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Rhubarb and Cream Cheese Danish Pinwheels

For the past couple years, I've been making laminated pastry doughs almost once a week. A "laminated dough" is anything that gets butter folded and rolled into it--think puff pastry, croissant dough, and Danish dough. I distinctly remember the first time I made croissants. It was a decidedly amateur attempt, and one that briefly set the oven on fire on Christmas morning. But the resulting pastries were so lovely and yeasty and buttery that it really didn't matter. I was, at that moment, ready and willing to follow croissant dough to the ends of the earth if it meant I could have these delights at will.

Anyone who lives near a really great bakery (or has made croissants for themselves) will know exactly what I'm talking about. A real-deal freshly made croissant is so utterly fabulous that it has the power to move even the most jaded food-lover. And please don't even talk to me about those horrid margarine croissants at the supermarket. Those don't count.

As someone who has lived for extended periods out of range of a good bakery, I decided to take on the task of making croissants from scratch. I'm sure this has something to do with a great weakness on my part: rather than just do without, I chose to bring excessive amounts of butter into my home and make one of the most decadent pastries known to man. It must, however, also have something to do with stubbornness and ingenuity, and I am nothing if not stubborn.

After a couple years of making croissants on a regular basis, they don't scare me anymore. Sure, they're time-consuming. Yes, you will have to use your muscles to roll out the dough. But the rewards are so great, the satisfaction so glorious, that it all seems more than worth it.

This post, however, is not about croissants. It is about the less glamorous and oft-forgotten cousin to the croissant--the Danish. I never paid much attention to Danishes for some reason, but after making them at work for several weeks, they have won me over. A good Danish is light and crisp, quite brown, and irresistibly flaky.

Danishes have an image problem, largely due, in my opinion, to oversweetened cheese fillings and syrupy, canned fruit toppings. This, however, is easy enough to fix. For this recipe, I made a simple rhubarb compote, but you could use your favorite jam or preserve here as well, not to mention any fruit filling you can dream up. Feel free to leave off the cream cheese filling, but it contrasts with the rhubarb very nicely. If you were so inclined, you could even substitute slices of brie or camembert for the cream cheese. I can't imagine that being a bad thing.

In other words, the toppings I chose for these Danishes are purely optional--you should go in a direction that appeals to you. I just happen to be bingeing on rhubarb currently.

Some pointers to success:

            -If you are working in a very warm kitchen, you may not be able to do 2 turns in one go. If the butter is very soft or starting to ooze out of the dough, wrap it up and refrigerate it for at least 20 minutes to get the butter to re-solidify.

            -The butter shouldn't be too cold either. If you refrigerate the dough for too long, the butter will become cold and so hard that when you try to roll out the dough, the butter will break up and possibly even tear the dough. If your dough is very cold and not pliable, let it sit for several minutes on your counter to make it easier to roll out.

            -Apply steady, even pressure when rolling out the dough. You don't have to roll it out in one attempt. Start gently and get a little more aggressive as the dough warms up.

            -Make sure the dough isn't sticking to your work surface--frequently lift it up and throw a little flour underneath to prevent sticking and tearing.

            -This is one of those baking projects that is best done over the space of two days. On day one, make your dough and fold in the butter. On day two, shape the Danishes and bake them. The dough benefits from the extra resting time, and you can take a breather too.

Other articles you might enjoy: Apple Dumplings, Apricot and Walnut Sweet Rolls With Orange Icing, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Rhubarb and Cream Cheese Danish Pinwheels
Makes about fourteen 4-inch Danishes

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine:
           1/2 cup warm (105°F to 115°F) whole milk
           1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
           3 tablespoons sugar

Let stand until the yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add:
           1 large egg
           1 large egg yolk

Mix until combined. Combine in a separate bowl:
           2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
           1/2 teaspoon salt
           (1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)

Add the dry ingredients to the yeast mixture. Combine and mix or knead just until a smooth dough comes together. Do not work the dough more than you have to--it will get plenty of action during the rolling process.

Let the dough rise for about 30 minutes or until you can tell that it has risen noticeably.

Before rolling out the dough, beat the butter to make it pliable. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat until pliable but not soft:
           1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small cubes

The butter should still be cold to the touch. If it is not, refrigerate it briefly.

Sprinkle your work surface lightly with flour. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Roll it out into an approximately 8 x 14-inch rectangle. The dough should be horizontal on your work surface.

Spread the butter over the left 2/3 of the dough, leaving a 1-inch border of dough all around.

Fold the un-buttered right third of dough over the center.

Then, fold the left third of dough over that.

Press down on the seams to seal in the butter. This is called a "business letter fold" because you are literally folding the dough as if it were a business letter.

Rotate the dough 25 degrees clockwise so that the longer "seam" is facing you.

Roll out the dough into an 8 x 16-inch rectangle. Fold the right third of dough over the center, then the left third of dough over that. Rotate the dough 25 degrees clockwise one more time, roll it out into an 8 x 16-inch rectangle, and give it another business letter fold. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. You have given the dough two "turns."

Give the dough two more turns, each time starting with the longer seam facing you (the dough should be laying lengthwise on your work surface). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

You can prepare the cream cheese and rhubarb fillings ahead of time or the day of baking. For the cream cheese filling, beat in the bowl of a stand mixer until smooth:
           4 ounces cream cheese, softened
           3 tablespoons sugar
           (1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon)
           (Zest of one small lemon)
           1 tablespoon heavy cream

Set aside. For the rhubarb filling, preheat the oven to 375°F. Toss on a parchment or silicone-lined baking sheet:
           5 ounces chopped rhubarb
           3 tablespoons sugar
           Zest of 1 small lemon

Roast until the rhubarb is soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool.

Keep the oven temperature at 375°F. Roll the Danish dough into a 9 x 29-inch rectangle. Trim the dough on all four sides, cutting away the very edges. Cut the rectangle into 4 x 4-inch squares (you should get 14 squares from a 9 x 29-inch rectangle).

To make a pinwheel shape, make a 1 1/2 inch slit from each corner towards the center of the dough squares.

Fold every other corner into the center of the square, pressing down to make the corner adhere to the center. 

Place the pastries on parchment-lined sheet pans. Top with one teaspoon of the cream cheese filling, then with about a teaspoon of the rhubarb filling.

Let the pastries proof until puffy-looking, about 30 minutes. If your kitchen is very warm, you may not need to proof at all, as the dough will rise some during the rolling and shaping process.

Bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the pans in the oven and bake for another 10 minutes. The Danishes should be quite brown and flaky. If they are browning too much, reduce the oven temperature. If they still seem raw in the center, bake for 5 more minutes.

Remove from the oven and glaze, if desired, with:
           1/3 cup apricot jelly, warmed in a small saucepan until runny and diluted with 2 tablespoons water

These pastries are best they day they are baked, but you can keep the leftovers in an airtight plastic bag or container. Reheat the Danishes before serving.

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    1 large rib celery with some leaves, cut up