(If you don't know who the Daring Bakers are, read my summary at the beginning of this post.)
The Daring Bakers' June Challenge, a Danish Braid, was a wonderful adventure. As with nearly all DB recipes, this one took time, patience, and a little creativity, but paid back with great pictures, new skills, and above all, hardcore deliciousness.
The braid has two elements: pastry dough and a filling. The pastry recipe provided to the circa fifteen hundred Daring Bakers - originally from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking - I followed to the letter, but bakers were permitted to divine a filling of their choice. Since I'm a sucker for sweetened cream cheese (and I suffered a setback with a failed batch of vanilla pastry cream, which was my other choice), I chose a cream cheese custard filling, which I thought would highlight the unusual flavors in the dough.
The flaky bread of the danish braid is different from other pastry doughs because it it made from yeast (as opposed to, say, pie crust) and uses a block of butter, folded in one "turn" at a time, to create distinct layers - similar to a croissant. This recipe, however, included the unique flavors of orange zest and juice, vanilla, and cardamom, which gave the confection delicious complexity and depth. I added orange and lemon zest to both my filling and icing to unify the tastes and textures.
After combining the ingredients for the dough and allowing it to rest, you roll it into a big rectangle and spread it with a creamy butter-flour mixture, then fold into thirds and chill for half an hour, until the butter is firm. Then the dough is rolled out into a large rectangle again and the rolling-and-folding process is repeated three more times - called "turns" - chilling between each turn; each turn triples the number of layers, so that after a total of four turns, there are 81 layers of pastry dough, separated by layers of butter. Cool, right?
Here is my recipe for the Cream Cheese Custard Filling:
8 ounces softened cream cheese
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
I just combined these ingredients in a mixing bowl with a hand mixer, folding in the zest at the end so that it didn't all tangle around the beaters. It was creamy, not too sweet, and the delicate citrus flavors shone though just enough to make it match the pastry dough.
To assemble the danish, the dough is rolled out into a huge rectangle, and the long sides are cut into a fringe of 1/2"x5" strips. The filling is ladled into the center and spread around to fill the length of the danish, then the ends are tucked in and the strips are folded over the filling in an alternating pattern, which creates the braid effect. (One of the hosts, Sass & Veracity, has a great series of pictures of the assembly.)
I made my dough on a Saturday, but I didn't get around to making the whole danish until the following Tuesday; during the interim, the dough was marooned in the fridge, tightly wrapped. Pastry dough freezes well, but bakers do not advise refrigeration for more than 24 hours; I ignored their advice and was pleased to see my dough rise so nicely. In fact, there was so much of it that I made it extra long and was able to trim off some edges during assembly (which is why, I think, my danish came out so geometrically straight and symmetrical). I was ready to scoff at the no-longterm-refrigeration advice publicly, until I noticed how many other participants had made two braids. Two? One was, I felt, challenging enough - why had nearly everyone doubled the recipe? I finally figured out that the dough recipe was meant to be halved, and that perhaps my refrigerated dough had not risen so well as I thought.
After this discovery (which occurred while my braid was in the oven), I was ready for a very dense danish indeed. I kept peering in the oven window to see whether it would leak or morph into a giant super-braid...but it just rose gently, browning in the most perfect way. It even cooked quicker than the recipe stated it would - with twice the dough!
I whipped up a little icing with powdered sugar, water, and citrus zests, and drizzled it over the warm danish, then cut myself a slice.
Absolute heaven. Utterly (and if you know me you'll know I rarely say this) flawless - light, buttery, moist, just the right proportions of pastry to filling (I hate those danishes that don't have enough filling! UGH!), and the citrus and cardamom shone through ever so delicately. I can't think of a better item to serve for tea or brunch - it was so long and elegant, impressive but not impossible, and downright delicious.
I have no idea what will happen if I try and recreate it without the fridge-side downtime. :) Maybe someday I'll let you know... Thanks for another wonderful challenge, Daring Bakers!