Connecting Past and Present With Pastry

KringleSignMy Dad was a baker. Although he met my Mom during World War II while building airplanes at Douglas Aircraft in California — he was a supervisor of some sort, and she was a “Rosie the Riveter” — he grew up in Wisconsin where his father had been a baker.

Both Dad and my Uncle Clare followed in their father’s footsteps, learning the fine art of kneading dough into various shapes of sweet goodness. Dad tried his hand at other occupations once he moved to California, but when I was growing up, the Johnsons were the proud owners of the Balboa Bakery on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, Calif. We operated that bakery for about 20 years.

One might presume that owning a bakery in a rich community like Newport Beach would be akin to printing money. Well…

All I can tell you is that we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment about a mile from the bakery, and Dad would get up at 3 each morning to go to work, fire up the oven, and start making products. Mom, my brother and I would follow about two hours later — on foot — and if we had all of our homework done, my brother and I would pitch in with the various baking projects. If not, we’d hit the books until the school bus arrived.

We were a working class family living amongst rich people — some very rich — but we always had enough dough (pun fully intended) to do fun things like go bowling as a family and take visiting relatives to Disneyland. Some of those relatives are among those we visited on this trip through Wisconsin… almost 50 years later.

The bakery in Eau Claire, Wis., in which my Dad and uncle worked is long gone, but an iconic Wisconsin bakery product is not. It’s a Danish pastry called kringle, and we’d been told that the city of Racine was the best place to get it. When both relatives and friends mentioned the O&H Danish Bakery as the place to go, that’s where we headed.

O&H was established in 1949, at a time when Racine was home to one of the largest populations of Danish immigrants in the United States — including the bakery’s founder, Christian Olesen. To this day, the bakery adheres to the tradition of baking skills originated in Denmark late in Europe’s medieval period.

In those days, quality-focused artisans, merchants and craftsmen wanted to maintain the proper methods of their profession, and began to form organizations known as guilds. The guilds also were used to provide merchants with a guarantee of legitimacy, and often required a blessing from the monarchy.

In Denmark, the guild of skilled bakers chose the symbol of a pretzel, often topped with a crown. It turns out that the sweet pastry known as kringle originally was made in the shape of a pretzel.

KringleInsideSignToday, the pretzel symbol remains, but most kringle is made in the shape of a circle or a horseshoe. And making it involves several more steps than we used at the Balboa Bakery when making our Danish pastry.

Back then, we’d mix the dough, allow it to rise, then shape it, add a fruit topping such as apple or cherry, and bake it. While the baked pastry was still warm (but not too hot), we’d add a sugary icing by hand.

Making kringle is a two-day process that begins with making the pastry dough, then allowing it to rest overnight. Rather than a fairly thick single layer like we used back in the day, kringle consists of several thin sheets of dough that are stacked. Frankly, I was surprised by how thin the finished product was — even when infused with fillings and topped with icing. But that thinness made it very easy to bite into.

O&H offers an array of kringle flavors throughout the year, as well as some seasonal selections. A sure sign that summer has arrived is the appearance of O&H’s “Red, White and Blue” kringle: a blend of cherry, blueberry and cream cheese, enveloped in that flavorful and flaky pastry.

The “Wisconsin” kringle is made entirely from ingredients farmed and grown in the Dairy State: a mix of cream cheese, Door Country cherries, plus cranberries fresh from the bogs.

There also are more “simple” kringles, consisting of just a single fruit filling or a single nut filling. I’m a simple guy, and I love blueberries, so Michelle and I picked up a blueberry kringle to share with friends during our annual trip to St. Joseph, Mich. for that community’s “Smooth Jazz at Sunset” concert.

In addition to being a simple guy, I’m also a wine guy, and I couldn’t help but wonder what type of wine might pair nicely with blueberry kringle. Some table wines have an impression of blueberries in their flavor mix, but I couldn’t see the dry quality of the wine working with the sweet quality of the pastry.

I had just about given up on the pairing idea when, two days later, we took a day trip from our “Smooth Jazz” base in St. Joe to a couple of wineries in Paw Paw, Mich.

I’ll share what we discovered there in tomorrow’s blog.

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Posted in Editor's Journal, Our Wine Travel Log
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