Danish kringle bakeries: who makes the best, most?

elk-horn-danish-innIn the world of pastry production, Danish kringle ranks among the most difficult and time-consuming of challenges. To do it right takes three days from start to finish.

That’s because of the number of times dough is rolled, folded with butter and set aside to rest. “The best quality kringle require patience,” notes a Food Network online recipe, for advanced bakers.

The result is a light, flaky, oval-shaped delicacy of up to 32 buttery layers, in addition to a fruit, nut or other filling.

“It’s a pastry that is hard to make at home. The quality of butter makes the difference,” says Madison retailer/author Carol “Orange” Schroeder. She is arranging the first North American Kringle Competition, to determine who makes the best.

A trophy and bragging rights go to the winner. Invitations have been extended to Danish bakeries in Massachusetts (The Danish Pastry House, Medford, danishpastryhouse.com, 781-396-8999) to California (in Solvang are five such bakeries, solvangusa.com, 805-688-6144).

The event coincides with the Sept. 14 launch of “Eat Smart in Denmark” (Ginkgo Press, $15.95) by Orange and daughter Katrina Schroeder. The culinary travel guidebook is the 13th in a series that uses food to help explain foreign cultures and history. (Full disclosure: I wrote No. 12, about Germany.)

Kringle became Wisconsin’s official state pastry in 2013, but that’s not because it is found in lots of Badger bakeries. The biggest exception is Racine, because of the city’s proud Danish heritage: At least four bakeries there made kringle a specialty decades ago.

Only around 1 percent of Wisconsinites claim Danish heritage (compared to 43 percent who have German roots), so Danish cuisine is a mystery to many of us.

“If you ask local people about Danish food, they don’t know smorrebrod (open-faced sandwiches) or medisterpolse (a spicy pork sausage) – two of the national favorites – but they do know about kringle,” says Orange, who in 2015 begins her 40th year of business at Orange Tree Imports, a gift and kitchen specialty store (orangetreeimports.com, 608-255-8211).

She has a master’s degree in Scandinavian studies, has translated Danish books to English and belongs to a book club that selects Danish-written works.

Technically, kringle is more likely to be known as wienerbrod (Vienna bread) in Denmark because it began in the mid 1800s as a combination of Viennese puff pastry and a sugary filling.

We’ve Americanized it in all kinds of ways since then.

During the Bakers Best Kringle contest, organized by the Wisconsin Bakers Association earlier this year, “best of show” went to Racine’s O&H Danish Bakery for a frosted, Wisconsin-shaped entry that contained cherries, cranberries and cream cheese.

Also scoring high: Racine Danish Kringle’s sea salt and caramel cheesecake kringle, and Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe of Green Bay, for “extreme turtle” kringle.

O&H (ohdanishbakery.com, 800-709-4009) began business in 1949 and dominates the kringle scene with four Wisconsin sales locations.

Two West Racine neighborhood bakeries also have longtime fans: Bendtsen’s (bendtssensbakery.com, 262-633-0365) and Larsen’s (larsenskringle.com, 262-633-4298), in business since 1934 and 1969, respectively. Add Lehmann’s in Racine and Sturtevant (lehmannsbakery.com, 262-632-4636), around for more than 80 years.

Kirsten’s Danish Bakery, Burr Ridge, Ill., in 2005 won a kringle contest sponsored by the now-defunct Dana College of Blair, Neb. kirstensdanishbakery.com, 630-655-2066

In Elk Horn, Iowa, the Danish Inn remains mindful about what makes kringle authentic. That means shaping it like a pretzel (a symbol for authentic Danish bakeries) and only using an almond filling. Only kringle “strips” (smaller sizes that are oblong loaves) might contain an additional filling of fruit. danishinnrestaurant.com, 712-764-4250

Kringle makers elsewhere will widely experiment with fillings. Racine’s O&H has a Kringle of the Month Club, and the bakery’s many flavors include Red Velvet, Cinnamon Roll and Viking Very Berry.

At the contest for Wisconsin bakers, entries included kringle flavored with root beer, and another that combined beer, apple and cheese. In New Orleans, Haydel’s Bakery (haydelbakery.com, 504-442-1342) sells a Cajun-spiced kringle.

Not unusual among U.S. bakeries are kringle with sweet, cream cheese fillings, but Orange says this isn’t business as usual in Denmark. Neither is typical for home recipe files to contain a kringle recipe.

“It is rare for a home baker to attempt this time-consuming process,” she writes, “especially when the country abounds with bakeries and konditorier (fancier pastry bakers) selling freshly made breads, cakes, pastries and cookies.”

The Madison kringle contest, a blind-tasting competition, is 5-7 p.m. Sept. 14 at Hotel RED, 1501 Monroe St., and it is open to the public. The hotel is near the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Camp Randall football stadium, which is fitting because hotel décor takes Badger red seriously. hotelred.com, 608-819-8228

Besides kringle, nibbles of Danish open-faced sandwiches and aebleskivers (sugary pancake-doughnuts) will be made available. Michael’s Frozen Custard will provide kringle custard, and Death’s Door Spirits will bring Kringle Cream liqueur. ilovemichaels.com, 608-231-3500; deathsdoorspirits.com, 608-831-1083

During the day Sept. 13 is the annual Monroe Street Festival, a free and family-friendly event with music, other entertainment, food and sidewalk sales that stretch 1.5 miles. Watch monroestreetfestival.com for details.