Danish pastry is really French and was born of a baker's mistake, but it has very nearly become all things to all people.
It is a morning staple in the United States. To order it, you don't even have to say pastry, just Danish.
Europeans like their Danish lighter, more elegant. In Denmark, no party or leisurely Sunday breakfast is complete without the pastry, which the Danes call Viennese. To Germans, the pastry is a "Copenhagener."
Even Pat Harper, a nutrition consultant and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, admits, "Well, it tastes good. . . . For people who are trying to gain weight, this might be one of the choices."
According to the Danish bakers' union, the distinctive dough was created 350 years ago by Claudius Gelee, a French apprentice baker who forgot to add butter to the flour and tried to hide his mistake by folding lumps of it into the dough. To the astonishment of Gelee and his colleagues, the result was the lightest dough ever seen in France.
Light in texture, yes, but rather heavy in calories -- "about 220 to 250," warns Harper. ("There's a little bit of a range depending on the flavor you like.") Of course, in 17th-century France, extra calories probably weren't a big worry.
Gelee opened a Paris cafe in 1622 where he served the pastry the French call "a thousand leaves" and repeated his success in Florence. Italians call it "folded pastry."
Italian bakers took the pastry to Austria. It journeyed from there to Denmark when Danish bakers went on strike, and replacements imported from Austria brought the "Viennese bread" along. From then on, the pastry became Danish to the rest of the world -- probably, says Ebbe Larsen of the bakers' union, because Danish bakers emigrated to so many countries.
The secret of good Danish is chilling the ingredients so repeated folding and rolling will produce distinct layers of dough and butter.
Danes fill the pastries with jam, fruit, nuts or cream.
The fat content of the pastry varies considerably with the filling, notes Harper, and that's worth considering because "fat contributes to more health problems -- heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes, for instance -- than any other nutrient." A fruit Danish contains about 8 grams of fat; an ordinary cheese Danish is far naughtier, with about 14 grams of fat. Add a pat of butter, and you're nearing in a few bites the halfway mark in a day's reasonable intake of fat, she says.
Instead of butter, many bakers use a special margarine with a high melting point. The best bakers work the dough by hand, contending that machines make it too hard and dry.
Pat Harper has two pieces of advice for the Danish diehards: When you can bear it, make do with a bagel or English muffin (with about 1 gram of fat each) or even a bran muffin (about 5 grams). And when you can't, "if you're going to have a Danish, then you've got to cut back for the rest of the day, eat a lower-fat diet . . .
"If you're not in that frame of mind where you're budgeting your fat, there is a tendency toward allowing yourself to eat more and more of this type of thing."
On that point, the Danish lovers and the nutritionist can agree.