaucluse. The addition of sourdough starter—a fermented mixture of flour and water containing wild yeast also known as “levain”—to Danish dough sets Kanan’s pastries apart from the rest.

Kanan’s Danish start as a dough of milk, eggs, sourdough starter, commercial yeast, and flour. The dough is rolled out, then wrapped around a large packet of butter. To create the Danish’s flaky consistency, the dough-wrapped butter is rolled and folded several times. Here’s an idea of how much butter goes into Danish pastry: Danish are 37 percent butter while croissants are 25 percent. Kanan’s addition of sourdough to her dough helps offset the richness of the butter with another, slightly sour flavor.

The dough is then rolled out and cut into even squares. The best way to make quick, even cuts is to use a bicycle cutter, like this.

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Credit: Photo by Rebecca firkser

Kanan demonstrated three ways of preparing Danish. The first was the classic round shape, which is actually more of a square before it bakes. Two opposite corners of each square were pressed into the center to create the shape.

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Credit: photo by rebecca firkser

The Danish were then filled with a sweet cream cheese and honeyed California apricots.

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Credit: Photo by Rebecca FIrkser

The second sweet Danish was a pinwheel shape filled with strawberry-thyme jam. These eye-catching pastries are made by cutting a slice into each corner of a pastry square, and then pressing alternating corners of each sliced edge into the center.

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Credit: Photo by Rebecca Firkser

The third Danish was a savory pastry filled with a garlic scape pesto and twisted into a shape of Kanan’s own creation. After folding the filling into the pastry, small pieces are cut off. A slice is made in the center, then the Danish are twisted inside themselves and pressed together at the center.

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Credit: Photo by Rebecca Firkser

The pastries then sit in a warm space to rise (also known as proof) before baking.

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Credit: Photo by Rebecca Firkser