A natural place to start in our exploration of Scandinavian food cuisine is with the pastry that has, in English, become synonymous with Denmark: danishes.
Ironically enough, the Danes call danishes “wienerbrød,” which literally translates to “Vienna bread.” Unsurprisingly, the name comes from the pastry’s origins in Austria. As the story goes, the mid-1800s brought massive baker strikes in across Denmark. To stay in business, bakeries hired foreign workers who, unfamiliar with Danish recipes, made pastries and bread from their home countries. One of these became especially popular among Danes, who tweaked the recipe and gave the pastry the name Vienna bread.
Although obviously an homage to these origins, the name can also be understood within the context of the booming agricultural trade in Denmark at the time. The increase in trade led to an influx of foreign goods, many of which were considered exotic and exciting. The name, then, also gave the pastry an exotic flair.
It might go without saying that danishes in Denmark are nothing like the prepackaged food-shaped-objects living for months at a time in vending machines across the United States. Danish wienerbrød has a delicate and flaky texture, with a generous amount of filling, often either chocolate, custard, or some type of high quality fruit jam. It’s difficult to look graceful while eating a genuine danish, but it is well worth the humiliation if you ever have the opportunity to try one.
While wienerbrød is quite ubiquitous in bakeries all over Denmark (and all of Scandinavia, for that matter), they are far from the only pastries gracing shop windows. The options, in fact, are too numerous to mention in such a short post, but here are some of the most significant (and, in my taste, delicious).
Fastelavnsboller is a pastry that is almost exclusively available in late winter. It is the traditional food item to accompany a holiday called fastelavn, which is similar to Halloween in the US. Children dress in costumes and knock on houses in their neighborhoods one Sunday afternoon in early February. When the door opens, the children sing a song in which they ask the homeowners for buns (festelavnboller, in fact!) to eat, although often small amounts of money are given instead. Some sources say that the tradition started as a socially sanctified way for less fortunate families in Denmark to receive public food support as food supply dwindled after a long, cold winter. However, its proximity to lent may also indicate that the sweet is a holdover from the Fat Tuesday tradition that officially subsided when Denmark became Protestant in the 15th century.
The pastries come in many varieties, and there is an especially large diversity when all of Scandinavia is considered (as all have similar traditions). Danish fastelavnboller are generally sweet pastry buns filled with cream and a bit of jam, and topped with more cream frosting or chocolate. The buns in other Nordic countries, however, tend to be more like normal wheat rolls.
A favorite among Swedes is the kanelbulle, or cinnamon bun. Americans are generally familiar with cinnamon buns, but it may come as a surprise to many that they have roots in Scandinavia, especially Sweden. Little information is available about the pastry’s specific origins, but it seems to be clear that by the 1920s they were hugely popular all over the world. Today, the buns often play a prominent role in the Swedish cultural institution of fika (which Amanda is exploring in her blog series “Fika Fridays”).
Scandinavian cinnamon buns are typically smaller and not quite as sweet as those Americans are accustomed to. They also often include cardamom, and instead if icing, large sugar crystals are often out on top of the buns. IKEA offers very reasonably priced Swedish-style cinnamon buns in their restaurants and food sections, if you happen to find yourself at one. This coffee and kanelbulle were only 10 DKK, or about $2!
Hindbærsnitter is a pastry that, despite its convoluted name, has quickly found a place in my heart here in Denmark. Its original attraction is its surface similarity to Pop-Tarts, but unsurprisingly they are so much tastier. The name translates to raspberry cutting, alluding to the jam filling. This filling is between layers of thin shortbread. On top, there is usually white frosting or glaze and rainbow sprinkles. Yes, it tastes as good as it looks.
So, now we’ve explored Danishes in Denmark, along with other local pastry favorites. Any questions? Do you have a favorite Scandinavian pastry? Let me know in the comments!