Sunday, February 28, 2010

Danish Braid (AKA the "Coffee Cake" Finale)

I wrote about Danish Dough and Danish Slices in the Left Hand Valley Courier, republished here and here. But my favorite shape for Danish Pastries is the Danish Braid. I think it looks prettier than the slices, and although it's a little more complicated than the Danish Slices, it's not nearly as complicated as the finished product looks.

You can dress up the braid with sugar bits, drizzled icing or sliced almonds, or just eggwash it for a crispy shiny finish, and leave off the garnishes. The braid makes it look pretty, even without the extras.

The book where I found the recipe, Baking with Julia, includes quite a few recipes for fillings. But really, you can use just about anything you'd use in a pie or a crostata. But my favorite, I think, is cherry filling, with or without a base of pastry cream.

For the cherry filling, I use sour pie cherries that I bought at the local farmer's market. A pound of them is enough for one pastry. The cherries need some sweetness as well as a thickener. The easiest thing to do is add a cherry jelly, which adds both. I've used a cherry-almond jelly, also purchased at the farmer's market, with great success.

If you don't want to use jelly (or don't have any on hand) sugar and cornstarch works as well, or sugar and any other thickener that you'd use in a pie filling. About a half-cup of sugar seems to be enough for the cherries I have, but that's going to vary depending on how sweet or tart your cherries are, as well as how sweet or tart you like your pie filling. Personally, I like some tartness contrasting with the sweet glaze.

I think a little bit of almond extract is a nice compliment to the cherries, but it's fine without. Vanilla extract would be a nice touch, too.

A few things I've learrned about making Danish Braids is that it's a heck of a lot easier to assemble the braid on parchment paper (or a Silpat or other silicone baking mat) and then move the parchment to a baking sheet, rather than to try to move a finished braid.

So I roll out the dough on the countertop, transfer it to the parchment, put down the filling, cut the side strips, fold the strips, then wriggle it to the diagonal and even it up nicely. The reason I move them so they're diagonal on the sheet is that I want to give the braid enough space to expand when it bakes. I suppose the other option would be to make it a little smaller, but somehow I always manage to take them to the limit of the baking sheet.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, the photo here gives a pretty good example of how the braid is made. You don't have to cut the strips on a diagonal; it works as well if they're straight. And the dough is stretchy, so if the strips aren't quite long enough, you can pull them a bit. It's not really a braid at all, it's just overlapping strips, so you don't need to worry about what goes over what. Just grab one from one side then one from the other. And it doesn't need to be even and precise, It always looks better coming out of the oven than going in.

One advantage of the braid over the Danish Slice version is that the braid helps to keep the pastry from spreading sideways as much. It still puffs and grows sideways, but with the slices, the center gap widens a lot. And I think the braids are prettier, with just a little bit of the filling peeking out.

The dough needs about 20-30 minutes to rise before baking, but you can delay that by putting the formed braid in the fridge. When it's ready to bake, the dough will feel puffy instead of compressed and hard, but it won't seem like it rose much at all. Like puff pastry, it grows a lot in the oven, though.

Before baking, brushing the braid with an eggwash gives it a nice shiny finish. It also helps things adhere, in case you want to add some sugar or sliced almonds. As far as the sugar goes, if you can find pearl sugar, it makes a nice topping. It's bright white and a little crunchy, but not as hard as solid sugar. Regular sugar or larger crystals are nice, too. It just depends on what effect you're looking for.

For this one, I got even more carried away and made a streusel topping for it, then topped that with the almonds before it went into the oven.  

Once you've got the idea of what the pastry is like, you can add your own flourishes. Or none. The pastry is good enough to stand on its own.

The braid bakes pretty quickly - about 15 minutes or so in a 400-degree oven. A little more if it hasn't gotten the dark golden brown color you want. But watch it carefully after the first fifteen.

After baking, a drizzle of an icing made from powdered sugar and water (or milk) is nice, but you can add some flavor if you want it to match or compliment your filling. Instead of water, you could use coffee or maple syrup, or add vanilla extract or any other flavor you prefer.

Or leave the glaze off. You don't really need it.