Who doesn’t love a good Danish? Emphasis on good here. I’m talking about tantalizingly crisp pastry, stuffed (preferably, as much as is possible) with a sweet and tangy filling. It should be fresh—warm is best, and a cup of coffee (or two) should be at the ready. The best way to ensure that last part is to make the Danishes yourself at home (even with store-bought puff pastry dough!), where you’ll be in total control of everything from filling flavor to freshness to the perfect level of warmth. Which leads me to the topic of this discussion: deciding on the perfect shape(s) for your upcoming foray into deliciousness.
First up, a few universal Danish rules:
Work with cold pastry. Whether you’re using store-bought puff pastry or you’ve made your own (go on with your bad self!), you’ll want the pastry to be cold. I even suggest portioning out each piece and keeping them, separated by pieces of parchment or wax paper, in the refrigerator while you shape each one. The colder the dough, the better the finished pastry will hold its shape.
Roll it out thin. Danish is traditionally made from a yeast-risen puff pastry or sweet dough (which you can even laminate like puff pastry!). You can also use store-bought puff pastry for the sake of ease, but it won't be yeast-risen. For nearly all Danish shapes, you’ll want the dough to be pretty thin when you go to work with it—around 1/4 inch. Remember: You’re adding filling to it and, in some cases, folding it over itself to make more layers of dough, plus it will puff up in the oven! Dough that’s too thick will lead to undercooked pastry in the center, but thin pastry will be crisp and buttery.
Use a sharp blade. You can use anything to help cut the pastry dough, but make sure your blade is nice and sharp so you get clean cuts. Pastry wheels, bench knifes, and paring knives can all work!
Try a piping bag for the filling. I love using piping bags to fill Danishes—it gives me so much control as to where the filling is getting placed. Plus, it makes it easy to do a whole bunch of different flavors, if you’re into that sort of thing. Just put each filling in it’s own bag then mix and match when you go to assemble the pastries!
Remember, if you’re working with yeast-risen dough, to allow it to rise after shaping. Transfer the shaped pastries to parchment-lined baking sheets and cover with greased plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until light and puffy looking, usually 30 to 45 minutes before baking. If you’re using store-bought puff pastry, you can skip this step and head straight for the oven.
Bake hot! Exact temperatures will vary based on the dough and fillings you're using, but a high temperature is best for achieving those flaky layers: I recommend 375° F to 400° F. If the pastries are browning too quickly, you can reduce the oven temperature as low as 325° F for the remainder of the bake time. Larger Danishes will bake for 17 to 20 minutes, and smaller Danishes will bake for 13 to 16 minutes. You're looking for a deep golden brown all over, and if your filling was raw fruit, it should be tender. Visible fillings should be slightly bubbly.
One of my favorite Danish shapes for its look, though it doesn’t allow as much room for filling—so use something super flavorful. I’m partial to a big scoop of dulce de leche.
Start with a large square, about 4 x 4 inches. Use a pastry wheel or bench knife to cut incisions on each edge, fully cut on the outside, but leaving it attached in the center by at least 1 inch.
Pick one of the corners and fold it in towards the center, and press gently to seal. Skip the next edge, then do the same with the following piece (alternating will give you the pinwheel shape). Repeat all the way around the pastry.
Pipe or scoop the filling into the center of the pinwheel, where the corners of pastry meet!
This shape looks really great once baked, and is so easy to do! I like to fill these with a relatively smooth filling, like jam—but you can also use fresh fruit that breaks down easily in the oven, like berries.
Start with a square of dough about 3 x 3 inches. Pipe or spoon the filling down the center of the dough, filling about 1 inch of the space down the center of the pastry, and leaving about 1 inch on either side of the filling.
Use a sharp blade to cut the dough on the right side of the filling into strips about 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide. Repeat all the way down the dough. You should get about 4 to 5 strips.
Repeat the cuts in the same places on the other side of the dough.
To begin the braid, fold the top strip on the left side of the dough over the filling. Fold the top strip on the right side over the filling, slightly overlapping with the left strip.
Repeat this process all the way down the pastry, then tuck the ends under at the top and bottom.
This is a shape I used to see so often in bakeries—and I think it’s so elegant. I like to use this one to layer two fillings, or place a larger piece of fresh fruit (apricots, plums, etc.) on a base layer of cream cheese filling.
Start with a square of dough about 3 x 3 inches. Use a pastry wheel or paring knife to cut the right side of the dough and the bottom of the dough. You want to make the cut about 1/2 inch into the dough, leaving it fully attached at the outside corners.
Brush the uncut sides of the dough lightly with water, then fold the cut pieces over, pressing gently to adhere.
Pipe or spoon filling into the unfolded part of the dough, leaving a small border around the dough where you place the filling (about 1/4 inch) to allow space for the filling to spread as needed.
This shape is really versatile and looks sort of unassuming, but allows for a lot of filling in the middle (a huge pro for me). It’s great with multiple fillings—cheese plus fresh fruit, or jam and chocolate—because it can hold more than some of the other shapes. Try dusting the finished pastries with powdered sugar!
Start with a large square, about 4 x 4 inches. Pipe or spoon the filling in a circle in the center of the dough, leaving at least 1 inch on all sides.
Fold the top right corner of the dough onto the filling and press lightly to adhere. Do the same with the top left corner of dough, overlapping slightly with the first folded piece.
Repeat with the two bottom corners. If you like, you can pinch the edges gently to seal them—or you can leave them slightly open (the filling may bubble out of the corners, but I kind of dig that).
This shape is classic, almost like a miniature tart. It’s great for fresh fruit fillings or fillings with chunks (like nuts, chocolate chunks, etc.) because there are little “walls” on all sides to help keep them contained.
Start with a large square, about 4 x 4 inches. Cut a small strip, about 1/2 inch wide, from each side of the dough.
Brush the edges of the base pastry with water, then lay the strips across the top and bottom of the dough, pressing gently to adhere.
Next, lay the strips on the left and right sides. Use a pastry wheel or knife to remove any excess dough.
Fill the pastry. Remember, the sides of the pastry will rise higher than the base, so you can feel free to pile the filling on a bit more.
This shape is reminiscent of the way you make cinnamon rolls, and looks sort of like a bear claw! It’s great for smooth, spreadable fillings (nut butter, fruit butters, jams...), but you can always add a little texture by sprinkling nuts, coconut, grated chocolate, or chopped dried fruit over the filling.
Start with a large square of dough, about 4 x 4 inches. Pipe or scoop filling onto the dough, then use a small offset spatula to spread it evenly across the dough, leaving about 1/4 inch uncovered on all sides.
Starting with the side closest to you, begin to roll up the dough into a tight spiral (as though you were rolling up a big batch of cinnamon rolls).
Use a bench knife or paring knife to make cuts about three quarters of the way into the dough, leaving it attached on one side. Make the cuts about 3/4 to 1 inch apart.
Use your hands to pull one section to the right, then alternate with the next piece, twisting it to the left. You should expose the spiral shape when you twist, but the dough should stay attached at the un-cut portion.
This shape is as easy as they come, and I love the way the filling is visible from the edges. It’s another that can handle a little more filling, and works especially great with fresh fruit of all sorts.
Start with a square of dough about 3 x 3 inches. Pipe or scoop filling into the center, leaving at least 1 inch on all sides.
Rotate the pastry to look like a diamond rather than square, with one set of points facing up and down, and one set on the left and right. Fold the right corner in, pressing gently to adhere to the filling.
Fold the left corner in, overlapping the first folded piece of dough a bit, and press gently to seal. Press a bit so the filling oozes out slightly from the unfolded sides.
The perfect shape for an excellent ratio of (plenty of) filling to (plenty of) crust. It works great with almost any kind of filling, and it's a great opportunity to layer multiple fillings if you like.
Start with a large square of dough, about 4 x 4 inches. Pipe or scoop filling on one half of the square, leaving 1/4 inch uncovered at the edge.
Brush the edges of the dough near the filling with water, then fold the unfilled portion of pastry over the filling. Press any excess air out, then gently press on each edge to seal well.
Crimp the edges as desired to seal. You an use a fork or make a sort of rope edge by folding the excess dough over itself and pressing to seal, then repeating all the way around the pastry.
Use a paring knife to score the top of the pastry as desired. I like the classic look: one large cut up and down, then two smaller cuts at a diagonal on each side.
This is a little twist on the classic turnover shape: It’s a rectangle that’s also totally enclosed, and is the perfect base for score marks of all sorts, so it’s a great place to get creative and a little more elaborate, if you like!
Start with a large square of dough, about 4 x 4 inches. Pipe or scoop filling onto the bottom 1/3 of the pastry, leaving at least 1/2 inch on the base and the sides.
Brush the edges of the dough near the filling with water, then fold the top portion of pastry down over the filling. Press any excess air out, then gently press on each edge to seal well.
Use a paring knife to make score marks; don’t cut all the way through the dough. One of my favorite looks it to score a line all the way down the center, with shorter diagonal lines coming out of each side (sort of like a stalk of wheat).
Erin McDowell is a baking aficionado, writer, stylist, and Test Kitchen Manager at Food52. She is currently writing a cookbook. You can learn more about her here.
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Okay: Now what would you fold up into puff pastry? (Guava paste? Cream cheese? Oozy chocolate??) Dream big in the comments.
I always carry three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's pie. My first cookbook, The Fearless Baker, is out on October 24, 2017.