Danish Kringle, American Style

Wienerbrød, the classic Danish pastry that is considered to be “Viennese” in Denmark, has a life of its own in the pockets of Danish-Americans in the US.  It is known by the name given to the pretzel shaped version — kringle — and is in fact the official state pastry of my home state of Wisconsin.  (Narrowly beating out the cream puff, but that’s another story.)  You may think that we have better things to do than to vote for a state pastry, but I might point out that at the moment there is a poll being conducted by Food Minister Dan Jørgensen to determine the Danish “nationalret”.  Promise me you won’t vote for spaghetti with meat sauce.

“Kringle” has evolved from its wienerbrød origins into something that is uniquely American, and in fact often doesn’t even have the pretzel shape it is named for.  As part of the celebration of the debut of Eat Smart in Denmark, our culinary guide to Danish cuisine, we decided to host the North American Kringle Competition. The last one that had been held was in 2005, sponsored by the now-defunct Danish-American Dana College in Blair, Nebraska.

That competition was won by Kirsten’s Danish Bakery of Burr Ridge, Illinois (near Chicago), much to the chagrin of the bakeries in Racine, Wisconsin.  Not only is kringle the state pastry of Wisconsin, but Racine calls itself “America’s Kringle Capital”.  Several bakeries in Racine make kringle that is shipped around the country, and sold wholesale to grocery stores and big box retailers.  Racine had a lot riding on the September 14, 2014 competition that we held at HotelRED here in Madison, Wisconsin.

There were twelve kringle entered, representing five states, including one from the community of Solvang, California, as well as Elk Horn, Iowa (known in Denmark from the Danes on the Prairie TV program on DR).  We even had a “Cajun Kringle” from New Orleans, which featured a praline filling.  A panel of four judges, including a professional pastry instructor, a food journalist and a Dane from the University of Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies Department, tasted all twelve before choosing the winner.  The entries were of course labeled by number only, with no indication as to where they came from.

The general public was then invited to select a “people’s choice” kringle, and over 150 votes were cast.  We’re happy to say that those attending also purchased over 70 copies of Eat Smart in Denmark, which will be the first introduction for many of them to the wonders of Danish cuisine beyond the familiar kringle.

Both the professional judges and the book debut attendees selected kringle #7, which was revealed to be a Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Kringle from Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe in Green Bay, Wisconsin.   Uncle Mike’s has only been making kringle for one year, but their dedication to using all fresh ingredients — including 3/4 lb. of European-style butter in each kringle — paid off.  Their entry would not necessarily be familiar to those raised on Danish wienerbrød, but it was uniformly declared to be the most delicious.

This set off a bit of a firestorm of response in Racine, the town that thinks of itself as America’s Kringle Capital. But one of the bakeries there pointed out that their kringle is vegan, meaning of course that there is not butter used in making it.  Danish pastry without real smør? Unthinkable.

We had the pleasure of going to Uncle Mike’s to deliver their trophy in person, and it was fun to see how excited Mike and Mary Vande Walle (yes, they are of Dutch and German extraction, not Danish) and their staff are about winning. They’ve set up a new web site already in order to be able to ship their kringle around the country, and we even plan to bring one with us when we come to Denmark for the Danish debut party for Eat Smart in Denmark.  That party will be at Restaurant Kronborg in Copenhagen, and will undoubtedly feature delicious smørrebrød  — made with real Danish butter, of course.

Carol and Katrina

PS At the debut party for Eat Smart in Denmark at The Copenhagen in New York last month, Consul General Jarl Frijs-Madsen kindly said “This is a book that every tourist should get when they arrive in Denmark, because it will make their enjoyment of Danish food so much better.”

A Toast to Store Bededag

You might think that Store Bededag (“Great Prayer Day”) is a modern Danish invention, created to efficiently combine several religious holidays no longer celebrated by Danes going to church.  Danish church attendance, except for major life events and the big holidays of Easter and Christmas, is indeed astonishly low among the 80% of the population belongs to the state-supported Lutheran Church.

Bishop Bagger & Buns

But Store Bededag, which is May 16 this year, actually dates back to 1686, when it was created by King Christian V at the suggestion of Bishop Hans Bagger of Roskilde to consolidate several of the minor Roman Catholic holidays that survived the Reformation (and thus have more work days for laborers). Since that time it has been celebrated on the 4th Friday after Easter as part of a series of days off after the long Danish winter.

There is actually very little celebration associated with Store Bededag except the tradition of eating varme hveder, a type of warm, toasted wheat bun, the evening before. The tradition began when bakers, forbidden by law from opening their bakeries on Store Bededag itself, started making these buns the day before so that parishioners could toast them at home on the holiday. It eventually became the custom to eat them fresh on Thursday evening instead of waiting until Friday.

Many Danes wax nostalgic at the very aroma of varme hveder, which are traditionally eaten toasted and buttered. If you would like to make your own, the famed Claus Meyer offers a recipe (in Danish) on his web site. The Kitchens of Kiki blog by Kirsten Lauridsen has a translation of this recipe to English.

Efforts to do away with Store Bededag have met with opposition — who would want to eliminate a day off from work, and a tasty tradition to boot?  There may not be much praying done on Great Prayer Day, but one can be certain that those who can get outside celebrate by enjoying this precious day of Danish springtime.


We are pleased to announce that Eat Smart in Denmark, our culinary guide to Danish food, will be published in August, 2014.  It includes a section on Danish regional food and holiday traditions such as this one.

Smørrebrød in Miniature

The Royal Cafe started the trend by combining smørrebrød with sushi to create what they called “smushi” soon after it opened in 2007.  The Royal Cafe, created and owned by Lo Østergaard and Rud Christiansen, is a combination of a cafe and a shop presenting Danish manufacturers such as Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen together with a fusion of traditional Danish foods and original cuisine.

While the name “smushi” implies the wedding of Danish open-faced sandwiches and sushi, these artistic little creations bear only a small resemblance to real Japanese sushi, which always feature vinegared rice (often combined with raw fish or other seafood).  Instead most smushi are traditional Danish smørrebrød combinations created in “sushi size”.  The small size allows diners to sample a wider variety without getting full, according to the company’s web site.

The concept has proven so popular that The Royal Cafe has issued a book with a decidedly not bite-size size or price:  The Royal Smushi Book is a coffee-table book that sells for a royal 350 kroner.  Photos of cute smushis abound on Pinterest, and the Danish-Japanese fusion has led a successful Japanese version of the restaurant and shop called Denmark – The Royal Cafe in Tokyo.

And now those who find even a smushi too large have a new option for truly bite size versions of smørrebrød: Danish Minies on Gentoftegade in Copenhagen. This company creates canapé-size smørrebrød based on traditional open-faced sandwich combinations. They don’t require knife and fork, or even a plate, so they’re perfect for parties or receptions.

It’s nice to see the revival of interest in smørrebrød, even if the trend is towards postage-stamp size creations. Which by coincidence is just what happened last year, when the Danish postal system issued a set of delicious-looking stamps that featured this classic Danish culinary favorite.





Duck, Martin Luther!

November 10 is Mortensaften in Denmark, and in homes across the country duck will be served in honor of Martin Luther. Or maybe not.  Mortensaften is indeed named after someone named Martin — but in this case it was Saint Martin, who like many saints is not officially celebrated in Luther’s Protestant church.

The Martin being honored on Mortensaften, which is the eve of The Feast of Saint Martin, was named Martin of Tours, or  Sanctus Martinus Turonensis (316 – November 8, 397).  He was born in Hungary, grew up in Italy and lived in France — so his ties to Denmark are tenuous at best, although Sct. Mortens Kirke in Randers was named in his honor long before Martin Luther’s time.

But why do the Danes eat duck in his honor?  The answer to that question is a bit complicated.  The tradition in Denmark is actually calls for goose to be eaten on Mortensaften, but geese are larger than most families can handle, and not as readily available as duck.  Eating duck, however, just doesn’t make much sense from a symbolic standpoint.  According to legend, the monk Martin hid in a goose pen to modestly avoid being named a bishop. The cackling of the geese revealed his whereabouts, so it was therefore decided that every year on this day geese must lose their lives and be eaten. In actuality, November is a perfect time for a festive goose dinner, because it is a time in the late autumn when geese are often slaughtered.  But there is no legend for Mortensaften that calls for duck to be used as a scapegoat for their feathered brethren. The truth of the matter is that many Danes enjoy a good duck dinner, especially as a little preview of the festive Christmas season soon to come.

Smørrebrød: The App

VisitDenmark is using new technology to promote an old Danish food tradition with its creative iPhone app entitled Smorrebrod. The idea came from the U.S. office of VisitDenmark, which is the official Danish tourism organization.  According to PR manager Christina Heinze Johansson, “Within the past few years, Danish smørrebrød has experienced a renaissance. Increasingly popular are both the ‘old-school’ restaurants, which today are considered ‘retro’ and institutions almost, as well as the new restaurants. New chefs are interpreting their grandmothers’ versions of smørrebrød with respect for its legacy and position in Danish food culture, but with new takes and variations, making it more fresh and modern. Smørrebrød is such an iconic part of Danish cuisine and comes with a lot of tradition.”

“But for the average American traveler, this very particular and very Danish food phenomenon needs an introduction. With the app, we wanted to provide travelers to Copenhagen with a guide – to the customs, the places and the history of smørrebrød. A sort of handy ‘smørrebrød-pedia’. Experiencing smørrebrød is such a genuine Danish experience – a ‘must-do’ to cross off your list when visiting. It ties into the trend of visitors wanting more authentic experiences while traveling. We wanted to inspire travelers to Denmark to a more local food experiences – to eat like the locals – and for them to experience a piece of Danish food culture and history at the same time.”

The firm Kleberg & Küttemann was hired to design this clever smørrebrød app, along with one for journalists entitled Denmark Stay Tuned. The company also has a number of helpful apps available for those searching for campsites throughout Scandinavia — and even one for anyone looking for a taxi in Denmark.

What can you find on the Smorrebrod app, which is available for free in the iTunes store? Spinning the touch-screen home page takes you to a number of different features: Smørrebrød in the US, Smørrebrød in Copenhagen, Recipes (mostly from Aamanns), videos, and a wonderful, extensive section entitled Smørrebrød A-Å.  The uninitiated might not realize that this is the same as an A – Z listing in English, but that’s part of what makes it so Danish.

Among the many topics covered in the A – Å section is smørrebrød etiquette, which is also typically Danish. The uninitiated might not realize the importance of eating fish before meat, and within that category, eating herring before salmon.  Written with humor that is also typically Danish, this app is a great way “to explore this mouth-watering Danish food phenomenon in a new and fun way,” as VisitDenmark points out. The easy to use app allows you to e-mail a recipe or description to a friend, or to yourself so that you can print it out.  And the photographs that accompany the program are excellent. Unfortunately for Americans who love Danish food, Aamanns/Copenhagen in New York is the only US restaurant currently listed as serving smørrebrød — so we may have to make do with this beautifully designed virtual experience until our next trip to Denmark.

To download the iPhone app and learn more about culinary travel in Denmark, see: