It's so much more than a ring-shaped pastry
Wisconsin is a mecca for cheese and beer. But denizens of other parts of the country may not be so familiar with the state’s pastry credentials.
Well before the cronut craze of the early 2010s and the frankenpastries that followed, Wisconsinites were killing it in the kringle game. For the uninitiated, a kringle is a flaky, tender pastry, usually filled with a fruit or nut filling. Think of it as a cross between a puff pastry and a turnover, but in the shape of an oval loop that’s big enough to bring to the office and share.
The kringle became the Official State Pastry of Wisconsin in 2013, but its Wisconsin history goes back nearly 200 years. The pastry first appeared in Racine, a town on the shore of Lake Michigan sandwiched between Milwaukee and Chicago, brought over by Danish immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Racine was a hub for Danes, and many of these enterprising new citizens earned their living in bakeries, where they honed the craft of making traditional Danish kringle.
“Kringle” translates literally from Danish as “pretzel shape,” and old-school kringle looks just like its name would suggest: an enormous pretzel. Traditional recipes call for plenty of sugar and butter and a sweet almond filling. The process of making the delicacy is time consuming, so bakers in Racine eventually abandoned the cumbersome pretzel shape in favor of a simple oval ring, forming the pastry Wisconsinites today know and love. These days, kringle fillings vary widely, from apple to apricot. Pecan is the local favorite.
Bendtsen’s Bakery is the last Racine bakery where kringle is still made entirely by hand. Founded in 1934 by Laurits Bendt Bendtsen, an immigrant from Odense, Denmark, the bakery has remained in the family for four generations. In 2016, Laurits’s great-grandson, Bendt III, took over the operation. The family keeps its kringle recipe secret—it’s never been shared with anyone outside of the family.
Every morning by 3 a.m., Bendt III and his brother-in-law Dave arrive to mix dough in 80-quart bowls before splitting the dough in half, each baker taking his portion and rolling it into flour, shortening, and butter until the dough stretches out to about six feet wide. From there, bakers cut the dough into smaller sections and refrigerate it for two to three days. Once it’s ready, they take the refrigerated dough and run it through a sheeter until eventually they’re left with a thin, 15-foot-long piece of dough that gets cut up into smaller sections. Each section is then covered with a butterscotch base and topped with filling. After that, it’s time to fold the pastry, shape it into an oval, brush with an egg wash and bake. Once the pastry has cooled, it’s time to top it with icing.
“To do them by hand, it’s an art and it takes years of experience,” explains Cindy Bendsten, who has managed the bakery for 34 years. “It’s not an easy life. The hours kind of stink; you get in at 2 or 3 a.m. At Christmas, these guys get in around 9 or 10 the night before and they’re not out until noon the next day.”
One of Bendtsen’s biggest competitors is slinging kringle less than two miles down the road. O & H Bakery was started in 1949 by Christian Olesen, who, as the story goes, learned the kringle trade at Bendtsen’s in the 1930s before starting his own bakery. Today, the Olesen family stays true to Christian’s original recipe but with the help of some machine automation.
“We still take three days to make all of our kringle, following a family recipe that hasn’t changed over the years,” explains Matt Horton, O & H’s vice president of marketing and the husband of a fourth-generation Olesen. “Where some of the equipment comes in is to make it a more consistent and better pastry, in our eyes.”
With five locations throughout southeast Wisconsin, O & H is the irrefutable kringle giant. But fans of Bendtsen’s and other small bakeries are fiercely loyal to their favorite kringle spots. It’s not uncommon to hear about families that make the rounds to multiple bakeries on Sunday mornings, picking up a kringle from each to appease differing loyalties. Writes one of Bendtsen’s Facebook fans of her allegiance to the bakery: “My first stop when back in southern WI. Even before family!”
Local kringle bakeries have also continued to grow in spite of—or perhaps thanks to—the trendy pastry boom. Both O & H and Bendtsen’s offer their own versions of the cronut, and both credit such frankenpastries for helping to renew interest in baked goods among millennials. But at both bakeries, kringle remains king.
“Some bakeries gear so much toward the new stuff that they kind of forget the old stuff,” Cindy Bendtsen says. “And the old stuff was always good!”