Kringle: How the ugly duckling of danishes became a Wisconsin darling

Kringle is the state's official state pastry
Kringle: How the ugly duckling of danishes became a Wisconsin darling

It might surprise you to learn that Wisconsin has an official state pastry. Or maybe not, since we also have an official state soil and an official state insect. However, if you’ve lived here for any length of time, I’m sure you could guess it’s kringle.

At age 9, I moved to Madison from the South and encountered all sorts of heretofore unknown delicacies like bratwurst, cheese curds and, of course, kringle. I remember the first time my mother brought home this unattractive coffeecake that looked like she’d run over it with her shopping cart. I reckoned the flat, thin ring was surely the product of a cooking calamity. (Not surprisingly, in the lingo of the trade, kringle is sometimes dubbed a horse collar or toilet seat.) One taste, however, and I knew there was a lot to be said for less dough and more filling, not to mention the globs of icing on top.

Kringle started out as the Nordic version of a pretzel, possibly made as early as the 13th century by Roman Catholic monks, especially in Denmark. Its name derives from the Old Norse “kringla” meaning a circle or oval. Danish immigrants brought the treat with them when they settled in Racine in the late 19th century.

What sets the pastry apart is its many layers of dough – 30 or more – each slathered with butter.
Crafting it is a labor-intensive process that can take up to three days. Though commercial bakeries now use machines to facilitate the process, you can still find bakers in Racine like Bendtsen’s and Lehmann’s that have stuck with the traditional method of hand-rolling and shaping since the 1930s. The original Danish pretzel-configured kringle was always stuffed with almond paste and raisins. In the United States, it evolved into an oval or rectangle embracing all sorts of fruit, nut and imaginative mixtures inside.

Today, there are at least a half-dozen Racine bakeries that specialize in making kringle. However, you don’t have to make the trek or even go online to enjoy the real thing. Racine Danish Kringles distributes its wares all over the state, and they’re available fresh at many local grocers, large and small.

Madison can boast its own kringle maker, Lane’s Bakery, which has been satisfying our city’s sweet tooth since 1954. Though it makes all manner of coffee klatch goodies, its specialty is kringle. It’s available in more than 20 varieties, but the choice varies seasonally. Jerry Lane got his recipe from Olesen’s Family Bakery in Racine back in the 1970s. It has remained a well-guarded family secret ever since.

Fosdal Home Bakery in Stoughton is best known for its Norwegian-style cookies and chocolate doughnuts. In business since 1939, its kringle can compete with the very best. Expect to find an array of tempting fillings, but the chocolate chip and cream cheese variety is worth ordering.

I can only wonder if it was kringle that inspired Danish author Hans Christian Andersen to pen the story about the ugly duckling who became a swan.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.