Why This Scandinavian Pastry Came to Wisconsin

Racine, Wisconsin has long been a destination for Danish immigrants, and with them came a buttery, flaky pastry known as kringle.
March 23, 2016, 9:00pm
Photos courtesy of O&H Bakery.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of kringle from Racine, Wisconsin are shipped around the world. But don't look for them in stores. One's more likely to end up delivered right to your front porch.

Eric Olesen, a third generation co-owner of O&H Bakery, knows the country's most popular mail order Danish better than anyone. Along with about 150 other employees, he crafts more than half a million of the sweet, 14-inch oval-shaped pastries every year.

"During the holiday season we'll make and ship tens of thousands each week," he tells me from his office about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. "Racine was a favorite place for Danish immigrants to settle. In the 1930s and 40s, the city had the highest concentration of Danes anywhere in the world outside of Copenhagen. And the culture of food is very special to the Danish people. So after my grandfather immigrated from Denmark in 1920, he got a job in one of the Danish bakeries here."

Christian Olesen, Eric's grandfather, learned the craft well enough to open his own bakery with a partner, Harvey Holt, in 1949. At the time, all the bakeries in the area were offering mail order, but the newly formed O&H Bakery made its name by specializing in traditional kringle, made of pretzel-shaped wienerbröd, or "Viennese bread"—thin sheets of dough and butter, folded and rolled several times over—filled with almonds and topped with granulated sugar.

But while a healthy respect for historic techniques and recipes helped O&H establish business at its inception, it was experimenting with its signature product that eventually helped the bakery grow.

Cherry-Kringle_edit

O&H Bakery's cherry kringle.

Making kringle is a three-day process. Bakers spend the first rolling out a long strip of wienerbröd and refrigerating it overnight to develop a flavor in the rich dough. The second is spent rolling yet again, to thin out the 12-, 16-, or—in O&H's case—18-layer pastry before it's refrigerated again. On day three, filling is sandwiched between two layers of pastry, the edges are sealed, and the final construction is shaped before baking.

"Long ago, we noticed that customers didn't like the parts of the pastry that overlapped as much as the rest," Olesen says, explaining why pretzel-shaped kringle fell out of favor among kringle bakers in Racine. "So eventually bakeries shifted to making kringle an oval shape. And that shift made it easier to introduce other fillings."

After the change in shape, experimenting with local ingredients soon rose to prominence. Cherries, sourced from Door County orchards a few hundred miles to the north, made for a popular variety. So did cranberries from nearby bogs, and cream cheese from Wisconsin's countless dairy farms. In that way, Olesen says the bakery developed many of the signature kringle varieties that came to define its business. Pecan with brown sugar and cinnamon became the first flavor to sell better than the historic almond, and icing soon replaced granulated sugar as the average customer's topping of choice.

"You're not going to find pecan kringle in Denmark," Olesen admits. "But when I travel, and I go to a lot of bakeries, kringle varies depending on where you find it. In Copenhagen, it's similar to what we make in the US. But the farther away I've gotten from Copenhagen, the more I've found pastry with sugar topping, dryer dough. When it comes down to it, if you commit yourself to the time and space to make something well, people appreciate it."

Regardless of its authenticity, O&H kringle earned admirers from Doris Day to Mamie Eisenhower, who would each place orders several times a year, finding themselves separated from their favored pastry by thousands of miles. As word about the bakery's new flavors spread among elites on either coast, along with several others in Racine including Lehmann's, Bendtsen's, and Larsen's, so did kringle's mail order prospects. Actors in Los Angeles and politicians in Washington couldn't go without.

Today, Google "kringle" and you'll find O&H at the top of the list. It's not a distinction you'll find Olesen crowing about, however: He's more enthusiastic about talking baking than business.

"We don't keep track of others, we keep track of our own," he says, when I ask him to compare O&H's kringle sales to other bakeries. "For me to say we're bigger, better, or different from another is really subjective. They say we ship more kringle than any other bakery. But I don't keep track of the numbers to support that. The other bakeries in the area make great product, too."

And why, exactly, does he love making that one product?

"When you get down to it, kringle is just really good," Olesen concludes. "And it's not glamorous. It's not high, like a croissant. It looks underwhelming until you try it."

He adds, "Then again, when you put 72 hours into a single pastry, how can it not be good?"