Food & Drink

Beyond the Danish

Two Scandinavian Bakeries, One Old and One New

Beyond the Danish

Kelly O

AT NIELSEN’S It looks like a potato, tastes like the best eclair ever.

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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. recommended

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Comments (24) RSS

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Nielsen's also makes excellent cakes, which are covered in marzipan instead of fondant.

(p.s., Nielsen's moved to lower Queen Anne around 1997, when their previous location at 3rd & Union was razed to build Benaroya Hall.)
Posted by slugbiker on January 8, 2014 at 11:26 AM · Report this
mslisa 2
Hi! My name's Lisa, and I'm the "alarmingly chatty" barista named in the article (it's the coffee guys... seriously). But yeah, just wanted to drop by to mention that our awesomely delicious potato at Nielsen's also has custard in it, and this detail was left out of the article. Yes, that's right... homemade whipped cream, custard, marzipan, AND cocoa powder, all in one pastry! Can't get any better than that, can it? ;)
Posted by mslisa on January 8, 2014 at 2:05 PM · Report this
I went to Byen for my holiday pastries this season and they were fabtastic!!
Posted by woofy on January 8, 2014 at 2:05 PM · Report this
Don't forget Larsen's in Ballard (8000 24th Ave NW @ NW 80th)! Freshly made lefse (almost) as good as my Norwegian grandma's.
Posted by TheOtherWoman on January 8, 2014 at 7:37 PM · Report this
@2 Will you marry me?
Posted by longwayhome on January 8, 2014 at 7:59 PM · Report this
No mention of Ballard?
Posted by ishf on January 9, 2014 at 1:43 PM · Report this
This Ballardite finds Larsen's consistently meh, @6.

Nielsen's snitter, poppyseed danish, and miniature kransekage are definitely where it's at.
Posted by d.p. on January 9, 2014 at 5:26 PM · Report this
mslisa 8
@5 (longwayhome)... Sure, babe, but can I see your picture first?
Posted by mslisa on January 10, 2014 at 6:26 PM · Report this
@8 Soon as I can figure out how to send one. I'm Norwegian, takes me awhile to figure out this computer stuff.
Posted by longwayhome on January 10, 2014 at 8:03 PM · Report this
I love Nielsen's! When I used to live in lower queen anne I'd stop in from time to time and was always impressed with the quality of their pastries.
Posted by beaconhillguy on January 11, 2014 at 5:16 AM · Report this
11 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
@11 - if I fill the computer with custard, whipped cream and marzipan will I make even more?
Posted by teamcanada'sforgottenpassword on January 11, 2014 at 4:08 PM · Report this
Correction: Nielsen's has been charming lower QA since the late '90s. The ( I think ) original store on Third Avenue was razed to make way for Benaroya Hall.
Posted by nordicelt on January 11, 2014 at 8:24 PM · Report this
My first thought was to say "What about Larsen's?" -- but now I see that I need more data points!
Posted by LMcGuff on January 12, 2014 at 11:04 AM · Report this
I miss Svedala. God their prinsesstårta was to die for. And their semlor and vetebrod... damn.
Posted by so long sweden on January 12, 2014 at 12:57 PM · Report this
16 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Don't forget Scandinavian Specialties on 15th in Ballard. More of a store/deli to be sure, but the baked goods were awesome. And try the Verdensbestekake (world's best cake), so amazing!
Posted by Subdued Excitement on January 12, 2014 at 3:15 PM · Report this
@2 I think you may be the subject of this Nielsen's Yelp review as well:

"So why three stars, you ask? I occasionally go here for lunch. The salad sandwiches are a little bland, and the soup is watery. But my real issue is with the service. One of the employees is exceedingly chatty, and I know she's just trying to be friendly, but gah, she just has to talk about "back home," which is a Midwestern city I will neglect to name, all the time. She's not from Seattle, so she doesn't do "Seattle nice" which is polite, but not super chatty. Anyway, this came to a head when I decided to get a sandwich one day and her transaction with the people ahead of me took like fifteen minutes. I had limited time, since it was my lunch break, so I just ended up leaving and going elsewhere."
Posted by DicksDicksDicks on January 12, 2014 at 10:22 PM · Report this
Ballard Pimp 19
This article is bizarre! Writing about "Scandinavian bakeries" with no mention of Ballard, the second-largest settlement of expat Scandis in the U.S.??

Larsen's is probably the most authentic Scandi bakery in Seattle. An earlier poster described it as "meh"--Ever been to Norway, Dude? Lots of "meh" stuff. It's an acquired taste. But Scandinavian Specialties goes for the rich, intense stuff.
Posted by Ballard Pimp on January 13, 2014 at 12:05 AM · Report this
Post_Mortem 20
Like some others, surprised to see Ballard passed over, with wording almost as though the writer didn't know about it.
Posted by Post_Mortem on January 13, 2014 at 3:54 AM · Report this
care bear 21
@19 Authentic shouldn't automatically translate to good.
Posted by care bear on January 13, 2014 at 10:19 AM · Report this
mslisa 22
Concerning the way that I do things, I've been doing the coffee thing on-and-off for many years, both on the East and West Coasts as well as the Midwest, and while many people like what I do, some people don't. It is what it is. As in life, you can't make everyone happy (even if you try to), but for each negative comment, there are MANY more positive ones. That's just how the cookie crumbles (no pun intended).
Posted by mslisa on January 14, 2014 at 6:37 PM · Report this
@19: Yup, I've been to Norway. And as anywhere, there was some meh food and some great food to be eaten there. I fail to see why Larsen's should be applauded for its "authentic" pursuit of the meh end of the spectrum.

I've never been to Denmark, but if Nielsen's is in any way representative, perhaps the Danish try a bit harder.

Anyway, if Scandinavian Specialties is making in-house pastries, then shame on me for never having been aware of this. I owe it to my chosen neighborhood to give their goods a try.
Posted by d.p. on January 14, 2014 at 7:05 PM · Report this
Larsen's should have been mentioned in the article because it is a fantastic danish bakery. It was great to see the article though, Nielsen's is a treasure and I will now need to check out byen.
Posted by lars s. on January 14, 2014 at 10:33 PM · Report this

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