Nordic desserts do not leap to mind at the mention of "fine pastry." Offerings beyond the cheese Danish are rare, and general ignorance of the genre is common. While the crackle of a croissant is the pride of a Parisian breakfast and often offered at your local coffee shop, Scandinavian sensibilities revel in softer textures like jams, custards, and creams, supported by eggy laminated doughs. The Danish pastry is, famously, the work of Austrian scabs; in the late 1800s, talent from Vienna was imported to replace the bakers of Denmark as they went on strike for better pay, bringing with them a flaky, ready-to-be-filled revelation that became a national sensation.
Seattle has two bakeries that specialize in Scandinavian sweets, one new and one old. I stopped by both for sweets I could barely pronounce with a straight face and that my great-grandmother would have no trouble chewing.
A terrifyingly vast case of options confronts sugar-cravers who enter Byen Bakeri. I spent the better part of my time in the shop interrogating the counterperson as to the subtle differences between them, from familiar Danish varieties to obscurely named rolls with unidentifiable fillings. I spent the other part of my time marveling at a wedding cake shaped like a pregnant woman's abdomen with a raised outline of a baby foot (does the blue fondant mean it's a boy?). Marketing itself as "Seattle's Designer Bakery," Byen opened its doors a little more than two months ago with a Norwegian theme and an enormous range of sweets and breads, including a simple and delicious Kringle (a giant pretzel-shaped ring of puff pastry filled with almond cream, sold whole or by the slice), a sinfully large slab of blueberry—cream cheese strudel with a spot-on streusel topping, and their house Royal Croissant (a plain croissant soaked in brandy, filled with almond paste, and baked a second time into a new and chewier identity, a flavor more fruity than alcoholic). Less traditional experiments don't always end well, as in the case of the intriguingly named Weekender: a cinnamon-based coffee cake drowning in an excess of maple frosting, adorned with dog-treat-tough chunks of bacon. Some savory options looked intriguing, especially an architecturally inspired "egg boat" (quiche filling baked into a mini-baguette).
Owner and baker Brian Morck was inspired by his grandparents and a love of all things almond-filled to fill Seattle's Scandinavian pastry void. Having worked in both the production and supplier sides of the industry over the last few decades, he especially prides himself on his knowledge of ingredients. A reserved attitude characteristic of his Nordic roots marked our interaction, save for passionate bursts of description of his latest pastry creations, promising new things to come from the little Norwegian bakery on Nickerson Street.
As I waited for a surprisingly pleasant eternity at Nielsen's Pastries for their barista to package enough pastries for one customer's presumably massive or astonishingly hungry office, my patience was rewarded with an aggressive aroma of butter and the unmistakably salty-sweet smell of ham. As early as I stopped in, the pastry case was laden with assorted sweet and savory options, but the cold case was yet to be filled. One of the bakery's most popular items, their "potato," had not yet been prepared, but at my apparent disappointment, the owner/baker offered to assemble one fresh for me. A Nielsen potato, folks, can kick your everyday eclair's ass: A chubby choux shell contains thrice a healthy serving of fluffy whipped cream, replete with a marzipan cape and generous dusting of cocoa powder. An apple Kringle was similarly enjoyable, while the Snitter (a cinnamon-spiked roll of dough adorned with lines of icing and custard) was as fun to eat as it is to say out loud.
The bakery's founder, John Nielsen, is a Copenhagen native in his late 70s who still comes in to bake his native specialties on a regular basis. Current owner Darcy Person says she started working at the bakery 27 years ago and took over operations from her old boss. My barista was alarmingly chatty and will convince you to come to their daily happy hour: If you buy a coffee drink between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, you're welcome to a free pastry (which never makes coffee worse, in my opinion). In any case, Nielsen's has been charming Lower Queen Anne for almost 50 years now, and fortunately I don't see any reason it won't continue to do so indefinitely.