Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Morning Has Broken: Copenhagen Pastry

Driving home from the gym each morning, I get to see Culver City gradually wake itself up. I watch the line at Arco on Sepulveda grow longer as the minutes tick away toward rush hour, and see the traffic increase slowly but steadily from all directions.

A fresh slice of Copenhagen Pastry's
almond-topped kringle. So good, you need
a plate to give it its due - if the bag makes
 it out of the car, that is!
It was during one of these morning reveries that I noticed the cheerful but elegant façade of Copenhagen Pastry on Washington Boulevard a month or so ago. The empty storefront, which is located west of the mosque and the gun shop, promised its “Coming Soon” with unstinting enthusiasm. So I waited impatiently until I received an email announcing the store’s soft opening at the end of June.

A few days after the bakery opened, I needed to know more. Spoiled by the never-ending glut of information on the Internet, I had searched for photos, information, anything that would reveal the mystery of the new merchants and their wares. But the proof turned out to be in the actual pudding – or rather, the kringle, nougat crown, or any of delectable treats that Copenhagen Pastry offers. There is always something that just came out of the oven, providing lucky customers with a warm and comforting way to start the day.

On my second visit, I complimented the shop's owner, Karen Hansen, on the coffee. The complex and satisfying brew was created by LAMILL Coffee of Silverlake. My first thought upon tasting it – with tastebuds jaded as they are by too much corporate joe – was, “I’m really having a cup of coffee.”

Karen Hansen, proprietor of Copenhagen Pastry, serves
up Danish hospitality along with the shop's amazing coffee
and baked goods

“I tried lots of different blends before I chose this one,” said Hansen, who is a native of Denmark. “I wanted coffee that tasted like it would in Denmark.”

Hansen and her crew are the most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered anywhere at 7 a.m. The shop is clean and spare, qualities that have long been attributed to the Scandinavian aesthetic. The menu is similarly streamlined, featuring a small but focused assortment of traditional Danish pastries and bread. Copenhagen Pastry offers about a dozen varieties daily, with one special weekly items that baker Henrik Gram likes to try out on the customers.

What we know as “Danish” in America is actually called spandauer or wienerbrǿd, which translates as “Vienna bread.” The description of these traditional pastries that I found online refers to a “cake” made from squares of pastry and filled with dollops of apple, almond paste, jam, or various creamy centers.

Maja Almskou fills freshly baked
nougat crowns with hazelnut cream. 
In the United States, we tend to view pastries like these as breakfast. In Denmark, however, breakfast is a much more substantial meal, including cereals such as oatmeal and muesli, and ymerdrys, a yogurt-like product made with soured milk and served topped with breadcrumbs and brown sugar. Hansen likes to sample her own wares at the bakery for breakfast, rotating them for variety.

“I always have the morning poppy [roll], a half of a coffee bread, and then I have the kringle,” she says of her favorites.

Hansen says that traditional Danish pastries are eaten in Denmark at different times of the day, as desserts and for celebrations. She describes rundstykker, a traditional bread roll topped with poppy or sesame seeds that is not a sweet, and often served with cheese or Nutella as a more popular breakfast. She also says that a hearty rye bread – which Copenhagen Pastry offers – is a staple, particularly for children, with its wholesome ingredients including sunflower seeds, black flax seed, rye flour, and rye berries.

“It’s really healthy and low in sodium,” says Hansen. “As soon as [kids] get their teeth, you give them the rye bread. It’s so good for them.”

“This is why the Vikings are so strong,” quips Gram, hefting a newly baked loaf and flexing his biceps.

Move over, Popeye: Copenhagen Pastry's
traditional rye bread gives baker Henrik Gram
his "muskels."
Hansen says that when she was planning to open Copenhagen Pastry, she knew that the shop would have to be in Culver City, with its family-oriented environment and easy freeway access from other Los Angeles communities. She and her staff have grown to rely on their customers – particularly the pint-sized clientele – for feedback on their products, of which they provide generous samples.

“We have good response from the children… because they always tell us what’s [gone] right and wrong,” Hansen quips. “They always have their favorite, and as they come in more times, they want this one or that one. They like to be part of the process of testing and trying out [our pastries].”

Gram, a native of Copenhagen, says that he was led to the baking profession by his parents, who owned a bakery back home. He says that while there are several bakeries that specialize in spandauer in every Danish city, Copenhagen Pastry is a rare authentic taste of home in Los Angeles. Hansen attests to her baker’s training and artistry, having also had a brother who was a baker in Denmark. His recipes, along with Gram’s, are part of the formula to the bakery’s success.

“Denmark has such a rich culture of making pastries,” notes Hansen. “To become a baker in Denmark you have to have four years of an apprenticeship, plus an [official] exam at the end. You really have to know your craft. But it’s also about how each baker handles it. Henrik does not compromise on what he makes. It’s the same with the equipment we have and the products that we use for the baking – we only use the best and that’s it.”

Karen Hansen and Henrik Gram with a
tray of dough for the bakery's signature
"Copenhagen" pastry.

Hansen, who studied interior design at Otis, also strove for authenticity in her design of the bakery’s storefront. She feels that Danish pastries belonged in a place that was as close to a shop that one would find in Denmark.

“They’re little pieces of art,” she says of the delectable inventory. “When you look at the store and the way it’s designed… here’s not a lot to sidetrack you and to look at – it’s all about the pastries.”

I could not agree more. Hansen plans to keep Copenhagen Pastry’s offerings as simple as when they opened the shop three weeks ago. There will be special holidays offerings, such as kransekage, a tower of graduated almond paste cookie rings that is served at Jul and other celebrations throughout the year. She also wants to add a seating area in front of the bakery so that customers can enjoy the pastries at an immediate but leisurely pace without having to ferry them to the office or home.

The elegant red-orange sign on
Washington Boulevard belies the
homey atmosphere within.
I’m all in favor of this decision. Unless the pastries are protected in a box with the bakery’s signature orange seal, they won’t last a car trip with me. Copenhagen Pastry has become part of my morning ritual, delivering a bit of Scandinavian flair and wholesomeness to the bustling burg of Culver City.

I'm taking my time in working my way down the list of pastries, which although I intend them for breakfast, have also found their way into my afternoon tea routine. My favorite so far, is the nougat crown, with its little jewellike blips of chocolate, icing, and hazelnut cream. And the kringle, with the richness of almond paste - not too sweet, and enhanced with fresh sliced almonds on top. And the...

1 comment:

  1. Still discovering great spots and illuminating them with your smooth prose. Great stuff, Joanie. Now I'm really hungry........